The Press Complaints Commission has confirmed that it was told of a fresh incident of phone hacking following allegations which were printed in the New York Times earlier this week. The PCC is now under pressure to launch a fresh inquiry. The allegations undermine its earlier claims that phone hacking was no longer taking place and its effectiveness at enforcing the code which prevents newspapers from engaging in such subterfuge.
But phone hacking is a hugely difficult issue for the PCC to deal with. Previous judgements on phone hacking led to it criticising the Guardian newspaper and facing a legal challenge for defamation from a solicitor involved in a case.
It is a body with the resources to deal with complaints from private individuals (and occasionally public figures) about inaccuracy or intrusion. With 14 staff and a budget of less than £2m dealing with around 10,000 calls and 5,000 complaints a year, it does not have the resources to conduct extraordinary investigations. It does not have a mechanism by which it can raise funds at short notice and the skills set required for dealing with a complaint from a family about a journalist’s behaviour after a suicide is very different from the
The PCC has no powers which it can use to address adequately allegations of phone hacking. It would not normally launch any investigation unless it had received a complaint from someone who believed their phone had been hacked (it usually only takes third party complaints about inaccurate articles). It cannot seize email records, take evidence from journalists (except by consent), investigate contractors to a newspaper or appoint a third party agency (such as IT experts or forensic auditors) to investigate claims. If it were to come across a story which may have emerged as a result of phone hacking it would not be able to ask a journalist or newspaper to reveal its sources – for good reason.
The commission is also reluctant to launch any sort of investigation when there may be overlap with a legal process. Given the involvement of the Metropolitan Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and a parliamentary select committee, it would not be surprising if the commission were to refuse to investigate until such proceedings had been complete. But the PCC also appears to lack a mechanism by which it can take action after legal judgement has been issued (search the PCC’s website for “McCann”) – stronger on words than enforcement.
Phone hacking also highlights some of the challenges of process facing the PCC. That the News of the World had reported an incident of phone hacking to the PCC earlier this year only came to light this week. It is not clear what, if any, action the PCC took as a result. This ‘secrecy by default’ is in contrast to the ‘disclosure by default’ adopted by other regulatory bodies. Doubtless these issues which will be addressed by the PCC in its response to its governance review.
Finally, the whole issue of phone hacking highlights a much wider tension in self-regulation. The system of press self-regulation is based on editors being held to account for what appears in their newspapers. But latterly compliance with the PCC code has become a contractual obligation for journalists. But there is no mechanism by which journalists can step forward as ‘whistle-blowers’, or refuse a request made by an editor. The National Union of Journalists has long campaigned for a conscience clause, by which journalists can refuse to conduct tasks which run contrary to the code. The proposal deserves further consideration.
In the case of phone hacking then, the PCC is neither a useful lightning rod for the industry which distracts from criticism of particular newspapers nor a powerful investigative body which can punish wrong-doing. Surely better than for the PCC to be clearer about what it can do well – a complaints body which operates on the basis of consent – rather than to make wider claims of independent regulation which it has neither the powers nor the budget to fulfil.