The PCC knows that it needs to raise its profile, and largely depends on newspapers and their journalists to do that. The chairman frequently uses public appearances to call on newspapers to do more to raise awareness of the commission and the work that it does. Indeed, the PCC’s advertising campaign – launched last month – can be seen as the most concerted effort to do that since the PCC’s inception.
One of the major structural challenges facing the PCC is the reluctance of the industry to report on itself. Outside Media Guardian, there is very little industry news in the national press. And whilst high profile cases such as the Stephen Gately complaint can generate coverage, allegations of phone hacking do not. Social media provides one means by which the PCC can circumvent this – and has begun to do so through its Twitter account @ukpcc.
However, the PCC also points to its work behind the scenes which means that there should be awareness of it where its services are most required. For example, it provides information to police forces for people who are thrust into the spotlight through a difficult incident – such as death or suicide. It tries to contact people directly who are already in the spotlight, as it did when it sent a message to the McCanns via the British consulate. And as any regulatory body should, it provides practical training and advice directly to journalists to enable them to better understand the code of practice.
One of the revelations of the media select committee hearings into the PCC was that newspapers had introduced compliance with the code as a condition of employment for journalists. So if they break the code, they are in danger of losing their jobs – and editors say that this has happened.
In that context, it would be reasonable to expect journalists to have a strong understanding of the code (if not the detail) and a clear understanding of the basics of the Press Complaints Commission – even if they aren’t going to report it. But as this Twitter exchange between the Daily Express’ chief political commentator (@oflynnexpress) and the PCC’s communications director (@JonCollett), that isn’t necessarily the case:
oflynnexpress Polly Toynbee’s piece was obv ridiculous and OTT but should a quango be censuring her for her choice of words? I don’t think so. 4.25pm 17/11/10
JonCollett @oflynnexpress PCC not a quango. PCC has not censured Polly Toynbee. In fact found no breach of the code. 4.31pm
oflynnexpress according to @JonCollett no censure for Toynbee but I note PCC does appear to have criticised her use of language. 4.32pm
oflynnexpress @JonCollett why do you say PCC not a quango? Cos taxpayer doesn’t pay for it? But doesn’t DCMS have oversight of it? 4.34pm
JonCollett @oflynnexpress PCC noted that was the complainant’s view but found no breach (to protect free speech). We will release decision shortly. 4.36pm
JonCollett @oflynnexpress No no DCMS oversight. Independent regulator overseeing self-regulatory system and funded by industry. 4.38pm
Oflynnexpress @JonCollett I withdraw the quango description then, esp to head off any complaint from you about my accuracy…to the PCC! 4.49pm
JonCollett @oflynnexpress Thanks Patrick! 4.54pm
This lack of knowledge should be of real concern to both parties. Given the political prominence of quangos at the moment, you might imagine that O’Flynn would know what was and wasn’t a quango. Given the frequency of complaints against the newspapers in the Express stable this year (11 against Daily Express), you might expect its journalists to have an increasing awareness of the PCC.
But one of the most odd things is this: can you imagine a broadcaster who wasn’t aware of the legal structure around Ofcom? A teacher who wasn’t aware that Ofsted was a government quango? A banker who wasn’t aware of the legal basis of the FSA?
Editors say they are scared of the PCC adjudicating against their newspapers. Editors sit on the PCC (in a minority). Editors alone make the code. Editors do not generally lose their jobs when the code is breached. Perhaps it’s time for working journalists to play a bigger role in self-regulation.