It’s good to be pleasantly surprised. I confess I was pretty sceptical about the ‘independent governance review’ of the PCC (whose report is published today). I wasn’t sure how ‘independent’ it actually was, and was concerned by the very limited publicity for written submissions and that oral evidence was taken in secret.
But it turns out to be a carefully thought out and reasonable response to the many calls for reform over the last 18 months. This includes, of course, the calls by the Media Standards Trust since February 2009 (‘A More Accountable Press’).
It’s clear from the report that they’ve been listening. By my count the review appears to have accepted, in whole or in part, 19 of the 28 recommendations we made in our submission earlier this year (‘Can independent self-regulation keep standards high and preserve press freedom’) in addition to those of others like Peter Preston and MediaWise. The real challenge now is to see if the PCC and the newspapers embrace the recommendations and use this as an opportunity to revitalise self-regulation, or ignore them and leave the current system frozen in aspic.
The recommendations are detailed (I think I counted about 75 in all) though mostly in plain English. They include:
- Greater openness about the system – for example, being open about funding (it still seems remarkable that an industry that recognises the importance of knowing where the money comes from doesn’t make clear how its own self-regulation is funded), making sure the PCC statistics are ‘consistent and clear’, and providing more information about complaints
- Codifying the sanctions and telling people about them – this could mean providing a clear ladder of remedies so people understand what the penalties for breaching the code are and have a better idea about the seriousness of a breach
- Making the PCC more proactive – emphasising the importance of taking action where there is a clear sign of public concern
- Introducing more ways to judge the effectiveness of the PCC – including targets for the year, and polls that measure not only confidence in the PCC but also in the press (this way hopefully we won’t get the Commission claiming success each year whether complaints go up or down)
- Clarifying the purpose of the PCC – including making plain ‘how it considers standards issues’ and ‘what it means by – and what it wants to achieve through – proactivity’.
On some of the big issues – particularly the all-important one of sanctions – the review pushes most of the responsibility back to the PCC and the industry. This makes sense from the perspective that the industry would balk at any ‘outside’ pressure on them to introduce new penalties for breaching the code. However, if this becomes an excuse neither to strengthen existing sanctions nor to explore new ones then people will still not take the PCC seriously as an independent self-regulator – as it aspires to be.
It should also be said that this review leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre. The Commission could, if it wanted, do not much more than publish minutes of its meetings, and alter the appointments and compliance process. Equally, the industry could ignore recommendations to divulge their contributions, and fail to become more involved in the promotion and discussion of standards. Hence why this review is a good start, but certainly not an end point.
One subject on which the review didn’t go into much detail is funding. The PCC has a much smaller budget than organisations like the Advertising Standards Authority or Ofcom. Taking on the additional responsibilities recommended in the review will cost more. Though the review takes note of this it thinks costs can be kept down. This could be tricky and other funding mechanisms ought to be explored. In our submission we suggested the PCC start charging for investigations – like the Financial Services Ombudsman. Alternatively the industry could throw more money in the pot, though given the parlous state of news organisations this seems unlikely at present.
The ball is now squarely in the PCC and the industry’s court. The PCC has made positive noises about the review and has already made some commitments – for example around transparency (it said in its annual report it would adhere to the principles of the Freedom of Information Act). PressBoF, which has been fantastically opaque to date, seems to be raising its head slightly above the parapet. We await the response of the Editorial Code Committee. But it remains to be seen what the Commission, the Board of Finance, the Code Committee – and most importantly the industry – will actually do.