PCC report shows limits of organisation's remit

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When the Guardian’s story about phone hacking at the News of the World broke in July, the Media Standards Trust called on the press to set up its own independent investigation. Only by doing this, we argued, could the press allay people’s fears that such practices were not widespread at the News of the World, or elsewhere in the industry, and sustain people’s faith in self-regulation.

The problem is, as we said at the time, the way the existing system of self-regulation is currently set up does not allow for such an investigation. The current system – as headed by the Press Complaints Commission – has not the resources, the time, or the remit to conduct the type of inquiry needed.

The PCC cannot call people for evidence, it cannot devote significant amounts of time to in-depth interviews or analysis, and it cannot search through internal emails and correspondence. It has to conduct its inquiries in and around the many other responsibilities it has. It is therefore not a surprise that the report the PCC then produces does not uncover any further evidence of wrongdoing.

This is not a criticism of the day-to-day job the PCC does. Quite the contrary. The PCC does a valuable job dealing with complaints from members of the public about misrepresentation, inaccuracy, harassment and privacy intrusion. Rather, it is a criticism of what the PCC does not do – and cannot do as it is currently structured.

Criticising the PCC in an editorial The Guardian writes that:

‘In reaching its conclusions, it appears the PCC did not interview a single witness or inspect a single document beyond those uncovered by police, the information commissioner or MPs. It did not question Andy Coulson, editor at the time (just as it failed to contact him at the time of Goodman). It did not make inquiries of five other NoW journalists or contractees who had direct knowledge of events – Thurlbeck, Greg Miskiw (who signed the contract), the junior reporter, Goodman or Mulcaire – or, indeed, any other NoW journalist employed at the time. It did not interrogate the bonus contract (News Group said it was confidential). It did not interview – though it said it tried – the detective sergeant or reconcile his remark with other police evidence. Indeed, the solitary successful serious inquiry the PCC itself appears to have made was an exchange of letters with the current NoW editor, Colin Myler, who was not at the paper at the time.’

These are not insubstantial criticisms. They point to an investigation that was limited to letter writing and secondary research (although from the report we do not know the full range of the PCC’s inquiries). An investigation that was, in many ways, similar to the 2007 inquiry following Clive Goodman’s conviction. An inquiry that was itself criticized for not pursuing any of the leads uncovered by the Information Commissioner as a result of Operation Motorman, or for questioning many of the key figures at the News of the World and elsewhere at the time.

The editor of the News of the World, Colin Myler, told the PCC that News International had hired a firm of solicitors, Burton Copeland, to investigate the extent of phone tapping at the News of the World. The newspaper said the firm was given ‘every financial document which could possibly be relevant’ to the paper’s dealings with Mulcaire, and they confirmed that ‘they could find no evidence from these documents or their other enquiries which suggested complicity by the News of the World or other members of its staff beyond Clive Goodman in criminal activities’. Yet one has to ask whether the public are best served by Burton Copeland conducting a private inquiry on behalf of News International, rather than the PCC (or an independent investigator) on behalf of the public.

Press self-regulation, as currently constituted, simply does not allow for the types of investigation necessary to reveal the sorts of privacy intrusion the Guardian alleged, or for giving the public renewed trust in the press.

Self-regulation can work more effectively, and needs to for the sake of the press and the public. The PCC has just started a review of its governance which will, we hope, recommend major reforms to the current system. The Media Standards Trust will be making a submission to this review in which it will set out how we think self-regulation can be made more effective. We would encourage all others who want to see self-regulation work – the Guardian included – to do the same.

Written by Martin Moore

November 9th, 2009 at 12:19 pm

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