Archive for the ‘governance review’ tag

PCC governance review – a good start, though it's what happens next that counts

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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.

Written by Martin Moore

July 7th, 2010 at 12:25 pm

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Reform or risk irrelevance

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[This piece was first published on Comment is Free on Wednesday 24th February]

And now the hard work of reform begins. The evidence of the need for radical change to the current system of press self-regulation continues to mount – particularly with publication of today’s damning Culture, Media and Sport select committee report. But the reaction of many of those within the press shows how much resistance there still is to change.

One of the most important things the select committee report has done is link reform of libel law with reform of press self-regulation. The two have to happen hand-in-hand, as Paul Farrelly made clear. The huge costs of libel law are, as the select committee found, threatening free speech – especially in important areas of public interest like scientific discussion. But if the law is reformed, as it needs to be, practical alternatives need to be found that will give the press pause before publishing stories that may be highly intrusive or inaccurate. And, if a newspaper does publish something that is intrusive or inaccurate, there need to be effective systems in place to make the paper accountable and help ensure it does not happen again.

Independent press self-regulation should be this alternative. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is a complaints mediator, not a self-regulator. As the select committee report says (and the Media Standards Trust stated in our report last month), this is a valuable service and one that the PCC works very hard at performing.

The public recognise the importance of independent self-regulation, as opposed to government regulation, but expect more than the current system delivers. A survey conducted by Ipsos MORI last month (commissioned by the Media Standards Trust) found that more than half the public (52%) want the press regulated by an independent self-regulatory body run by those independent of the newspaper industry. This contrasts with only 8% who want a newspaper industry complaints body set up and run by the newspaper industry, as at present (Ipsos MORI 980 person face-to-face survey in January 2010, commissioned by MST).

Regulation carries with it a wider remit than mediation. A self-regulatory body needs to monitor compliance with a code of practice, report regularly on breaches in the code and conduct investigations where there is significant public concern about wrongdoing. This is not a personal view, but reflects the attitude of the public. Of those interviewed, 73% thought that monitoring compliance with the code and conducting investigations should be the chief purpose of an independent regulatory body. Only 12% expected its main role should be to mediate complaints between newspapers and complainants, as at present.

There is now a real opportunity for reform. The current governance review, announced by the PCC last August, is looking at how to make the PCC more transparent and accountable, and at whether to increase its remit. Based on the written submissions it has received (including one from the Media Standards Trust), and on the strong criticism of the current system by the select committee report, it should feel empowered to make far reaching and radical recommendations.

There is no need to resort to statutory regulation to strengthen the current system. This is a myth promoted by defenders of the status quo which is misleading and unhelpful. The current system can be changed significantly yet remain entirely self-regulatory. The PCC could, for example, have a ladder of remedies that were gauged according to the gravity of the offence. For the most serious it could levy financial penalties, as suggested in today’s report.

Still, the hostile response of News International to the select committee report, and the skewed coverage in the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Sun, indicates the lack of enthusiasm within the industry for change. News International accused the report of resorting to “innuendo, unwarranted interference and exaggeration” and of pursuing a “party political agenda”. This is a remarkably aggressive response to a cross party select committee. Though it also seems like a healthy endorsement of the select committee’s comment that News International’s behaviour “reinforces the widely held impression that the press generally regard themselves as unaccountable and that News International in particular has sought to conceal the truth about what really occurred”.

The opportunity for reform will not last long. Indeed, John Kampfner suggested that this may be “the last opportunity to show that self-regulation can work”. The freedom and tensions of the net are such that some publications will increasingly question the value of press self-regulation. Unless there are clear benefits to being part of the current system, such as the reduction of the cost burden of defamation to members, then outlets will leave and the system will become progressively irrelevant.

Written by Martin Moore

February 24th, 2010 at 5:53 pm

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