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The PCC’s governance review just became a lot more important

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It has not been a good week for the Chair of the PCC. This is a shame because Baroness Buscombe seems like a smart woman who arrived at the PCC in April with a real intention of changing the way it worked.

The trouble started on Sunday evening, when Baroness Buscombe made her first major set piece speech at the Society of Editors conference. It was an odd maiden speech, made up of a mixture of party politics and truisms about press freedom in a democracy, with virtually no mention of press standards or future intentions. The type of speech you might expect from a working politician or a Tory peer in the House, but not from the recently appointed head of an ‘independent regulator’ (how the PCC now describes itself). Those papers that chose to report it, however, mostly did so uncritically. The Guardian was the exception. The editor of the Media Guardian called it ‘disappointing’ and suggested the new Chair’s perspective on self-regulation was ‘rose tinted’.

The following morning Buscombe appeared on the Today programme. Bizarrely, she chose to talk more about our ‘dysfunctional democracy’ than about her plans for press self-regulation. When asked directly about relevant issues – on the PCC’s position regarding the reporting of Gordon Brown’s private exchanges with Jacqui Janes – she refused to answer.

Worse was set to come. Before Buscombe’s Radio 4 appearance she released a written statement via the PCC implying that evidence given to the Commons CMS Select Committee by Mark Lewis, a lawyer for Stripes Solicitors, was false. Lewis had told the committee that DS Maberly of the Metropolitan Police had told him that around 6,000 people were involved in the phone hacking episode (though “It was not clear to me whether that was 6,000 phones which had been hacked, or 6,000 people including the people who had left messages” Lewis said to the select committee). Giving misleading evidence to a select committee was, the PCC statement said ‘an extremely serious matter’. The response from Lewis was fast and furious. Not only did he stand by his evidence and say he had two witnesses to corroborate it, but he noted that the PCC had not approached him before making such a serious accusation and had chosen to believe a ‘hearsay letter constructed on behalf of the Metropolitan Police rather than the first hand evidence that was given by me to the Select Committee’. This, Lewis said, ‘betrayed any semblance of impartiality’ the PCC might have had and he called on the Chair to resign.

Hardly had the ink dried on Lewis’ signature than bloggers were reacting to a report on the Independent website that Buscombe had suggested the PCC was considering regulating blogs. Ian Burrell wrote that the Chair had ‘said that after a review of the governance structures of the PCC, she would want the organisation to “consider” whether it should seek to extend its remit to the blogosphere, a process that would involve discussion with the press industry, the public and bloggers (who would presumably have to volunteer to come beneath the PCC’s umbrella).’ Bloggers were outraged. ‘Very disturbing’, Iain Dale wrote: ‘I see absolutely no need for independently operated blogs to be regulated by the PCC or indeed anyone else. If they want to propose a voluntary system of regulation, fine. But the day they try to mandate it is the day I will give up blogging.’ Guido Fawkes subsequently blogged that she’d never said such a thing. But this did not stop a damning critique of the suggestion in a ‘collective letter’ from Unity at Liberal Conspiracy:

‘While we are grateful for your interest in our activities we must regretfully decline your kind offer of future PCC regulation. Frankly, we do not feel that the further development of blogging as an interactive medium that facilitates the free exchange of ideas and opinions will benefit from regulation by a body representing an industry with, in the main, substantially lower ethical standards and practices than those already practiced by the vast majority of established British bloggers.’

Before the Chair had time to calm a furious blogosphere, news came through that the International Federation of Journalists – the world’s largest organization of journalists, with more than 600,000 members in 100 countries – was commissioning an investigation into the PCC’s handling of its inquiry into the News of the World phone-hacking allegations.

Later that afternoon an even more serious problem erupted closer to home. Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, had been voicing significant disquiet about press self-regulation since the PCC released its report into phone hacking at the NotW. That report was, Rusbridger said, ‘worse than pointless, it’s actually rather dangerous to the press… I believe in self-regulation because I cannot imagine a country in which the government regulates the press, or there is statutory regulation. But the press is in a very weak position today because its own regulator, its self-regulation, has proved so weak.’ When Mark Lewis’s letter was published online, Rusbridger tweeted it from his personal account.

Then, on Tuesday, Rusbridger announced he was resigning from the PCC’s Editorial Code Committee – the committee composed mostly of working editors that has responsibility for defining and adapting the press’ code of conduct. In his resignation statement Rusbridger made clear that this was not about politics or personality but borne out of substantive concern for the purpose and role of the PCC.

This is not, by anyone’s measure, a good couple of days. No doubt the rest of the press will, as is their wont went it comes to problems with press self-regulation, ignore it and hope it goes unnoticed. But though speeches can be improved and diplomacy finessed, the substantive issues will not disappear, not least because Baroness Buscombe launched a review of PCC governance in August that will run from now until next spring.

Yet, ironically, the last few days will increase rather than diminish the importance of this review. Not only will the review group need to gather evidence from a wide enough range of individuals and organizations to ensure the review’s credibility, it will have to answer some of the critical questions asked by The Guardian. The Chair of the PCC then has the tricky task – if she accepts the recommendations of the review – of instituting the reforms. If she thinks this week has been difficult, it will be a cakewalk compared to that.

Written by Martin Moore

November 18th, 2009 at 4:58 pm