Bobbing Along

Ronald Stevens

  • A Press Free and Responsible: Self-Regulation and the Press Complaints Commission 1991-2001 by Richard Shannon
    Murray, 392 pp, £25.00, September 2001, ISBN 0 7195 6321 6

Nearly everyone is happy with the Press Complaints Commission except people with complaints about the press. Governments like it because it provides them with a handy bolthole whenever demands to tame the tabloids become too insistent to ignore. Newspapers like it because it allows them to get on with entrapments, invasions of privacy and other unprofessional outrages, knowing that nothing worse will happen to them than having to publish an ‘adjudication’ on their transgressions. The vast majority of readers probably like it as well – or would if they knew of its existence – because it ensures a reliable supply of the triviality, sensation, distortion and trash which they expect of the popular British press. Only the victims of misreporting, harassment, invention and intrusiveness grumble about the Commission’s palsied reactions to their complaints; and that is only because they foolishly imagine that the PCC is a champion of truth, justice and fair play, whereas its real purpose is to safeguard the interests of mischievous and sometimes malevolent publications against the grievances of the innocent and the weak.

Self-regulation, as its apologists call it, is not of course peculiar to newspapers. Doctors and lawyers discovered its attractions long ago, and anyone who buys a new house with crumbling brickwork or a leaking roof soon finds out that the National House-Building Council is there to protect the provider against the customer while pretending to do the reverse. For an industry which is supposed to be alert and quick on its feet, the press took a long time to appreciate the advantages of having a watchdog of its own with india-rubber teeth. A General Council of the Press was recommended in 1949 by the first postwar Royal Commission on the Press (the appointment of no fewer than three Royal Commissions between 1947 and 1974 is itself compelling evidence of the reluctance of Governments to take action directly against Fleet Street). The 1949 proposals were modest enough: the new body would consist overwhelmingly of industry representatives, with a lay chairman and a few lay members, and its main objectives would be to promote press freedom and encourage journalists to behave with a sense of responsibility. But even this timorous agenda was too much for the Beaverbrooks, Rothermeres and Camroses of the day. Nothing was done for four years, and when the General Council of the Press was finally set up in 1953 it had no lay members, its chairman was the proprietor of the Times and its remit was simply to protect and promote the freedom of the press. It had no procedure for dealing with complaints, no sanctions, and it commanded no respect either inside or outside the industry.

These deficiencies led to the establishment of the second Royal Commission which, in its 1962 report, criticised the failure to introduce some lay representation as recommended by its predecessor. In response a judge was grudgingly installed as chairman, a few lay members were appointed and the name was abbreviated to the less pretentious Press Council. But none of this was much use when Rupert Murdoch came on the scene, bought the News of the World and the Sun, and dismissed the Council as ‘a pussyfooted arm of the establishment’. It soon became obvious that the Press Council was no match for the rampaging Digger and his imitators on the other tabloids. In 1977 the third Royal Commission lamented ‘flagrant breaches of acceptable standards’ by newspapers, and claimed that there was ‘a pressing call to enhance the standing of the Press Council in the eyes of the public and potential complainants’. It therefore recommended that the Council should have more money to spend, a majority of lay members and a code of practice against which newspapers’ behaviour could be measured. Once again, the industry conceded the minimum that it could get away with. A lay majority was reluctantly accepted and the Council’s funding was increased, but there was no support for a code of practice and no improvement in the Council’s reputation with either the general public or the journalists whose conduct it was supposed to supervise. It stumbled on through the 1980s responding ineffectively to growing tabloid contempt until, in 1989, Douglas Hurd set up a Home Office committee under David Calcutt QC to consider measures (including legislative measures) to protect individual privacy against the press. Calcutt was given a year to report, and it was while his committee was at work that David Mellor, then a junior minister at the Home Office, delivered his celebrated warning that ‘the popular press is drinking in the last chance saloon.’

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