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.’

Mellor may have meant what he said, but he was certainly not speaking for the rest of the Government. As far as the majority of his colleagues were concerned the newspapers had not even walked through the saloon’s swing doors, and Calcutt was just a device to quell public criticism of their antics without alienating them ahead of the next election. The Committee’s report in 1990 served this purpose admirably. Though clearly preferring statutory regulation it decided that the press should be given ‘one final chance to demonstrate that it can put its house in order’. The Press Council was judged too discredited to take on this responsibility, and the Committee recommended that it be abolished and replaced by a Press Complaints Commission which would have a period of grace (eventually set at 18 months) to prove its worth. This was everything the Government could have hoped for, especially as a privacy law, an extension of the law of defamation and a statutory right of reply for complainants had all been ruled out. No wonder David Waddington, the new Home Secretary, gave the report such a warm welcome. Understandably, the Press Council reacted sulkily to its death sentence: ‘Neither the Calcutt Committee nor the Government has the right or power to wind up the Press Council,’ it said, and it vowed to resist abolition. The Council’s problem was that it had few friends in the industry apart from the National Union of Journalists. The Newspaper Publishers Association, representing the national papers, abandoned it without compunction. The Newspaper Society, representing the provincial press, followed suit more graciously but just as decisively. So the Council went under, and the PCC opened for business on 1 January 1991, with Lord McGregor of Durris, chairman of the third Royal Commission, at its head.

It was a lesser creature than its predecessor. For example, it had nothing to do but deal with complaints, whereas the old Council had also had a responsibility to promote press freedom. Moreover, it would as a rule accept complaints only from people who were personally aggrieved, although complaints from third parties had accounted for about half of those handled by the Press Council. All in all, there seemed little risk that the PCC would turn into a serious embarrassment to the newspapers, not least because it was financed by the industry, a majority of its members were journalists, and they were policing a code of practice devised by journalists. Certainly, McGregor had no illusions of independence. Speaking at a Newspaper Press Fund lunch he said that the Commission was ‘not a body external to the press, not something imposed on you from the outside’. Its role was ‘to interpret and enforce the code of practice which has been drawn up and approved by publishers and journalists’, rather than to ‘sit in judgment or make pronouncements’.

McGregor knew how to ingratiate himself but he could also be remarkably gullible, particularly when the royal family was involved. Within weeks of the PCC being established, stories started to appear about the Wales’s marriage problems. The Palace dismissed them as ‘complete rubbish’, and McGregor happily believed the denial despite a warning from Lord Rothermere that the stories weren’t unfounded. The issue was, however, destined to blow up in his face with the publication of Andrew Morton’s book on Diana which, though itself outside the Commission’s field of activity, was almost certain to be serialised in a newspaper and would in any case generate comment in the press. Once again McGregor was betrayed by his own ignorance and naivety. He did not know that Diana loathed the Palace apparatchiks (including her brother-in-law, Robert Fellowes, who was the Queen’s private secretary). Nor did he know that she cultivated her own contacts with the press, both directly and through her friends. Since he thought Fellowes must enjoy Diana’s confidence, he accepted without question his assurance that she had had nothing to do with Morton’s book. In fact, before it was published she had gone through the text with a toothcomb.

When the serialisation started in the Sunday Times, McGregor prepared a public statement which deserved a prize for intemperateness, not to mention tortured language. The ‘speculative treatment’ of the royal marriage by sections of the press and by broadcasters was, he said, ‘an odious exhibition of journalists dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other people’s souls’. Before reading out the statement on the doorstep of the Commission’s office in Salisbury Square, he again asked Fellowes whether Diana’s hands were clean, and was assured that they were. But soon after making his statement, McGregor was told by a News International executive to make certain he looked at the next day’s tabloids: she had, he said, arranged with some editors for pictures of herself and her children to be taken as she left a friend’s house. Sure enough the pictures were there the following morning, and McGregor realised that he had been misled by Fellowes and manipulated by Diana. The papers were predictably incandescent at McGregor’s behaviour: they hadn’t kept their poodle in reasonable comfort only to be accused of odious dabbling in other people’s souls, whatever that might be.

The PCC’s 18-month probation was now over, and right on cue the House of Lords held a debate on the press. There were all the usual denunciations of irresponsibility and threats of statutory control, but it was Lord Deedes, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph and a former Conservative cabinet minister, who brought their lordships down to earth.

At the risk of causing hurt looks from my own front bench, I see no likelihood of this Government giving much encouragement to legislation which will antagonise the press. It is better to be blunt. The press did the Government pretty well in the [1992] election. I make no bones about that. No government in their senses bite the hand they feel has fed them. For that and other reasons this talk of legislation carries with it a great deal of bluff.

But unlike Lord Deedes, David Mellor still preferred rhetoric to realism. In his new post-election capacity as National Heritage Secretary, with responsibility for the media, he greeted the completion of the PCC’s probation not with a pat on the head but by asking Calcutt to conduct another examination of self-regulation, which would include looking into whether the existing arrangements needed to be put on a statutory basis.

Calcutt’s second report was much less indulgent than his first. The PCC, he said, was ineffective; it did not enjoy the confidence of either the press or the public; and it was not independent. ‘It is, in essence, a body set up by the industry, and operating a code of practice devised by the industry and which is over-favourable to the industry.’ The remedy was a statutory Press Complaints Tribunal presided over by a judge or senior lawyer, which would, among other things, examine complaints (including third-party complaints) of alleged breaches of a new and tougher code of practice; initiate investigations in the absence of a complaint; require the publication of apologies, corrections and replies; enforce publication of its adjudications; award compensation and costs; and impose fines. All this was, of course, far too draconian for the Government, and Peter Brooke, the new Heritage Secretary (David Mellor having been felled by the People over his affair with Antonia de Sancha), soon made it clear that nothing too terrible would be done to the newspapers. The Commission’s independence needed to be strengthened and its procedures improved, but a statutory tribunal would be too radical a departure from tradition.

The industry responded by accepting that the PCC should have a lay majority, and the code of practice was amended to prohibit eavesdropping and clandestine listening devices. But this compromise had no sooner been agreed than the Sunday Mirror blew it apart by publishing a collection of pictures of Diana exercising in a fitness club, all taken surreptitiously by a camera hidden in the ceiling. The intrusion was deplored by Peter Brooke and by his Labour shadow, Mo Mowlam, but nobody came close to matching McGregor’s apoplectic denunciation. Showing that he had learned nothing from the reaction to his outburst over Morton’s book, he now attacked the publication of the photographs as ‘dishonourable conduct for which there can be no excuse’, and urged advertisers to boycott Mirror Group Newspapers. The Mirror Group promptly resigned from the PCC which, it said, had ‘lost all credibility under Lord McGregor’s chairmanship’. With some difficulty it was cajoled back on board, but the damage to McGregor was irreparable.

He left at the end of 1994, a year before his contract expired, and was succeeded by Lord Wakeham of Maldon, a former Conservative Chief Whip, Leader of the Commons and Leader of the Lords, who reigns to this day. Although Wakeham had spent most of his political life manoeuvring in the shadows, and was never likely to fly off the handle as spectacularly as his predecessor, he has been just as preoccupied with steering the Commission round the potholes dug for it by the tabloids. Early in his tenure, the Sunday Mirror disclosed that the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England had been relieving the tedium of his working day by fornicating on the office carpet. Then there was a News of the World story about Diana’s sister-in-law receiving treatment in a private clinic for bulimia. But the biggest crisis of all was precipitated by Diana’s death, at first mistakenly thought to have been caused by Parisian paparazzi. This event produced the memorably misguided verdict of her brother, Lord Spencer, that the press ‘has her blood on its hands’, and he petulantly barred the editors of most of the tabloids from her funeral. In this situation Wakeham saw it as his job to head off fresh demands for privacy legislation, but he need not have worried. However much backbench indignation there was in the Commons, the new Labour Government was no more inclined than the Tories to offend the newspaper bosses. After all Tony Blair had gone halfway round the world before the 1997 election to reach a concordat with Rupert Murdoch.

The only effective way to regulate the press would be to adopt all the recommendations of Calcutt’s second report, enshrine them in law and enforce the law without mercy. But the current arrangements are too comfortable for too many people for that to be likely. The PCC’s reaction to the News of the World’s revelations of drunkenness and drug-taking by the Prince of Wales’s younger son is only the most recent demonstration of its uselessness. However unattractive a teenager Prince Harry may be, it is pretty clear that he has been the victim of some very intrusive reporting. But according to the PCC, far from committing an offence, the NoW performed a public service. Guy Black, the Commission’s director, airily announced that there were ‘important issues of public interest involved’ in the story, while ‘there was no issue to be raised in respect of privacy.’ Was this an objective judgment or was Mr Black just possibly influenced by the fact that he and Mark Bolland (his predecessor as director of the PCC, now a member of the Prince of Wales’s staff and Mr Black’s boyfriend) went on holiday last year with Rebekah Wade, the NoW’s editor? Can Mr Black really be regarded as an independent observer of the Sunday tabloid’s behaviour?

Whatever doubts there may be about the PCC’s integrity, the overwhelming probability is that the Commission will continue to bob along in more or less its present form for the indefinite future. It will survive because it is so admirably suited to the cynical purposes of governments and of the newspapers themselves. The latter want the commercial rewards of being able to sail close to the wind, and the gentle punishments administered by the PCC ensure that they will continue to receive them. The former want somebody else to deal with obstreperous newspapers, and the PCC willingly performs that role. It is, of course, the product of an informal conspiracy, a piece of window dressing that is calculated to deceive. But the deception works, so none of the conspirators has an interest in rocking the boat.

The Commission reached its tenth anniversary in January last year, and the occasion was marked (nine months after the event) by an account of its vicissitudes during its first decade. It is a measure of how seriously the PCC takes itself that it commissioned this book, and of how carelessly it exposes itself to ridicule that it chose an author with no detectable sensitivity to language. Here, for instance, is Richard Shannon (emeritus professor of modern history at Swansea) on the possibility of the European Convention on Human Rights being embodied in British law: ‘What was coming into view now was a swell of opinion wanting to move beyond merely Parliament’s not legislating incompatibly with the Convention to Parliament’s incorporating the Convention holus bolus into UK law and practice.’ It is just possible, with superhuman concentration, to find some meaning in this sentence, but no reader should have to make that much effort. Professor Shannon’s writing would benefit enormously from the attentions of a Fleet Street sub. There is equally little to be said for his narrative powers. The story of the PCC’s first ten years is pretty straightforward, but he obscures it not only with atrocious English but also by confusing the chronology and by assuming a knowledge of events which many readers will not have. The result is a book with no obvious audience. Students of the media will find it hopelessly muddled, and non-specialists will find it almost unreadable. Its fate will probably be to moulder in the library in Salisbury Square, lasting evidence of the Commission’s inability even to find a competent chronicler for itself.