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Saturday 30 July 2011

Regulation – Buscombe Bows Out

In recent weeks, more and more pundits and even journalists have wondered aloud what they may not have even previously thought: what is the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) for? In the aftermath of the worst revelations to come out of Phonehackgate, the PCC has been not merely toothless and ineffective, but missing in action. It has been invisible and silent.

And so it was that PCC chair Peta Buscombe appeared before Andrew “Brillo Pad” Neil on the Beeb’s Daily Politics to face the music. Hers was not a happy passage before the Brillo inquisition, and it was no surprise to hear that she is to step down by January next. Thus there is another opportunity for real change in the way that the press is regulated.

As I argued previously, what the public need is a solution that works: in addition to Phonehackgate, there has just been another multiple apology and libel payout, this time concerning Christopher Jefferies, who was wrongly accused of the murder of Joanna Yeates. As with the McCann family and Robert Murat, the PCC was absent and therefore ineffective as Jefferies’ character was systematically smeared.

Even then, as Tabloid Watch has pointed out, the apologies were shown on many papers’ Page Two, the use of left hand pages for releasing items the paper would rather its readers not see being an old and trusted trick (putting that item at the left hand side of the page and towards the foot is even more effective). And this kind of thing is not good enough.

We need a regulatory body that works, and if necessary instructs papers as to the prominence and placement of apologies. As to the pleading of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre that “a newspaper’s front page needs to sell itself”, well, he and every other editor would be most certain of retaining the freedom over that page by not indulging in libellous and fact free hackery.

The thought that the newspaper industry could make regulation work without Government intervention, given the attitude of Dacre and his fellow editors, looks bleak. The Jefferies case shows that the PCC cannot stop the periodic Fourth Estate feeding frenzy, and Phonehackgate underscores its lack of ability even after the event.

Now that Peta Buscombe is stepping down, there is that opportunity: the PCC has to change, and if the press will not make the changes the public demands, the Government will be forced to act. It is looking more and more likely that, despite the protestations of editors and owners, Ofcom, which Young Dave was looking to all but abolish only last year, will increase its remit to the press.

And Paul Dacre will just have to live with it.

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