I believe the Press Complaints Commission was right to not uphold the complaint by Stephen Gately’s partner about Jan Moir’s vicious, nasty and spiteful ‘opinion’ piece about the death of Stephen Gately. As I previously suggested by the standards the press sets itself, the judgement is consistent with the code and the freedom of expression.
However, the PCC now faces a huge challenge to rebuild public confidence in a judgement that is likely to be unpopular and misunderstood. It’s not the PCC’s fault that it received more complaints about that article than it had received over the previous five years. But many of those who complained will be dissatisfied by the process. And this case does pose challenges for the PCC to address, partly through its governance review.
The Editors Code itself needs further thought. That newspapers are free to offend should be beyond doubt. But the code allows discrimination against groups rather than individuals. This is out of step with the law, the definition of racism post-Macpherson, and societal norms. It’s also a bit silly. The code’s distinction is equivalent to allowing me to write ‘all newspaper editors are liars’, or ‘all Daily Mail journalists are homophobic’ as long as I don’t single out individual journalists.
The process by which the code can be amended has been opened up in recent years but still lacks transparency, independence and accountability. By enabling the public in to the process, the code committee recognises the importance of the code in instilling public confidence in the standards of journalism – surely a vital part of any economic recovery for the sector. But no member of the public can sit on the committee, the consultation takes place in secret and the rationale for revisions is not made clear. Until last week, the PCC still distributed the press releases for this apparently independent body.
The PCC’s lack of clarity on who is an eligible complainant meant – in this case – that it required a complaint from the grieving Andrew Cowles – for the investigation to proceed. Otherwise the complaints of 25,000 others may have been rejected. One can only imagine how the Daily Mail would have reacted if complaints by its readers about Celebrity Big Brother had been rejected because they weren’t Shilpa Shetty.
The PCC’s decision-making processes also require reform. It’s odd that we don’t know which members of the commission were present to consider the Jan Moir complaint. We’re told that despite being a member of the commission, the Mail on Sunday editor wasn’t involved in the decision. The PCC said:
“This is in line with the PCC’s normal procedures when a title edited by a Commission member is subject to a PCC complaint.”
For the avoidance of doubt, the editor of the Mail on Sunday is not the editor of the Daily Mail. Should we therefore conclude that the PCC’s normal procedures mean that the editor of the News of the World is not involved in complaints against the Sun? And with no formal minutes published, how could we find out?
With a commission that meets in secret we don’t even know when the decision was made, let alone what case was made in the prosecution or defence. The PCC argues that one of it’s benefits is that it avoids the costs of lawyers. But we may never know if Andrew Cowle’s complaint (made through a team of solicitors) was challenged by the Daily Mail’s lawyers.
We don’t know how much the Daily Mail pays for the PCC (the funding is passed through intermediaries) or whether the PCC has sufficient resource to run a system which attracts this volume of public concern.
Baroness Buscombe was brave – and right – to come out and defend the decision in other media. And hearing her defence may go some way to instilling confidence in the judgement. But I was concerned by her argument that the context of the piece was important, particularly that it had appeared in page 37. It did, of course, but there was also a banner on the frontpage drawing attention to the article. So what if the case had gone the other way? Would a ruling four months after the event have made an impact? Would an apology on page 37 – or in Moir’s column – been enough?
The PCC’s governance review – although tightly defined – is the opportunity to address these issues. Unfortunately, the submissions it has received are still awaiting publication. If this opportunity for reform is missed, confidence in self-regulation of the press will be diminished.