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‘Toothless’ watchdog faces axe over phone-hacking scandal

David Cameron was today accused of seeking a “convenient scalp” after signalling the demise of the Press Complaints Commission over the phone-hacking scandal.

In a scathing attack, the Prime Minister branded the media watchdog was “ineffective,” “lacking in rigour” and “institutionally conflicted.”

Speaking at a Westminster press conference, Mr Cameron said a replacement body should be independent of the press so that “newspapers will never again be solely responsible for policing themselves.”

But the PCC hit back claiming its work had been “undervalued” and accusing the Prime Minister of seeking a “convenient scalp.”

Mr Cameron said: “Let’s be honest: the Press Complaints Commission has failed. In this case – in the hacking case – it was, frankly, completely absent.

“Therefore we have to conclude that it is ineffective and lacking in rigour. There is a strong case for saying it is institutionally conflicted, because competing newspapers judge each other.”

Mr Cameron confirmed the establishment of a wide-ranging inquiry into press behaviour, regulation and ethics alongside the judge-led inquiry into the phione-hacking scandal.

He said it would be up to the wider media industry inquiry to recommend a new regulatory framework but the Prime Minister insisted it would be independent of both the press and politicians.

“My starting presumption is that it should be truly independent. Independent of the press, so the public will know that newspapers will never again be solely responsible for policing themselves,” said Mr Cameron.

“But vitally, independent of government, so the public will know that politicians are not trying to control or muzzle a press that must be free to hold politicians to account.

“This new system of regulation must strike the balance between an individual’s right to privacy and what is in the public interest.

“And above all, it should uphold the proper, decent standards that we expect.”

The PCC issued a swift response, welcoming the establishment of the inquiry.

“We are confident that such an inquiry will recognise the considerable successes of the Press Complaints Commission, to which the Prime Minister himself referred some weeks ago,” it said in a statement.

“We do not accept that the scandal of phone hacking should claim, as a convenient scalp, the Press Complaints Commission.

“The work of the PCC, and of a press allowed to have freedom of expression, has been grossly undervalued today.

“However, as the PCC has said consistently, it believes that the outcome of phone hacking should be a more independent PCC. It is confident that it is precisely what the Prime Minister’s inquiry will also have to conclude.

“There should be fundamental reform of the system, as we have already recognised and called for. But the PCC can, in the final evaluation, play its part in this.

“Now, it is for the newspaper and magazine industry itself to make the case for their continued independence from Government.

“Meanwhile, the dedicated staff of the PCC will continue to serve the public (a service that effectively helps thousands of people every year), and uphold the ethical standards enshrined in the Code of Practice.”

Society of Editors Director Bob Satchwell also welcomed the inquiry but said it was “nonsense” to suggest that the existing system of self-regulation had broken down.

“In addition to The News of the World there were 20 odd national newspapers and 1300 local and regional papers across the country and that it was a nonsense to suggest that ethics in all of them had broken down or that the PCC system was broken beyond repair,” he said.

“The role that the PCC played will come out in the inquiry. The report they put out was wrong and they accepted that. They also did a lot of behind the scenes work at the time. The News of the World and other papers made sure the practices didn’t happen again.

“Things will change, the PCC has accepted that. If people keep an open mind we may come out of it with some sensible outcomes and we can draw some conclusions.”

Earlier Labour leader Ed Miliband said the media watchdog had been exposed as a “toothless poodle” and should be replaced.

The Press Complaints Commission has totally failed. It failed to get to the bottom of the allegations about what happened at News International in 2009,” he said.

“Its chair admits she was lied to but could do nothing about it. It was established to be a watchdog. But it has been exposed as a toothless poodle. It is time to put it out of its misery.

“A new body would need: far greater independence of its board members from those it regulates; proper investigative powers; and an ability to enforce corrections.”

The PCC responded in a statement: “It is wrong of Mr Miliband to call for the scrapping of the PCC. His remarks are long on rhetoric and short on substance.

“However, he is right to support self-regulation and to say that the phone hacking scandal should act as a catalyst for improvement and reform of the industry.”

6 comments

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  • July 8, 2011 at 8:58 am
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    With you for once Ed. While I understand the need for the industry to have some self-regulation, it has to be the case that the mindset of the PCC and people adjudicating on complains is directed in favour of the defendant – the industry – rather than the complainant. After all, journalists often have a different, more cynical, less compassionate view of life – it’s part of what being a journalist is about. I know mob rule is no way to go, but some of the cases I have read about that defend the conduct of the press, despite overwhelming opposition from the layman, shows, to me anyway, that the PCC operates above and beyond. It’s great to see this whole issue raised.

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  • July 8, 2011 at 9:09 am
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    Surprisingly I’m also in agreement with Miliband.
    As an editor I’d be happy to see the PCC scrapped and replaced with something that works. I know of very few editors who have any respect for the PCC – in terms of both its rulings and its “punishments”.
    I’d still be keen for self-regulation, but for too long certain papers (mainly the national tabloids) have got away with appalling practice.
    And a forced apology clearly has no effect on those who willfully break the rules time and time again.

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  • July 8, 2011 at 9:39 am
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    Ed Milliband needs to look at this more carefully before spouting off with a knee-jerk reaction.

    “The PCC must go but self-regulation should remain”? How does that work exactly and what difference would it have made – even if the PCC had greater powers we’d still be in this situation.

    If all of these allegations turn out to be true then the law will have been broken and it is therefore a police matter. Clear criminal laws didn’t stop some of those at the News of the World from going down this route – so why would a more powerful PCC have acted as any deterrent whatsoever? And why would the PCC need such powers when there are already laws in place to cover such eventualities?

    The simple fact of the matter is that the News of the World thought it could act with impunity within its own little bubble and that all bets were off.

    Self-regulation works for the vast majority of journalists and the minority who go too far – such as some of those at the News of the World – are subject to existing legal constraints.

    Any move to mess with the status-quo in the current climate would be ill-thought out and potentially highly damaging.

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  • July 8, 2011 at 9:50 am
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    Politicians calling for the press to be hog-tied and “regulated” doesn’t surprise me in the least.

    I saw Two Jags’ foam-flecked rant on TV last night demanding that newspapers in future must be edited by a committee of MPs – well, almost.

    The NoW and the feeble “investigation” by the PCC really has given them the excuse they’ve been waiting for.

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  • July 8, 2011 at 11:18 am
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    Great, so now Cameron wades into the debate with the same kind of comments as Miliband before him.

    I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, if the PCC had been replaced by, for arguments sake, Ofcom, before this all blew up, we’d be in exactly the same position we are now.

    The NotW staff responsible for these hacks (if true) have broken the law. Therefore the legislation already exists to tackle this problem and the only reason it hasn’t been used is likely because some police officers were covering their own backs.

    Tightening up press controls would have made zero difference in this case – we are at serious risk of chucking the baby out with the bathwater here.

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  • July 8, 2011 at 1:27 pm
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    I agree the PCC urgently needs some kind of overhaul, but as the national press has no affinity and no respect for local communities maybe they should be coralled into a different and more stringent arena of accountability ….. complex I know but just a random thought.

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