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The Law Column: RIP the PCC – What next?

Last week’s announcement about the demise of the PCC has left those of us working within or alongside the newspaper industry with many unanswered questions.

For many, the end of the PCC was a foregone conclusion, it was just a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’.  So, the decision was no great surprise, but what was perhaps a little more surprising was the timing of the Grim Reaper’s scythe.

Winding up the PCC so long in advance of the outcome of the Leveson inquiry will mean, in all likelihood, that press regulation will go through two periods of change and inevitable adjustment, within a relatively short period of time.

Initially, the press will have to adjust to the new ‘PCC’, only to find that will probably be superseded by another regulatory system once the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry is known.

Despite the very public announcement heralding the end of the PCC comparatively little is known about what will be set up in its place.

What we do know is that the new transitional body will be run be three individuals: Michael McManus, a former Conservative special adviser, who is director of transition, with communications director Jonathan Collett, who has previously acted as press adviser to the former Conservative leader Michael Howard and, finally, the head of complaints, Charlotte Dewar, who has previously worked for the Guardian.

The transitional body would take on all of the assets and liabilities of the PCC which, for practical purposes, means that staff currently with the PCC will move to the transitional body.

So what will change?  Well, we simply don’t know.  The picture is uncertain but presumably the staff who have sought to enforce the Code will continue to do so. Will that enforcement be more robust and go some way to meeting Lord Hunt’s demand that a regulator have teeth? Again, we simply don’t know.

Amongst many uncertainties, the one which stands out most starkly in the reports is what the new body will be called.  All suggestions on the back of a postcard please to the triumphant trio!

Lord Hunt says the “British people deserve a Press that takes its responsibilities seriously” Arguably, this suggests that editors have not taken compliance with the Code seriously.  In my experience, that is certainly not the case, at least for the regional press.

The editors with whom I deal, day in, day out, at least up until the effectiveness of the PCC was called in to question by the phone hacking scandal, have always been committed to complying not only to the letter, but also the spirit of the Code and of ensuring the very highest standards are upheld.

As for a regulator “with teeth”, I’m sure the industry is particularly interested in knowing what form those “teeth” will take and how different the new body will be from the soon to be defunct PCC.

Some clues can be gleaned from Hunt’s statement that they are looking closely into a new body with, effectively, two separate branches, “one that deals with complaints and mediation, whilst continuing the valuable work that has been going on hitherto by staff at PCC, and a separate arm that audits and, where necessary, enforces standards and compliance with the editors’ Code”.

Whatever  the final regulatory framework, its clear that Hunt anticipates a “much greater emphasis on internal self-regulation with a named individual carrying personal responsibility for compliance at each and every one of the publishers and those responsible for newspapers and magazines”.

The minutes of the meeting at which the decision to shut down the PCC was taken will be published in due course.  Hopefully they will throw more light on what’s to come.

As far as the long term regulation of the press is concerned, we will simply have to wait and see.  Lord Justice Leveson is expected to publish his findings in October.

Hopefully by then a greater degree of clarity will have been injected into what has become a very uncertain future.

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  • March 13, 2012 at 10:22 am

    From my experience the threat of PCC action at my regional paper gave real cause for concern, and taken very seriously by all involved because they actually care about responsible reporting. The national press simply don’t care a jot – they feel that they’re bigger then the PCC. Perhaps a two-tier regulatory framework would be more appropriate – one to lightly regulate the regionals and one with real teeth to keep the nationals in check.

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