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The PCC: When Sleeping Dogs Lie

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David Cameron has acknowledged the press needs better oversight - but this isn't news. When the public was being abused by hacking journalists, what was the PCC doing? Nothing - because it has never actively looked after the interests of the public. That's not what it was set up for and it is not what it has ever done effectively.

The PCC came into being in 1991, after the Calcutt committee recommended that the creation of a new statutory body to replace the old Press Council. But according to Mike Jempson, director of Mediawise, there were structural flaws in the new body.

"There are no working journalists on the PCC. It is run by editors who have an interest in protecting the commercial interests of their companies. And it is funded by the newspapers, with money collected from the proprietors. My criticism of the PCC is that they have relied upon newspaper editors to advise them on the journalistic side of things. And their interests are best served by denying misbehavior. In our experience, if you complain about the behaviour of newspapers to the PCC, you get nowhere. They just deny it. They aren't there to protect the public. They're there to protect the companies."

The numbers bear Jempson out.
"Only around 1 percent of complaints are ever upheld. Lots are rejected because they haven't been submitted properly. In some cases, the PCC may attempt to mediate between the member of the public and the press - but most people find this very intimidating. So that means the PCC never actually adjudicates on many complaints and, of those, only about one percent are ever upheld. It's ridiculous. At MediaWise, we've been providing evidence to the PCC for twenty years and they just ignore it."

That so few complaints get attention or redress is even more bizarre given the current climate in so-called journalism.

"In May, 2006 the report by the Information Commission, What Price Privacy? showed that there were almost 350 journalists who had used private investigators," Jempson told me. "Three thousand items of information had been obtained by illegal means by one private investigator alone. This isn't new! The evidence has been out there for some time and the PCC has done nothing about it. Lady Buscombe should be packing her bags by now."

Jempson's energized by the current debate - but he's also frustrated. "It's always the same process. We saw this in the 1980s when Virginia Bottomley was the equivalent of the Culture Secretary. Everyone wanted comprehensive reform. There was a select committee, everyone rattled a few sabers. But that got attacked by the press and nothing happened. There's no reason to believe it be different this time but one has to live in hope...."

Newspapers may be in decline but they're still big business. Under pressure, they've all been sucked into a race to the bottom: fewer journalists with less time to cover more topics they don't understand, more competition for sensational headlines, less (if any) fact checking and a scramble for new gossip that passes as news. Of course what all that does is give readers fewer reasons than ever to buy newspapers - and declining circulations make the scramble even more intense. In this fight to the death, the interests of private individuals count for nothing.