When Sir Christopher Meyer, formerly our man in Washington, became chairman of the Press Complaints Commission in 2003, he coined the phrase "permanent evolution" as his working policy. He has been true to his word in several respects. The number of lay members on the PCC has been raised to 10,a clear majority over seven journalists. There is an annual audit of the editors' Code of Practice, with a committee considering amendments, some from outside the profession: the Samaritans, for example, succeeded in amending the code on copycat suicides. The PCC is much more pro-active, operating a 24-hour service for complaints and an effective conciliation procedure. It has achieved greater prominence for its adjudications and has now taken over the regulation of online journalism.
These are all praiseworthy developments, and the PCC's annual review makes impressive reading. Yet, Tony Blair's lament about the "feral beasts" of the press, for all its sententiousness, struck a chord with many people, including some journalists. One senses that it would only take another major scandal, like the News of the World's phone tapping or the BBC's phone-in deceptions, to bring back calls for tougher regulation.
With all due respect to Les Hinton, the public may find it hard to understand why the executive chairman of Murdoch's News International, the man who effectively controls The Sun and the News of the World, should be chairman of the Code Committee, apparently acting as poacher and gamekeeper at once.
One senses also that code changes are rubber-stamped by the lay members of the Commission without much, if any, debate. The figure of Ofcom looms. Separate regulation of broadcasting and written media no longer makes sense to many people at a time of closer media convergence; the fact that the Advertising Standards Authority now covers both (broadcast advertising is regulated under contract from Ofcom) makes the distinction harder to defend.
So Sir Christopher's "permanent evolution" needs to keep up the pace. Here are a few suggestions. One is to make more use of retired senior journalists and media academics as a consultation court (this is not a job application). I believe that the PCC should also actively engage in promoting press freedom, as did the old Press Council. It should consider commissioning an annual audit of press performance, as Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, a former Press Council chairman, has proposed.
Although the lay jobs on the commission are now widely advertised, the people appointed do seem to be regular quango kings and queens, rather than typical newspaper readers. I can understand why actual working editors were appointed to the PCC, because they had to demonstrate their commitment to the new system in the so-called "last chance saloon". But the presence of national newspaper editors – Roger Alton of The Observer and Peter Hill of The Daily Express, and especially a giant like Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers – can be intimidating. These are people used to getting their own way, and a lay member would need to be very brave to take them on.
If the commission upholds a complaint against a national paper, it is by definition against one of the working editors' rivals (otherwise they would have to excuse themselves). If it fails to uphold such a complaint, it can look like Fleet Street solidarity. After 12 years, the PCC should have enough confidence in itself to move on to the next stage.
Patience's business experience no virtue
The surprise exit of Patience Wheatcroft through the revolving door at The Sunday Telegraph prompts the thought: do business editors make good editors? (Or, to put it another way, do chancellors make good prime ministers? We shall see).
Editing a paper is a vastly bigger job than running a section. There are so many extra calls on the boss's time – from management, staff, readers, agents, politicians and lobby groups. You need to know about foreign affairs, sport, women's issues, magazines, production, as well as news, business and politics, even the crossword (the moving of which caused one of my biggest headaches at The Observer).
Ms Wheatcroft, a highly respected business columnist, does not appear to have made the transition to the satisfaction of Will Lewis, himself a former award-winning business writer. That he has been made editor-in-chief of both titles and moved his deputy, Ian MacGregor, a former Daily Mail news man, onto the Sunday, suggests that he wants to sharpen up the front of the Sunday paper and drag it screaming into his vision of a 24/7, all-singing, all-dancing, all-platforms digital product.
When I started in journalism, business writers like Patrick Hutber of The Sunday Telegraph and Patrick Sergeant of the Daily Mail would never have dreamed of becoming editors: it would have seemed like a demotion. Their voices were more powerful than their papers' – and they probably earned more than their editors.
There is one spectacular exception to business editors not making great editors: the founder of this paper, Andreas Whittam Smith. And for all of Dominic Lawson's frothing, Mr Lewis also seems to be making a good job of it.
The Bill Deedes Debate Method
Good parodies, like Dear Bill, succeed because they are not really parodies at all; Lord Deedes and Sir Denis Thatcher spoke exactly as in the Private Eye spoof.
I sat next to Sir Denis once at a lunch. I thought rugby would be a safer subject than politics, since he was a qualified referee. We sorted out the ruck and maul laws, and as we parted he said: "Your paper's lousy, but you seem a decent enough chap."
Bill Deedes and I were once called on to defend the press at the Oxford Union. When we met on the train, his first words were: "I think we'll need a few tinctures, old boy." We won the debate hands down as Bill, by now floating on air, charmed the undergraduates with his stylish mix of anecdote and common sense – as, indeed, he charmed us all.Reuse content