'Guardian' threatens to quit PCC after censure

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The Independent Online

The future of the Press Complaints Commission was thrown into question yesterday when the editor of The Guardian threatened to withdraw his newspaper from the organisation after a critical adjudication.

The Guardian was censured for paying £720 to a convicted criminal for writing an article on life in prison alongside the disgraced peer Jeffrey Archer. The paper was asked to hand over copies of a long-running weekly column by another prisoner, Erwin James, to see whether it is ruled to be in breach of the PCC code, which outlaws payment to criminals barring exceptional circumstances.

The PCC investigated The Guardian's Archer article although no complaint had been made. It has always taken it upon itself to examine payments to criminals, a prima facie breach of the code that is "victimless". Mr Rusbridger said he could not remain if the PCC reached such a judgment. "If we couldn't pay Erwin James to write his columns, I think that would be it." He could not say whether any such departure "would be temporary or permanent".

Mr Rusbridger's anger was compounded by the revelation, the same day as the Guardian verdict, that the PCC is to clear the News of the World of any wrongdoing after it paid £10,000 to Florim Gashi, a criminal who, it is alleged, cooked up a story about a plan to kidnap Victoria Beckham. Five men spent seven months in jail as a result of the false story.

Mr Rusbridger's threat to walk out was followed by a call from Charles Moore, editor of The Daily Telegraph, for the resignation of the PCC director, Guy Black. The PCC's ruling was "very, very bad" and "a completely unnecessary problem that it has created for itself", Mr Moore said. Under Mr Black, the big newspaper groups, dominated by the tabloids, "have too much power and there is too much fixing behind the scenes. I think it is wrong that Guy Black is still director of the PCC."

The Guardian's editor was also supported by Simon Kelner, editor-in-chief of The Independent. He said: "I am puzzled by the PCC's decision to uphold a complaint against The Guardian, which they took on themselves to investigate, the same day as clearing the News of the World of a potentially far more serious breach of the code." The PCC's decision was, he said, "further evidence we should have some sort of independent ombudsman to act as a court of appeal".

Mr Black described the row as "a smokescreen and a red herring", adding: "I have never met an editor who agreed with a critical adjudication against them."