Media: Hoodwinkers versus regulators: The Press Complaints Commission is being blamed for failing in a task it was not meant to tackle, say Maggie Brown and Michael Leapman

SIR DAVID CALCUTT has had a swift lesson in the perils of trying to impose Queensberry Rules on the perfidious press. No sooner was there a leak of his proposal to replace the Press Complaints Commission with a statutory body than a letter to him from Lord McGregor, its chairman, was in turn leaked to the Guardian (whose editor, Peter Preston, is a member of the commission).

In the letter, sent to Sir David before Christmas, Lord McGregor claimed he had incontrovertible evidence that at least one of the royal scandals which caused so much tut-tutting among press critics last year was (horror) disclosed by the members of the Royal Family involved. What is more, members of the Royal Household whose word he trusted told him barefaced lies about it. That, he says, is why, after his emotional condemnation of the stories about the marriage difficulties of the Prince and Princess of Wales, he kept his counsel.

Maybe, but that is not the whole story. Another reason why his first denunciation was his last was that tabloid editors on the commission - notably Patsy Chapman of the News of the World - did not agree with it, and said so in outspoken terms. If self-regulation was to mean anything, Lord McGregor had to keep the tabloids onside.

Whatever the role of the royals in spreading that story, they clearly had no part in circulating the long-lens pool-side pictures of the Duchess of York and her financial adviser. Nor, as far as is known, was there royal collusion in the circulation of the tapes of secretly recorded phone calls made by the Prince and Princess of Wales to close friends.

The McGregor letter is certainly evidence of an attempt to manipulate the press at the highest level. But does it, as Lord McGregor clearly hopes, demolish Sir David Calcutt's proposals for a statutory press tribunal, and reprieve the two- year-old PCC?

The PCC, an odd mix of newspaper editors and the great and good, is being blamed for failing in a task it was not meant to be tackling. The nature of the problems the commission was supposed to address was already changing by the time it came into being in 1991, and changed even more rapidly in the ensuing months.

What prompted the Government to appoint the Calcutt committee in 1989 was a series of flagrant breaches of personal privacy by the tabloid press, involving intrusion and harassment of victims ranging from the celebrated to the unknown. Setting up the PCC, with an agreed code of practice enforced by less cumbersome procedures than those of the old Press Council, was only one of the recommendations of the first Calcutt report, published in 1990.

There was a key difference between the proposals and the reality. Lord McGregor insisted that the press itself choose the commission members and draw up the code of conduct. Sir David wanted both those tasks carried out by an outside body. Even then, he doubted whether it would work. If, as he suspected, there turned out to be 'a less than overwhelming rate of compliance' with the new code, a statutory tribunal would have to be created.

In fact there has been broad compliance with the code, as far as it goes. Lord McGregor is justified in claiming that since 1991 there has been less intrusion into the lives of private people. Most complaints to the commission have related, as they customarily do, to inaccurate reporting rather than ethical issues. PCC rulings have been swift and sensible and have won wide respect, although some have found it too cavalier in dismissing the right of public people to private lives.

However, public concern was diverted into a new area - the obsessive reporting of the personal lives of the Royal Family, particularly by means of bugged telephones and long-lens cameras. The PCC has few weapons for dealing with this, since its code does not cover news-gathering by such means.

Indeed, the first Calcutt report had never envisaged that it should. Sir David recommended instead specific laws to bar both the surreptitious use of surveillance devices and photographing people without permission on private property with long-lens cameras operated from outside. These laws would be enforced by the courts, with no need to create a separate tribunal.

The Government, needing the goodwill of the press with an election in the offing, did not act on those suggestions. Had it done so, it might have been possible to prosecute the papers that broke the royal scandals last year. So it is bad luck on the PCC that it is being judged a failure for not providing a remedy for abuses that are technically out of its remit.

Patsy Chapman, the most powerful tabloid editor to play a founding role in the PCC, said yesterday that the Guardian's revelations had come as a shock, even though she knew the Princess of Wales had colluded in Andrew Morton's book from an early date.

'It was not until this morning that I realised . . . that Lord McGregor had been hoodwinked by the Government and the Royal Family; or that John Major, Lord Wakeham (leader of the House of Lords and chairman of the cabinet committee on Home Affairs) and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all had been involved.'

Although she was head of the committee that drew up the newspaper code of conduct, she had not been personally consulted before the emergency statement on the Royal Family put out last June by the PCC. Lord McGregor had attempted unsuccessfully to contact her.

Ms Chapman said: 'I think it shows that Calcutt's proposals for statutory controls should be ridiculed. How can you accuse newspapers when at times the royals want to present their best side in their favourite papers?

'The Press Complaints Commission should continue. But there should be a few ordinary bods on it - people who actually buy and read newspapers, who understand that their contents are a package, a mixture; part investigation, part entertainment, part scandal.'

What about papers taking sides? 'Newspapers have just got to run stories. If Diana rang me, I'd run it. If Prince Charles rang me next day, I'd run that, too,' Ms Chapman said.

Professor Robert Pinker, from the London School of Economics, a member of the PCC, was also surprised about the degree of misinformation. He fully supported the statement at the time, working on the assumption that there had been no royal leaking. 'Later, we thought we'd perhaps overreacted.'

Had the commission been damaged? 'I don't think it has. What has happened in the last 48 hours has not damaged but added to the strength of the case (for self- regulation). But this experience will certainly make us more sceptical in future.'

(Photograph omitted)

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