Media Viewpoint: The commission has no clothes

THE PRESS Complaints Commission has this much in common with the Duchess of York: Daniel Angeli's long-lens pictures last week revealed them both with embarrassingly few clothes.

The commission's muted response to the publication of the pictures, first in the Daily Mirror and then in other tabloids, is in sharp contrast to its ex cathedra statements about this summer's other two big stories involving press ethics - reports of friction in the Prince of Wales's marriage and the liaison between David Mellor, Secretary of State for National Heritage, and Antonia de Sancha, an actress.

In the first case Lord McGregor, the commission chairman, accused journalists of 'dabbling their fingers in the stuff of other people's souls' by commenting so freely on the Princess of Wales's alleged unhappiness. In the second an emergency meeting of the commission was called, ending in an oddly ambivalent statement that distinguished between the rights to privacy enjoyed by private citizens and public figures - although Lord McGregor insisted this was not a specific comment on the Mellor case.

Last week there was no formal statement on the Duchess of York pictures, nor has there been this week about the publication of alleged transcripts of intimate telephone conversations involving the Princess of Wales. When the commission holds its regular monthly meeting today, the cases will be discussed but no public pronouncement is likely.

As the victims of the intrusion have not complained to the commission, it is not obliged to issue a formal ruling. Yet the issues involved in the use of long-lens cameras and secret recording devices are easily as important as those in the two earlier cases.

Lord McGregor's reticence this time is attributable to the tensions created within the commission by the first two cases. Unsurprisingly, there is scarcely any common ground on these matters between the two national tabloid editors who sit on the commission - Patsy Chapman of the News of the World and Brian Hitchen of the Daily Star - and the broadsheet editors and lay members. Ms Chapman and Mr Hitchen did not wholly agree with Lord McGregor's statement about the earlier Princess of Wales stories.

Mark Bolland, the newly appointed director of the PCC, plays down the significance of the differing reactions.

'We've had 59 written complaints about the Duchess of York pictures, and about 60 on the phone,' he said yesterday. 'Some say it's intrusive and others ask why they can't leave her alone. Some don't like the semi- naked pictures on the front pages of their tabloids, but the commission doesn't rule on matters of taste. A lot of the people who've phoned today and yesterday also objected to the reports on Princess Diana's taped conversation.

'But the earlier Princess of Wales story was different. That was speculative and entirely rumour- based reporting about the state of her marriage. There was greater public concern about it. We had 400 calls - a reaction we've never had before.

'There's much less sympathy for the Duchess than there was for the Princess of Wales. It wasn't anyone from the British press who took the pictures and it's difficult to stop them appearing here once they have been published elsewhere.'

Yet most people would view long- range picture-snatching as a greater invasion of privacy than retailing gossip. It is odd for a quasi- judicial body such as the PCC to decide how to proceed on the basis of the comparative popularity of the victims of intrusion.

It was noticeable how the tone of the discussion about the pictures changed rapidly when people realised just how unpopular the Duchess was. On the morning they were first published, the question being asked by radio and television interviewers was the same as that asked after the Princess of Wales and David Mellor stories: 'Has the press shot itself in the foot?'

Governments have long dangled the threat of privacy legislation over the media. Sir David Calcutt - whose 1990 report on privacy recommended a law barring the use of snatched pictures - is examining whether the PCC has 'worked' since it replaced the Press Council last year. Whenever a big new scandal breaks, the first question asked is whether it will be the final straw leading to legislation.

On this occasion the question soon disappeared from the airwaves. It is inconceivable that the Government would introduce legislation to protect the unpopular Duchess, and word was soon passed down from Whitehall that the Cabinet does not at present have such laws in mind.

This was comforting news for Lord McGregor, whose mission is to stave off legislative restrictions on the freedom of the press. Yet in the longer term the events of the past week have not augured well for the commission's role in press self- regulation.

Lord McGregor's embarrassing interview on Radio 4's Today on the morning the Mirror's pictures appeared, in which he declared himself unable to make any substantive comment, shows how hamstrung he has become by the lack of consensus among the commission's members. If the PCC cannot take a stand on the vital issues affecting press behaviour, questions are bound to be raised about its future.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Sauce Recruitment: Programme Sales Executive - Independent Distributor

£25000 - £28000 per annum + circa 28K + 20% bonus opportunity: Sauce Recruitme...

SThree: Talent Acquisition Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K: SThree: Are you an ambitious, money mot...

Guru Careers: Investment Writer / Stock Picker

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: A freelance Investment Writer / Stock Picker ...

Guru Careers: PPC Account Executive / Paid Search Executive

£20 - 24K + Benefits: Guru Careers: An enthusiastic PPC Account / Paid Search ...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project