Media: Who will take up the PCC chalice?: Wanted: person to defend press freedoms and uphold standards. Maggie Brown reports

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The Independent Online
THE JOB pays pounds 55,000 a year, probably more if you have a finely tuned ability to divine where the line runs between that which is public and that which is private. The successful candidate is guaranteed instant exposure on television and radio: crisp one- liners will be much appreciated.

Who is to be the next chairman of the Press Complaints Commission? The question is being asked with urgency after Lord McGregor's ham-fisted intervention over the Princess Diana/nuisance phone call affair. Some members of the beleaguered PCC and the influential editors and newspaper executives who all have an interest in upholding a credible system of self-regulation are privately at the end of their tether.

They say Lord McGregor's admission on Monday's Radio 4 Today programme, that he had not actually read the News of the World story, was plain embarrassing, as was his long-windedness. They wish that he had learnt the lessons of previous ill-judged interventions and simply declined to comment, but they accept that, at 71, he is unlikely to develop the new skill of avoiding live microphones.

But the worst outcome, for an industry still jittery after 20 months of the Government's fumbling intentions over privacy legislation, has been to place the system of press regulation in the public spotlight all over again, while the real story revolves around odd allegations about Princess Diana's conduct, and which agency leaked the story.

The discreet headhunters Spencer Stuart and Associates were briefed two months ago to start their trawl, though the process of change actually began in November 1993. It was then that the Commission was itself besieged by throngs of press and photographers as the PCC held an angry meeting about the Princess Diana gym pictures furore: Lord McGregor had actually backed a suggestion that advertisers boycott the offending Mirror newspapers. Mirror Group retaliated by briefly leaving the PCC system. For a brief but uncomfortable time it even seemed that self-regulation itself might crack apart.

After this several newspaper commissioners pressed successfully for one of their most sensible and discreet members, Professor Robert Pinker (a social work professor at the London School of Economics) to be given the special role of Privacy Commissioner. Aided by a fast- track investigation system he has, since January, fielded touchy issues with efficiency, but some sources say he is apparently not considered to be a prominent enough name for the top job. As the search began Lord McGregor was given a further annual extension (he began in 1991 on a three-year term, subsequently extended), until the end of 1995. Some members say they would like to have a credible candidate in place for the beginning of 1995.

You might think that there are any number of the great and good eager to shoulder the role. But those in the know insist the job is particularly difficult to fill. The new chair must not be a politician. His or her key attribute must be a fierce determination to defend press freedom and the painfully acquired tradition of effective self-regulation which the PCC, (since emerging from the chrysalis of the Press Council in 1991), is labouring to establish. The industry also fights shy of ambitious lawyers or ex- judges: fiercely critical reports on newspaper standards provided over the last five years by Sir David Calcutt QC, (most recently in the Council of Legal Education lecture of July 17) have only made this aversion more extreme. It wants somebody young (well, 50-ish) and vigorous.

The fact is that Lord McGregor embodied many of these key qualities when picked for the job by an inner bunch of newspaper industry heavyweights. Most critically, he has done enough, just, to hold off the Government so far. He has served his purpose, hence the pressure for change.