How long will it be before we’re looking back to the golden days of the Press Complaints Commission?

Ipso must avoid any show trial, where it seeks to make an example of its first target

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The Independent Online

When I visited the offices of the Press Complaints Commission last week, there was Julie Spence, the former chief constable of Cambridgeshire, chairing a meeting of the doomed watchdog’s complaints officers.

It would probably be a surprise to many members of the public to know that a senior police figure holds a prominent role at the PCC, especially given the way the newspaper industry has lately so fiercely resisted outside interference in its affairs. But this is a complicated subject that is frequently oversimplified.

The PCC is winding down and yet it is busier than ever, as its workload is driven by the unprecedented attention given to the subject of press regulation – mostly on the pages and websites of the commission’s own members.

It’s certainly a strange time for the PCC’s chairman, Lord Hunt, for Michael McManus, its executive director (transition), and for its 16 members of staff. The Society of Editors’ annual conference heard last week that publishers will be signing up to the new Independent Press Standards Organisation between now and Christmas. The architects of Ipso claim that the new body will have “near-universal support” from the industry.

By next spring, 23 years after it was founded, the PCC will be no more. It has had an unhappy history and has palpably not been the credible replacement for the Press Council that was intended. The council lasted 38 years before it, too, was wound up.

The PCC is frequently derided as part of a cosy club that would never risk the ire of the industry which funds it. It oversees a code of practice written by a committee of senior editors, chaired by the Daily Mail editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre.

The Mail’s recent coverage of the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, and his father, Ralph, prompted a flood of complaints to the PCC. The commission is not a regulator; it is a complaints handling body. Its ethos is public service. The complaints officers – sitting around a table with former chief constable Spence, thrashing out timetables and strategies for the more complicated cases in the PCC’s in-tray – are remarkably young. They are recent law and arts graduates, mostly in their first jobs and wanting to make a difference.

When a member of the public rings the PCC, their first point of contact will invariably be Mel Huggett, whom colleagues praise for the empathy she has developed in handling callers who might be deeply distressed by a press intrusion into a personal tragedy. In some cases, it is clearly quite inappropriate to tell a caller that they must, in the first instance, take the matter up with the same publisher that caused them upset. Complainants are assigned a personal complaints officer and are able to liaise directly with that individual as their case progresses. Public satisfaction with the service is running at around 80 per cent.

But there is a risk that some of that personal service could be lost with the switch to Ipso, which will be a regulator (the press industry’s first). Its complaints-handling mechanism will be only one of its functions. So it is all the more important that the expertise of the PCC staff is carried over to the new body.

Can Ipso succeed where the PCC didn’t? It is being set up by an industry that has openly defied Parliament over regulation reform. The new body faces an enormous credibility battle. Its reputation will be shaped in two main areas. First, the individuals who serve on its board – after an appointments process that will take about eight weeks in the early New Year – will be crucial to whether Ipso commands public confidence.

Second, it will need to show it has teeth. Ipso will have powers to investigate newspapers and magazines suspected of serious wrongdoing. This will mean assembling a team akin to the “Grey Panthers” used by the financial services regulator. They are likely to be a mixture of upstanding industry veterans, with possibly some former BBC figures, and seasoned investigators such as former police officers. Julie Spence will not be such a rarity in the industry.

The panthers will no doubt be eager to pounce. But here lies a problem. Some argue that the big press scandals (the last-chance saloon, phone hacking) come along once in a generation. Ipso might have to wait a long while for its first big case. If it launches an investigation that leads to no punishment, it will be dismissed as the industry’s pet.

But a voluntary scheme such as Ipso – which will have powers to impose fines up to £1m – must also avoid any kind of show trial, where it seeks to make an example of its first target. That could cause publishers to start tearing up their contracts, leaving press regulation once again in tatters.

The sun has yet to set on Simon

The Americans might be tiring of The X Factor but Britain, it seems, still can’t get enough of Simon Cowell.

ITV’s latest deal with Cowell’s Syco means that the irrepressible television mogul will dominate the broadcaster’s Saturday night schedule until the end of 2016. Having committed to three more years of Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor, ITV’s director of television, Peter Fincham, described the shows as “the gold standard for entertainment production”.

At the Edinburgh Television Festival in August, he complained that the biggest TV shows were of a similar vintage – “a narrow period at the beginning of the last decade” – and their continued appeal was limiting the opportunity for new hits to break through. Fincham can’t rely on Cowell for ever, and has lined up the Israeli talent format Rising Star to complement the two Syco shows.

Cowell is on the panel of The X Factor USA but the show has lost ratings and is expected to be axed by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network. The ITV extension allows him to return as a judge on the UK version, in addition to being on the panel of BGT.

ITV must be delighted. Cowell’s celebrity status in Britain never wanes and the tabloids obsess over his personal life. As news broke of Syco’s latest deal, Cowell’s “sensational” divorce settlement was front-page news in the Daily Mirror. When he becomes a dad at 54, it will be another huge tabloid story.

Fincham might be backing two tested formats but he’s also making an investment in the “S Factor”. And, in Britain, that guarantees a return.

Twitter: @iburrell

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