Matthew Norman: Press watchdog bites back at toothless claim - Matthew Norman - Opinion - The Independent

Matthew Norman: Press watchdog bites back at toothless claim

It is with some distress that we turn to the unseemly spat between the Media Standards Trust and Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. Sir Christopher took deepest umbrage, you may recall, at the report in which the Trust dismissed the PCC as a toothless old mutt (I translate "unaccountable and opaque" with a little licence) that nuzzles up to its master and rolls over for a tummy rub.

No wonder this elegant soul came as close to sounding cross as his diplomatic politesse allows. This report is a disgrace, the Trust apparently regarding the PCC less as watchdog keeping its eye out for infringements than guard dog devoted to protecting its masters from trouble. What it fails to grasp is that the PCC is the same ferocious paragon of independent scrutiny it's been ever since the days when Guy Black juggled his duties running the show with his obligations as Rebekah Wade's regular holiday companion; when the then People editor Neil Wallis retained his berth on committee long after endorsing the code of practise by publishing long lens shots of Sara Cox naked on honeymoon; and when the PCC brokered the deal whereby Joan Collins abandoned a complaint about a Daily Mail reporter conning her way into her Alzheimer's-stricken mother-in-law's care home bedroom in return for a startlingly generous serialisation deal for her book of beauty tips.

So on behalf of us all, I'd like to congratulate its outgoing chairman on the magisterial disdain with which he dismissed the fact that the PCC upholds one complaint out of every 250 it receives as "the statistics of the madhouse".

Science versus fiction

Yet even the finest bodies have room for improvement, and if Sir Christopher is looking for a swansong, I have an idea. He might consider setting up a sub-committee to monitor scientific reporting. The allegation that Dr Andrew Wakefield flammed up the evidence on which he based his claim about the link between the MMR jab and autism reminds us that a public apology for peddling that cobblers is expected imminently from Mad Mel Phillips and others. But it can't be right to depute the task of exposing misleading and plain deceitful reporting to the likes of Ben Goldacre, brilliantly though he writes about bad science. A few formal guidelines designed to prevent papers manufacturing further public health crises might be handy.

Neo-cons out in the cold

It isn't only our lot who put in the work on scientific study, of course, and the scent of the rigour the frothing right bring to its researches drifts over from the US where Fred Barnes of the neo-con Weekly Standard has attacked Al Gore. "The more the case for man-made global warming falls apart," writes Fred, the only high-profile American pundit to predict a John McCain win on the eve of the election, "the more hysterical Gore gets about an imminent catastrophe." Invited to flesh out "falling apart" by Talking Points Memo, Fred explained – and the point will be familiar to fans of our own top ranked journo-climatologists – that it's been a bit chilly lately. Asked for further particulars, he mentioned a "cooling spell", but refused to cite the evidence on the grounds that "I'm not going to do your research for you" before hanging up.

Diction in the dock

Rumpole fans will rejoice to hear that the novelist Kathy Lette, who continues to battle Genital Tourette's so bravely, hopes to complete a story left unfinished by her friend John Mortimer. It's such a natural fit. "It is for you, members of the jury, and for you alone, to decide whether the defendant should be convicted for no more than for a tragic addiction to atrocious punnilingus..." "Mr Rumpole," erupted the Mad Bull, his face its familiar shade of crimson, "What did you just say?" "Only that my client has magical diction, M'Lud, and is a most cunning linguist." "Very well, Mr Rumpole, I suppose you'd better continue." Can't wait.

School of hard knocks

I was saddened by the tone of Pandora's account on Friday about Derek Draper losing his rag with the Guardian's David Hencke. Derek was upset at the revelation that he succumbed to confusion about his academic qualifications, claiming his MA in clinical psychology came from the world-renowned Berkeley branch of the University of California, rather than a less revered college in the vicinity. Frankly, it ill behoves any of us to impute even a tinge of Archerian charlatanism to one who journeyed from Peter Mandelson's best little helper to mental health practitioner via a stint selling New Age crystals in Los Angeles. Derek's back in the fold now, tutoring Labour folk in the arts of communication, and no wonder. Jabbing a finger at a respected political reporter and promising to end his career ... ach, you just can't put a price on that level of media-handling expertise.

Lecturing the point home

If there's one area on which Dolly might lavish his didactic talents, I don't think we're hearing anything like enough of the phrases "I've been very clear about this already," "as I've stated very clearly," "the point I made, John, and I don't think I could have been any clearer...," from the likes of Yvette Cooper, David Miliband and the PM himself. If some genius at High Command believes that these formulations more than compensate for oblique and impenetrable waffling, the message clearly hasn't got through yet.

No Bender to the madness

A civil servant by the name of Brian Bender stars in a splendidly synthetic scandal about corporate hospitality, finally, and a line at the bottom of a Daily Mail page reads "Littlejohn returns next week". Is there not a shred of justice in this wicked old world?

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