Press watchdog chief defends Gately ruling

The chairwoman of the press watchdog today hit back at claims that the organisation is "toothless".

Writing in an open letter to accompany the Press Complaints Commission (PCC)'s annual review, Baroness Buscombe spoke of the "difficult but important" case of columnist Jan Moir's comments about Stephen Gately in the Daily Mail.

More than 25,000 complaints, an unprecedented number, were received by the PCC from members of the public including the late Boyzone star's partner Andrew Cowles.

But the PCC ruled that Moir's opinions - headlined: "Why there was nothing 'natural' about Stephen Gately's death" - had not breached press guidelines.

Gately died of natural causes last October at his holiday home on the island of Majorca.

Baroness Buscombe wrote: "In the end, the commission considered that newspapers had the right to publish opinions that many might find unpalatable and offensive, and that it would not be proportionate, in this case, to rule against the free expression of the columnist's views on a subject that was the focus of intense public attention.

"This was a difficult decision to make but I believe we made the right one."

The Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel, which issued a report in February, criticised some of the work of the PCC but recommended beefing up its powers.

It singled out coverage of Madeleine McCann's disappearance in Portugal in 2007 as an example of the PCC's "lack of teeth".

But Baroness Buscombe said it was a "fallacy" that the PCC is toothless.

She said: "An upheld complaint is a serious outcome for any editor and puts down a marker for future press behaviour...

"The fact that breaches of the code can lead to public criticism means that editors have to consider the key ethical issues before publishing.

"We see this happening every day when calls for advice come in from editors to complaints staff at the PCC.

"We regularly hear about stories that are not published, intrusions that do not take place, thanks to the terms of the code and the decisions of the PCC."

Baroness Buscombe said a free press is a central component of a healthy democracy and "the undesirability of a statutory press regulator is very clear".

She added: "One can't help but notice that the principle of self-regulation has taken a knock recently in reporting of the Parliamentary expenses scandal and the banking crisis.

"It would be wholly wrong, however, to draw lessons from those unfortunate episodes for regulation of the press."

She said self-imposed restraint on the part of editors was the right way to deal with difficult cases, rather than "heavy handed" statutory regulation.

The annual review found that last year more people contacted the PCC to raise concerns than ever before.

Overall, the commission initiated 1,134 investigations in 2009, up from 949 in 2008.

Last year there were 738 complaints which raised a possible breach of the terms of the editors' code of practice, compared with 678 in 2008.

In 2009, 609 of the complaints were amicably settled when the newspaper or magazine took remedial action which satisfied the complainant, compared with 552 complaints resolved in this way in 2008.

In the remaining 129 cases last year, the PCC ruled there had been a breach of the code.

But in 111 of those cases, remedial action was considered sufficient by the commission and public censure was only seen as necessary in 18 cases, compared with 24 in 2008.

The PCC's survey of corrections and apologies it has negotiated in 2009 showed 83.9% appeared either further forward than the offending material, on the same page, or in a dedicated corrections column.

The commission last year received 777 complaints that it could not deal with because they were outside its remit - including ones about TV, advertising and Sudoku puzzles.