We failed on phone hacking, admits chair of press watchdog

Baroness Buscombe tells Andrew Grice the PCC is ready to act

Baroness Buscombe, the chair of the Press Complaints Commission, has admitted that it failed to uncover the extent of telephone hacking by journalists and has vowed that the PCC will finally crack down on the practice.

The Conservative peer hit back at growing criticism from MPs and editors that the industry’s self-regulatory body had proved a “toothless watchdog” by failing to get to the bottom of the hacking allegations during its two investigations in 2007 and 2009. The PCC accepted the News of the World’s assurance that people’s voicemail messages was only listened to by one “rogue reporter” – a version of events discredited by waves of revelations.

In an interview with The Independent yesterday, Baroness Buscombe pledged that a review group set up by the PCC would succeed where its previous inquiries had failed. “I am not happy. I won’t be happy until we have some answers,” she said.“It is very tough for us. We are up for the challenge. We are deadly serious about this.” She added: “Phone hacking brings shame on the whole journalistic profession.”

On the PCC’s two inquiries, she admitted: “It looks like we were not fully informed… It would be wrong for me to pre-judge now whether the lack of information was intentional or mistaken. We just don’t know. I hope there will be some resolution of this.”

Was the PCC fobbed off? “I don’t know,” she replied. She is determined to find out – and to prove the watchdog is not afraid to bark. “I know we are not [toothless]. That is something we have to work on daily.”

Asked whether there was a “conspiracy of silence” among other newspapers gave little coverage to the News of the World story because they used hacking, she replied: “We will find out. I hope you are hearing my tone.”

A three-strong PCC panel has begun to review what the commission was told during its 2007 and 2009 inquiries so that can be cross-checked against what has emerged since. It will not publish its findings until after the Metropolitan Police have completed their fresh investigation. But the PCC will not wait until after the civil court cases being brought by public figures who allege they were victims of hacking, which could take years.

Although the PCC itself is getting a bad press, Baroness Buscombe will not be “bounced” into premature conclusions, she said. “When the police have completed their investigation, we will then be in a unique position to draw together the strands. I hope out of all of this, not only that we can improve standards, but if there has been a culture that is totally unacceptable, we will demand and help influence change in that culture.”

She dismissed fears that her slimline body with 17 staff and a £1.9m-a-year budget might lack the resources to find out the extent of hacking. She hinted that the PCC might also look at wider issues – for example, whether the criminal law can keep pace with advances in technology, an issue also raised by the torrent of disclosures by the WikiLeaks website.

To the editors and MPs who have accused the PCC of inaction over hacking, she replied: “We did not turn a blind eye and we are not supine.” She added: “I don’t expect editors to say nice things about me. I am the regulator. The day they start being charming is when we have to worry.”

Unlike David Cameron, she has not been to dinner at the Oxfordshire home of Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International. “I will meet with editors to discuss different issues but I will not socialise with them,” she said. She would not comment on Mr Cameron’s Christmas visit, other than to say that her guiding principle is that “no undue influence” should be brought to bear.

Baroness Buscombe accepted that the credibility of the PCC is being questioned but insisted that it should not be seen solely through the prism of the hacking scandal. She is “very proud” of its often unseen work protecting the public from intrusion and harassment by newspapers and broadcasters and preventing publication of injustified stories.

She warned commentators calling for statutory regulation of the press to “be careful what you wish for,” adding: “The minute you have interference from the state you are on a really rocky road—a diminution of the free press which an open democracy demands.”

Baroness Buscombe denied that the current system means that newspapers regulate themselves. “The code of practice itself is written by the press. We are the enforcers. We are fiercely independent.”

The PCC chairman insisted that the commission’s sanctions were effective but did not rule out adding more in the wake of the hacking affair. “We don’t have a closed door on what we can do to demand that the press step up to the plate,” she said.