Strange case of the TV pundit and the saucy vicars that weren't

It's time to lay some myths about the Press Complaints Commission, says its new director Tim Toulman
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The Independent Online

I sometimes wonder whether there are two Press Complaints Commissions in the United Kingdom. One is the institution for which I have worked for the past eight years, and of which I have recently been appointed director. And the other is a craven creature which is well-meaning but intimidated by tabloid newspapers, and is paralysed by a lack of power and feeble-minded commissioners. This is a body that I do not recognise, but one that I am realistic enough to know exists as far as some people are concerned.

I sometimes wonder whether there are two Press Complaints Commissions in the United Kingdom. One is the institution for which I have worked for the past eight years, and of which I have recently been appointed director. And the other is a craven creature which is well-meaning but intimidated by tabloid newspapers, and is paralysed by a lack of power and feeble-minded commissioners. This is a body that I do not recognise, but one that I am realistic enough to know exists as far as some people are concerned.

Why else would Sir Christopher Meyer, the PCC's chairman, be quizzed aggressively on television last week about why the PCC had done nothing to prevent details of the private life of saucy vicars from being exposed in the tabloid press? It certainly gives one pause for thought. But who are these vicars? What was the public interest inherent in exposing their sauciness, and why have they not complained to the PCC?

The truth is, they don't exist, except as a kind of stereotype. The whole story was just a caricature to illustrate one, wholly partial, point of view about how the press behaves - although it was presented in such a way that viewers of the programme would have been forgiven for believing it.

This sort of thing bothers me, because the more that these myths seep into the public consciousness, the greater the danger that members of the public who need our help will be put off complaining to us.

That would be a shame. For the real PCC - the one for which I work - has an excellent story to tell in terms of its customer service and the way it can help people who are the subject of inaccurate or intrusive news stories. This must not be mistaken for complacency - the press and the PCC are a long way from perfect, as Christopher Meyer has acknowledged on a number of occasions. Reforms are well under way to make the commission more accessible, more accountable, and more transparent. These are taking place precisely because we realise that not all of the criticisms that have been levelled at us in the past have been groundless. As a non-statutory body we have the flexibility to improve our service quickly in any area if the need arises.

But the fact remains that we already have a strong track record of protecting the public: offering advice to people 24 hours a day, every day of the year; co-ordinating the removal of media scrums from people's doorsteps (something Ofcom is prevented by law from doing); persuading editors to resolve 96 per cent of cases where there has been a possible breach of the press Code of Practice; and issuing tough adjudications against editors of all types of newspaper when necessary.

Such is the level of public confidence in the commission that people are coming to us in record numbers - 39 per cent more last year than 2002. Even a committee of MPs - not normally natural allies of the press and the PCC - concluded after an exhaustive inquiry last year that "overall, standards of press behaviour, the Code and the performance of the Press Complaints Commission have improved over the last decade".

My appointment to the directorship of the PCC is anopportunity to restate this. We offer a fast, free and fair service to try to resolve problems that members of the public might have with the press.

I do hope that apocryphal tales of saucy vicars will not deter people from finding this out for themselves.

Contact the Press Complaints Commission at 1 Salisbury Square, London EC4Y 8JB (020-7353 3732; email complaints@pcc.org.uk)

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