The Media Column: 'People have lost faith in the press, and only the PCC can give it back'

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There is a great deal of common sense in the Culture Select Committee's report on privacy and intrusion. The Press Complaints Commission, for all it's pre-publication whining, will be a stronger organisation if it takes on board the main recommendations of Gerald Kaufman's committee. Many of the proposals - an independent ombudsman, acting as a court of appeal; compulsory front-page "tasters" directing readers toward (more prominent) PCC adjudications inside newspapers; league tables of offenders and the removal of persistent wrongdoers from the PCC code committee; a system of fines for serious crimes - appear shrewd and far-sighted. The idea of increased membership subscriptions to the PCC for newspapers that consistently demand its attention is an inventive twist - and one, of course, that is bound to go down well with the "posh papers", the type that do not send photographers in search of topless celebrities on private beaches.

The sad fact is that people have lost faith in the press. It is only Sir Christopher Meyer and his PCC that can give it back to them. At the moment, self-regulation of the press has been seen by the general public as special pleading. Newspaper editors serving on the PCC, all the while calling for transparency in other areas of life, have been perceived as looking after their own.

If we can make the PCC work, we will not need the privacy law that Kaufman and co are calling for. The use of law to solve such problems is expensive and blunt - and runs the risk of being used to protect rich businessmen seeking to cover up corruption, instead of being available for the "deserving poor".

In any case, as anyone but Kaufman will tell you, there is little chance at the moment of such a law being passed. It is only political reporters who use the words "powerful" and "influential" to describe select committees (and then only to encourage their news desks to run with their stories).

In truth, they have no power and little influence - they are merely advisory. And we know where the Prime Minister and his Culture Secretary stand on the matter of privacy legislation. They are against it - and are unlikely to have had their minds changed yesterday.

* You'd be forgiven for feeling sorry for them. I know they are lawyers - and thus deserve the same grisly deaths due to estate agents and second-hand-car salesmen (and, oh yes, journalists) - but I do worry about the treatment meted out to the people at the Criminal Prosecution Service.

The CPS is being attacked in some of the tabloids for bringing Trupti Patel, the mother found not guilty of killing three of her babies, to court.

"Never again," declared the Daily Mirror's page-one headline. A leader column - "Prosecution in the dock" - was furious. "There can be no compensating Mrs Patel for the ordeal of her trial... [her] treatment shames the people who are supposed to uphold justice in this country." The Daily Mail declined to offer an opinion in its leader column, but did what it does best - infused its news reports with its views on the subject. Just take a look at the headlines - "I shouldn't have stood trial", "Five long years of pain and suspicion" and "Gaps in science are leading to 'witch-hunts' ".

Not for the first time, the very fact that the person in the dock has been acquitted is taken by the press as proof that charges should never have been brought in the first place.

Why should that automatically be the case?

I rather like the idea of 12 strangers being made to listen to the evidence and decide for themselves the guilt or innocence of someone. And if they declare an innocent verdict, that does not mean the question should never have been asked.

It is painful to write, but the most sensible comment on the Patel case came from The Sun. "Those who say the case against her should not have been brought miss an important point... without a jury clearing her name, Mrs Patel would have faced a lifetime of whispers."

Anyway, isn't it the same CPS that is criticised for dropping too many cases for lack of evidence?

* The pictures of Ian Huntley in his prison cell printed in the News of the World were certainly striking. The apparent security lapse that allowed a reporter from the newspaper to get so close to him ought to be investigated.

But one worry, and it is a serious one: will members of a jury, having seen the photographs of the suspect plastered over seven pages, have difficulty in reminding themselves that Huntley is an innocent man unless and until proven guilty?

I know what I would be arguing if I were Huntley's lawyer.

v.graff@independent.co.uk

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