The Media Column: 'The PCC does not seem to be thinking straight at the moment'

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The Independent Online

The last time we found ourselves on the verge of a walk-out from the Press Complaints Commission, the language was rather different. The year was 1993, and the Sunday Mirror and its daily stablemate had just published sneaky hole-in-the-wall pictures of Diana, Princess of Wales, sweaty and working out in a gym. In a rush of blood to the head, Lord McGregor, who was then the PCC chairman, had called on advertisers to boycott Mirror Group Newspapers in protest.

The daily Mirror, under the editor David Banks, hit back with dazzling fury at the "pious hypocrisy" it claimed to see before it. Lord McGregor, "the man whose job is supposed to be defending press freedom", was an "arch-buffoon". The PCC had been "exposed as a body which exists to protect the liars among our disreputable rivals."

In its splenetic rage, Mirror Group Newspapers withdrew from the PCC, then only two years old.

The resignation lasted a full two days. For the lack of unanimity was a frightening prospect for an industry living in fear of politicians eager to legislate newspapers into good behaviour.

The behind-the-scenes fixer was Sir David English, then editor of the Daily Mail, who neatly brought about a full set of apologies, a ceasefire and a return to the fold.

Ten years on, we have another resignation in the offing. This time, the angry newspaper is a broadsheet, the language is more sober - and the behaviour of the PCC is more questionable.

Last week, the organisation censured The Guardian for paying £720 to a prison inmate for a diary about life alongside Lord Archer.

The paper's piece was a response to Archer's own decision to publish his prison diary in the Daily Mail. "He is a convicted perjurer, and it seems reasonable that other people ought to be at liberty to challenge his version of events," saidThe Guardian's editor, Alan Rusbridger.

A perfectly sensible argument, you might think; and even the PCC has no objections to the publication of the piece. It is the £720 that made it unacceptable, since such a payment allegedly breaches article 17 of the PCC code, which bans newspapers from paying money to criminals, "except where the material concerned ought to be published in the public interest and payment is necessary for this to be done".

Now, Rusbridger has been asked to hand over copies of a column that he has been running for three years by the life-sentence prisoner "Erwin James", who writes with the full blessing of the prison authorities. If the PCC rules against James's column (below), The Guardian will resign from the PCC. "If we couldn't pay Erwin James to write his columns, then I think that would be it," says Rusbridger. "Whether it would be temporary or permanent, I don't know."

The PCC does not seem to be thinking straight at the moment. On the day it ruled against The Guardian, the news came that it is to exonerate the News of the World for paying rather more than £720 - £10,000, in fact - to a convicted criminal who then went on to encourage a group of his dodgy acquaintances to boast about a so-called plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham. As a result of the story, and a consequent police investigation, those men spent seven months in jail before the case was thrown out for lack of evidence - and the judge reported the News of the World to the Attorney General.

And just a few days before the Guardian and News of the World rulings, the PCC mystifyingly ruled that the Daily Record had breached its rules on payments to criminals - but chose not to censure the paper for the transgression.

It may be simplistic to observe that the two papers "let off" were tabloid titles owned by big newspaper groups. But it may not be. There are rumblings of discontent among other broadsheet editors. All of them appear to believe that the relationship between the PCC's director, Guy Black - who has in the past been on holiday with The Sun's editor, Rebekah Wade - and the tabloids is just too cosy. Charles Moore, editor of The Daily Telegraph, is among the more restless. Last week, he reiterated his call for Black to step down, telling me: "The big groups have too much power in the PCC, and there is too much fixing behind the scenes."

Even Robert Thomson, editor of The Times - and thus answerable to the same boss, Rupert Murdoch, as the editors of the News of the World and The Sun - has written that "it would be wise for... the officers of the PCC to keep a discreet distance from the newspapers they oversee."

Thomson, like Moore and Simon Kelner, editor of this newspaper, stresses that he wants to see self-regulation work.

You'd be mad to expect a sudden mass walk-out from the PCC. But the industry is becoming ever more polarised - and if the two ends of the market cannot bear to be governed by the same regulator one day, the vacuum will be filled by politicians.