The Media Column: The PCC must return to its roots, when all editors quailed before it

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Few would disagree that the Press Complaints Commission does not live up to the claims of its three-F slogan. Fast: yes.

Few would disagree that the Press Complaints Commission does not live up to the claims of its three-F slogan. Fast: yes. Free: most certainly. Fair: generally speaking the PCC does its best to be evenhanded. No, it is not in the "F" area that the Commission is deficient. It's a few "B"s - as in Bold, Brave and Biting - that need to be incorporated in the imminent revised Editor's Code of Practice.

Funded by the umbrella organisations of the publications it regulates, the Commission has been walking a difficult tightrope ever since it joined the media circus at the beginning of 1991. Snapping at its heels on one side are critics of the press, those for whom self-regulation is anathema and others who believe, with some justification, that the Commission lacks sharp teeth. Fending it off on the other are those it is required to regulate, with the powerful and largely intransigent national press at the forefront.

Standing beneath, and therefore running the risk of getting flattened when the Commission loses its balance, are many workaday journalists who consider the process frustrating for publications and complainants alike. Among these are members of the NUJ chapel at Express Newspapers, which asked the PCC to consider a "conscience clause" that would protect journalists who declined to write certain stories - anti-Romany articles in the Express papers provoked the plea - on moral grounds. PCC acting director Tim Toulmin, since confirmed in the job, observed that the concept was "currently outside the commission's jurisdiction". It will not feature in the new Code.

Well, it should - failure to expand a remit to include such difficult problems as the harassment of journalists by employers deserves adding a fourth "F" - for Fearful of the consequences - to the organisation's slogan.

The deterioration in both authority and public standing has been gradual since the Calcutt Committee damned the old Press Council as being "ineffective as an adjudicating body" almost 14 years ago. That was true enough - Press Council hearings were reminiscent of committee meetings at those traditional gentlemen's clubs where miscreants were given a good dressing down before adjourning to the bar for stiff gins.

With the late Lord McGregor as chairman, Calcutt's advised replacement for the Press Council rapidly displayed muscle its predecessor had lacked. Complainants welcomed a body that promised to fast-track grievances and, where possible, resolve them without reference to the commission's formal monthly meetings. Editors began to think twice about incurring the penalty of publishing in full lengthy adjudications against their papers.

But subsequently, under Lord Wakeham's benign brand of fixing and a cosiness that brought regulators and those it was supposed to regulate uncomfortably close, the PCC's clout has diminished to a point where the public sees it as a veneer that if scraped will reveal only more veneer. As for most editors, the indignity of publishing a rare hostile adjudication is tempered by the knowledge that the public's lack of respect for the regulatory body means there will be little or no reprisal from readers.

Few of the House of Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport's 23 recommendations to the PCC will be implemented. Certainly nothing so contentious as fines for offending publications, which new Chairman Sir Christopher Meyer made clear when declaring that some improvements will be incorporated in the new code.

But it's no good sticking a finger in a dyke that requires several layers of cement. It is crucial that Sir Christopher and Toulmin adopt a programme of radical reform, introducing the kind of measures - greater transparency, investigation of valid complaints from third parties, an independent appeals procedure - that will once more send those demanding statutory controls back into the shadows. "Our customer feedback forms tell us that there is a high degree of satisfaction about the manner in which we deal with complaints," said Sir Christopher recently, "but we're not so complacent as to believe things can never go wrong."

That's a comfort. For if the PCC does not soon regain the confidence of a public that considers the media, and the national press in particular, to be devious, deceitful and ever-anxious to dismiss those it wrongs with a pat on the head and a smile of apology, the solution suggested by one former Fleet Street editor may soon occur to those with axes to grind.

"Perhaps the answer is to do what Jeremy Clarkson [ left] did and take the direct route," he told me. "I'm not really advocating it, but hitting an offending editor could be a lot more satisfying than complaining to the PCC."