the Media Column: 'The rich can take their complaints to lawyers. The poor must trust the PCC'

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The Independent Online

It wasn't much of a swap: 64 words of apology in exchange for having "ruined all memories of my honeymoon for the rest of my life". Little wonder then that Sara Cox wasn't satisfied.

So she took her disagreement with The People newspaper to court. Last week, 20 months after the paper published long-lens pictures of the Radio 1 disc jockey lying naked on a private beach in the Seychelles, she emerged victorious. In a legal settlement under article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which protects an individual's right to a private life, she is to receive damages of £50,000. Her opponents - The People and the photographic agent Jason Fraser - are to cover legal costs expected to be around £200,000.

But why did it come to this? Why was she forced to go to law? Where was the Press Complaints Commission in all this?

In fact, the PCC was involved - for less than a week. It was the PCC that "negotiated" the three sentence apology. Guy Black, PCC director, says: "Everyone was agreed. This was resolved in six days. The placing wording, headline and picture were all agreed with her agent." He expresses surprise that Cox chose subsequently to "bail out" before the PCC could arrive at a formal adjudication and go to law. (The PCC's rules preclude it from being involved once a complainant has entered into legal proceedings.)

Black is remarkably bullish, one might think: "I am slightly at a loss to understand the hysteria about this case. There are not any particular implications for the PCC whatsoever." Cox chose to cut short the PCC's deliberations before it could reach an official adjudication. So the PCC withdrew from the case. That was Cox's right. End of story.

Except, of course, it is not the end of the story. Cox is declining to comment on the case, and her lawyers and agent seemed to feel yesterday that their victory ought to speak for itself.

But it is not too difficult to surmise why she might have had her doubts about the PCC. As media lawyer Mark Stephens says: "It doesn't have sharp and jagged teeth. In fact, it doesn't have teeth at all. All a complainant is ever going to get is a nasty gumming."

Cox's faith in the PCC will not have been reinforced by its list of members. For among those passing judgement on the errors of the press is Neil Wallis. He just happens to have been the editor of The People at the time the beach pictures were published. He has since become deputy editor of the News of The World - and as he is no longer an editor, he will be leaving the PCC later in the summer. (Black, incidentally, is keen to point out that, in any case, Wallis would not have sat in judgement on himself.)

Justified or not, the public does not have much faith in the independence of the PCC, as Simon Kelner, editor in chief of The Independent, told a House of Commons inquiry into press intrusion. "There are real problems with the PCC in terms of public trust," he said. He called for a press ombudsman to oversee the PCC's work. "There isn't an awful lot of transparency about the PCC. I think to have an ombudsman who acts as a court of appeal and a scrutineer... I don't see what the downside is for our industry."

Certainly, trust appears to be slipping away from the PCC. Every time someone bypasses it, or challenges its findings in court, it is weakened further.

Cox is, of course, not the first person to attempt to leapfrog the PCC. Anna Ford complained to the organisation after she too was photographed without her permission on a beach. Mystifyingly, one might think, the PCC ruled that a publicly accessible beach was not a place where she "could have an expectation of privacy". She took the case to judicial review (though the PCC's verdict was not overturned)..

We are in danger of developing a two-tier system of press justice. Look again at that £200,000 legal bill. The rich and powerful will be able to afford the lawyers they need to go to court. The poor - even people much better off than that - will be forced to make do with a PCC system they do not fully trust.

Eventually, says Stephens, the PCC will decay so badly even the editors who are most supportive of it will lose faith. The PCC was designed, among other things, to keep disputes with newspapers and magazines out of court. If proprietors find themselves having to pay huge legal fees on top of their PCC contributions, they might start questioning whether self-regulation is worth the money.

If they cut fast and loose, and leave the lawyers as the only course of redress, they will effectively prevent ordinary complainants from achieving justice.

The Sara Coxes will be safe - but everyone else?