Why the new code might give Becks a nasty surprise

Those aggrieved by press intrusion seem to be taking comfort from the latest PCC rules. They should think again

Clearly, it has been a toughening experience for David Beckham. After the alleged ecstasy and then the agony of confronting Victoria, the family and the Beckham machine, the footballing icon emerged to be very cross with the media at the Sardinia training camp where England are preparing for Euro 2004. Beckham raged that he was a "nice man, and loving father and husband". He thought that the way two newspapers had treated him was "an absolute disgrace".

Clearly, it has been a toughening experience for David Beckham. After the alleged ecstasy and then the agony of confronting Victoria, the family and the Beckham machine, the footballing icon emerged to be very cross with the media at the Sardinia training camp where England are preparing for Euro 2004. Beckham raged that he was a "nice man, and loving father and husband". He thought that the way two newspapers had treated him was "an absolute disgrace".

For a while there was the possibility of ballistic retaliation from the one-time role model - that he might refuse to talk to certain newspapers (such as the News of the World, which revealed his alleged infidelities with Rebecca Loos) and, worse, decline to give the "tunnel interview" to Sky during Euro 2004 matches. This is the one that goes: "We've given them too much space in the middle but Steve's been totally committed. We're giving the ball away too much, but we're still in it."

I could live without the tunnel interview, or optimistic words from Becks about England's chances. I couldn't give a yellow card about his annoyance with the media, which has collaborated in building his iconic multi-millionaire status. I was impressed with the good sense of the people of Manchester, where Becks worked before the ill-fated move to Spain. A poll carried out by the Manchester Evening News after Beckham's criticisms found that 37 per cent thought he had had a raw deal from the media, while 63 per cent did not.

What has brought about his renewed confidence? There must be more to it than getting away from Posh and heading for the tournament in Portugal. Then it struck me. Becks knows that the new Press Complaints Commission (PCC) code of practice comes into effect on Tuesday.

There seems to be a pleasant atmosphere between the media and the royals just now. Photographers, and even writers, were invited to Highgrove yesterday by the Prince of Wales to see him and Prince William chat about this and that. There were no indications that they werecross with the press.

There had been a little tension with The Sun about a picture of a girl William took skiing, but I understand that really the royals didn't much mind. Charles, understandably, gets far more worked up about the never-ending Diana stories. But in the main, Buckingham Palace is more relaxed about the media than Beckingham Palace.

I wondered, though, why the friendlier mood, why the invitations to Highgrove. Then I realised what the reason must be. The new PCC code will come into effect on Tuesday.

These are the first revisions to the code since 1999, and they are not that dramatic. Becks will be pleased that the PCC private correspondence clause is extended to cover the interception of mobile phone calls, text messages and emails. The support for the allegations about him and Loos came from a series of alleged text messages.

But would the new PCC clause have saved Beckham? What if the text messages had not been "intercepted" but simply kept by one of the parties? Would the clause apply? Probably not.

The more serious digital communication-based story was about the relationship between Cherie Blair, Carole Caplin, her boyfriend Peter Forster and the purchase by the Blairs of the student flats in Bristol. Would the new PCC clause have prevented that story? Again, it would depend where the text of the digital messages came from. And the clause can be overridden by the public interest defence. If the newspaper can sustain an argument that publication was in the public interest, then that will justify breaking the code.

The new code carries an insistence that the PCC is mentioned in headlines above reports of negative adjudications that newspapers have to carry, and also tightens the rules covering payments to criminals. The public are usually offended by the idea that a criminal should profit by selling his story to a newspaper. The PCC code now bans payments for stories or pictures that seek to exploit a crime or glorify or glamorise crime in general. It is not only convicted or confessed criminals who are included in this ban, but associates, who could include family, friends or colleagues. Again, a public interest defence can be brought into play by the newspaper complained about.

These are modest changes. Self-regulation through the PCC continues to be criticised as too little, too cosy and too tolerant of intrusion by some politicians, pressure groups and members of the public. But it is working reasonably well, which is the most one should expect, and it continues - so far - to achieve the most important thing, keeping the politicians out of further press regulation.

I have been alerted to a conference taking place at Manchester University next month. It is titled Mis/Representation in the Media. The details sent to me outline what will be discussed.

"This conference intends to rethink the notion of media, in its myriad forms, both as discourse and device, in order to examine the impact it has upon contemporary society. How is media susceptible to the misrepresentation of social groups and individuals, guiding modern stereotypes into the everyday language of western newsreel [sic] culture? How has media infiltrated the manner in which we conceptualise our world? And in what manner do we construct our realities based on these mis/representations? The premise is that representation is not a separate objective form from the creation of the subjects being represented. The relationship is inherently political, ambiguous and tacit, making misrepresentation all the more a necessary object of discussion."

The sale of the Telegraph titles goes on and on, and white smoke is yet to rise. Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph continues to seem more and more like Club Boris. Of course, the affable and studiedly chaotic editor of The Spectator (owned by the Telegraph), Daily Telegraph columnist, broadcaster, celebrity and Conservative MP for Henley is a much-loved figure. But there are times when The Daily Telegraph seems to act as a fanzine for Johnson. Columnists gratuitously mention him. He is written about in the diary. The parliamentary sketch writer devotes a column to him. Most MPs have to work hard for the press mentions they think so important. Not Boris. There was some talk when he was elected to Parliament of the compatibility of that with his many other roles. I wonder what view the new owners will take.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

DIARY

Engel's new angle

One of the most distinctive associations of recent journalistic history has come quietly to an end with the transfer of Matthew Engel from The Guardian to the Financial Times as its star sports columnist. Engel, who doubles up as the editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, had been at The Guardian for all of 25 years - first as a sports sub, then as pioneering sportswriter, and latterly as Washington correspondent and all-purpose feature writer. "It's all very amicable," Engel says. "But I've always liked writing for a non-specialist audience, and the thing about the FT's sports pages is that they are not for people who think sport is the only thing that matters in life. They are for people who lead full and busy lives but have sport as an interest."

That's enough politics, Ed

Meanwhile, more heavyweight Fleet Street manoevrings with that veteran of political journalism, David Hughes, deciding that a decade as the political editor of the Daily Mail is long enough. But he won't be leaving just yet, preferring to see things through to the next general election. The job has had only two occupants in 30 years. Hughes succeeded the legendary Gordon Greig, who broke the story that Margaret Thatcher was running for the leadership of the Tory party in 1975. Hughes's prospective successor is Benedict Brogan, who is joining the Mail from The Daily Telegraph. Brogan has a distinguished lineage. His uncle, Hugh, is the author of the authoritative Penguin History of the United States.

This is your lifestyle

The new management at the BBC should remind staff to be polite, according to the veteran presenter Michael Aspel. "I once did a series with one of the founders of BBC2 who came up with a superb idea for a series," he says. "So I sent a cheery little note to Alan Yentob saying 'I like this idea, what do you think?', and we waited and waited. We rang his secretary who said: 'He's away now, you can speak to him when he's back'. And when he came back from wherever he hadn't been, we never got a reply, not even an acknowledgement. I don't know how busy you can be not even to say thanks, but no." Quite!

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