McGregor defends regulation of press

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LORD McGREGOR, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, yesterday robustly defended its 18-month track record in regulating newspaper conduct and dismissed calls for a new privacy law.

He was speaking as the PCC was preparing to issue a statement this weekend contributing to the review being carried out by Sir David Calcutt, QC. The review is considering the working of the press and any need for statutory controls in the light of recent articles on the Royal Family and the MP, David Mellor. Sir David chaired the committee which led to the creation of the commission.

Lord McGregor, addressing a London conference on Complaints Against the Media, organised by IBC Legal Services and University College, London, said that the extent to which the new code of conduct devised by newspaper editors was being observed was 'quite remarkable'.

He said: 'The code has made dramatic changes in their working practices, the way that stories are measured against the code, and the degree and nature of what is published is being significantly affected.' He pointed out that every adverse adjudication against the press had been printed.

Lord McGregor said the code had been in operation for only 18 months, and it could not be hoped to transform the habits of the whole industry overnight. Unlike other regulatory bodies, complaints were not escalating, while two-thirds of those made dealt with accuracy, and only 9 per cent with privacy.

'Privacy may be an issue which concerns lawyers and affects politicians, but it is not uppermost in the minds of complainants to the PCC.' He said that 80 per cent of complaints were settled directly by editors, who are asked to deal with issues within seven days. A self- regulatory code 'is morally superior to an external one imposed by law', he added.

Lord McGregor found it hard to argue that the crop of stories about the Duchess of York, the Princess of Wales and Mr Mellor would not be covered by the defence that they were in the public interest: if the stories were to be criticised, it would be on the grounds of presentation and tone.

He said it would be tolerable to set up a statutory press tribunal, the option proposed by the Calcutt Committee three years ago, should a trial period of regulation be deemed not to be working. It would mean state intervention in the press, one of whose functions was to criticise government.

However, Clive Soley, the Labour MP for Hammersmith who is introducing a Private Member's Bill later this month to establish an Independent Press Authority, with responsibility to correct inaccuracies and campaign for press freedom, said that the commission was failing to address the issue of inaccurate and biased reporting.

He said he had been appalled at the way the press had failed to campaign against restrictions on reporting, for example in the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The commission also failed to consider complaints from members of the public concerned about the way issues were reported. Mr Soley said that only 3 per cent of complaints were upheld, showing the body was too dominated by editors. He is setting up an all- party committee to gather evidence during December.

The Independent Television Commission is believed to have reservations about the 80 per cent shareholding in ITN sought by the consortium of Carlton, Central Television, London Weekend Television and Reuters. An official said yesterday that a 60 per cent shareholding would be more appropriate.