UK restraint over topless Kate Middleton pictures proves power of PCC

The PCC may not be perfect, but it works better than the Leveson Inquiry has given it credit for. And anyway, what are the alternatives?

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The Independent Online

The Leveson Inquiry has felt like a trial - in more ways than one. In the dock have been journalists, editors, proprietors and regulators, not to mention anyone who might have supplied the media with information, as well of course as politicians and police.

The press - so often lumped together as one entity - stands collectively accused of the most grotesque failings: regular invasions of privacy, misleading readers on a grand scale, discrimination against minority groups; and that's just scratching the surface.

The regulator, the beleaguered PCC, must, by this analysis, have itself failed (full stop) since it did not make the press perfect.

And in many ways, the evidence seems compelling. Indeed, the fact that journalists - or their agents - hacked into people's voicemails shows quite clearly that things were not right, at least in some quarters. It was enough to convict Clive Goodman, who had presumably written countless stories by conventional methods, so why not the press as a whole? After all, the negatives can't - and shouldn't - be ignored just because they are out-weighed by the positives.

Yet one of the difficulties in assessing the culture and practices of the press is that as much, if not more, can be learned by what is not published as by what ends up in print. The saga of the Kate Middleton pictures has thrown that into sharp focus. What is has also done is show that there is no regulatory panacea which will solve all the ills of the British press.

When it comes to celebs, a fine is small beer compared with the cash - and cache - available to editors willing to risk a courtroom battle.

In France, where the pictures first appeared, privacy laws have supposedly struck fear into gossip magazines for years. Yet as the publication of the Duchess of Cambridge pictures illustrates, that is far from the truth. When it comes to marketable celebs, a fine is small beer compared with the cash - and cache - available to editors willing to risk a courtroom battle. On the flipside, genuine matters of public interest - President Mitterand's illegitimate child being the classic (if overused) example - can be kept quiet.

Italy also has strong privacy laws (at least in theory). It also, more importantly for those seeking an answer to our alleged regulatory crisis, has licensing of journalists. In a system that dates from the days of Mussolini (which might give you a clue), journalists can have their right to practise removed by the powerful Ordine dei Giornalisti if they are judged to have seriously erred. But as the editor of Chi has noted, topless pictures taken in a private place are apparently 'normal', so their publication is presumably not an offence that merits being struck off.  

In Denmark, where a weekly magazine has just announced it intends to follow the lead of others, there is a Press Council established by statute and chaired by a judge.  In theory, recalcitrant editors who fail to publish adverse rulings against them can be jailed.

Perhaps more surprising was the decision by the Irish Daily Star to run the images. Certainly the general perception of the Irish press is that it is more conservative than our own. But that's an over-simplification of the situation. 

The Irish system of press self-regulation has regularly been cited as a model that ought to be given consideration as a replacement for our own PCC. It is recognised in statute but is independent of the state and does not compel membership by newspapers.  Its Ombudsman/Council structure is not unattractive. It has certainly had a positive impact in Ireland since its establishment in 2008, its day-to-day complaints handling having, like the PCC, given members of the public a useful and effective platform for expressing concerns and obtaining remedial action.

Indeed, in the nuts and bolts, it is very similar to the way things operate here.  And just as in the UK (and in fact, as in all democracies) the Irish system is founded on the principle of editorial judgement. That means that sometimes editors will make the wrong call; when that happens (assuming there is a complaint) he or she will receive a critical ruling from the Ombudsman or Press Council.

In Britain, of course, it is such failings in editorial judgement and oversight – allied to proven criminality – that culminated in the appointment of Lord Justice Leveson to examine what went wrong. So why is it that British editors have not published the Kate snaps? Is it because they have been cowed by the Leveson Inquiry? Are they concerned that they would face a storm of protest from readers? Is it the unique position the Duchess has as our future queen and as husband to the son of Princess Diana?

All of the above might be relevant. But then, why did a tabloid newspaper decide not to publish topless pictures of a famous footballer's famous wife, taken with a long lens, showing her on a yacht. And why did another red-top choose not to publish similar images of an A-list Hollywood actress, again taken by long-lens while the lady in question stood on a 3rd floor hotel balcony?

In both instances, which occurred between 3 and 5 years ago (long before Leveson reared his head), newspaper executives contacted the PCC for advice. The relevant elements of the Code of Practice were emphasised, useful precedents were highlighted and, in the end, the newspapers decided that to proceed was likely to break the Commission's rules.

These are two examples among many of the PCC Code - and its case law - being key to newsroom decision-making. And there are countless examples every day of newspapers, with or without reference to the Press Complaints Commission, deciding not to publish available information for what might reasonably be described as ethical reasons.  And this is not even to touch upon the PCC’s role as a complaints handler, which – quite inaccurately – is all it has been reduced to in some analyses.

Of course, none of this should have to be said because it ought not to be in doubt that the press generally behaves in this way. Yet serious doubt there is. And it cannot be forgotten that the scandals that have created the doubt are real, raw and extremely serious.

But to imagine that the majority of journalistic output in this country - or in the tabloid press - over the last ten years has involved unethical practice is a nonsense.  And, while it is important that sensible improvements are made to the UK's system of press regulation (however anachronistic that term is in the modern world), nobody should pretend that existing systems elsewhere in the world will provide simple answers to the questions raised in the last two years about press standards.