Andreas Whittam Smith: Self-regulation of the press works

This is poacher and gamekeeper territory and stray passers-by have little to contribute

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I read the sustained criticism of the Press Complaints Commission by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons with a proprietorial interest. For in 1991, when I was editor of The Independent, I was asked to design a new system of self-regulation for newspapers. My proposals were accepted, subject to some small amendments, and the present body is a development of them.

I had a successful model in mind, the Panel on Takeovers and Mergers, established by the Bank of England and leading City institutions in 1968. That followed a horrible incident. A merchant bank had bought control of a leading company one Monday morning through purchases on the stock market. No notice was given. The transaction was completed by 12 noon. Lots of shareholders were left out. Such was the outrage that the bank concerned, Morgan Grenfell as it then was, issued a press notice saying that it wouldn't take any more questions on the matter. Nonetheless the City establishment quickly agreed that things couldn't go on like this.

The Panel became an effective policeman of the City. I was a financial journalist at the time and I watched its development with interest. Its success was founded on two principles. It published a code of conduct. And sitting in judgment were leading members of City institutions. You were judged by your peers. If a firm disregarded the authority of the Panel, it was in effect blackballed. The City was a club in those days and the threat of exclusion was a powerful deterrent.

I recommended these same principles to the Fleet Street editors and proprietors of my day. When I urged that we should devise a code of conduct, everybody laughed and said that either it would prove impossible to get agreement, or the rules would be so flimsy that they would have little effect. The City had taught me, however, that you start with an easy code and then tighten it up. The present Press Code has been adjusted and changed nearly 30 times in 19 years. The process is still going on and will never end.

Even more important, I thought, would be judgment by your peers. Rightly or wrongly, newspaper editors don't have a lot of time for what lay people may think of their methods. They must bow the knee to juries and judges and take such punishment as the courts may decide. But other than that? My assumption was that only the unfavorable opinion of their fellow editors would hurt.

I still think that is the case, so when I see the parliamentary committee's recommendation that the membership of the PCC should be rebalanced to give the lay members a two-thirds majority, my heart sinks. In my view, the greater the lay involvement, the less the newspapers' respect. This is poacher and gamekeeper territory and stray passers-by, whether members of the great and good or not, have little to contribute.

The Committee does acknowledge that the PCC is often effective. Before coming to situations where it has disappointed people, I quote the MPs' warm words: "There is no doubt that the PCC does a great deal of valuable work both in preventing breaches of the Code and in addressing complaints and we note that the PCC is successful as a mediator. The figures show that many people have benefited from a free and discreet service in exactly the way the PCC's founders envisaged." I like the bit about "founders", of course.

In two prominent cases, however, the tiny PCC, with its staff of just 15, not one of whom, as a matter of policy, has ever been a journalist, was unable to exercise a restraining influence – the disappearance just before her fourth birthday of Madeleine McCann from her family's holiday apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal, in May 2007 and the large number of suicides of young people that took place in and around Bridgend, South Wales, between January 2007 and August 2008.

One reason is that newspaper groups, whether by carelessness or design, have weakened self-regulation by under-resourcing it. The PCC has neither the strength required for the task nor the expertise.

The decision not to employ former journalists is bizarre. The policy is supposed to emphasise independence but in practice it signals amateurism. A great deal, too, turns on the character of the chair of the body. Appointing somebody anxious to please is a mistake. A hard, fearless leader would make a lot of difference.

A second recommendation by the parliamentary committee that I don't support is that the PCC should have the ability to impose a financial penalty. The committee comments: "The industry may see giving the PCC the power to fine as an attack on the self-regulatory system. The reverse is true. We believe that this power would enhance the PCC's credibility and public support."

I think the opposite. It would be unfair on newspapers such as The Independent with limited financial resources compared to, say, Rupert Murdoch's publications. With money at risk, newspapers would want to be represented by lawyers at hearings. The notion of the industry sitting in judgment on itself would disappear. Some newspapers would refuse to pay fines – perhaps I would demur if I still had any power in the matter. So it would require statutory backing and self-regulation would go.

There is, however, one weapon in the PCC's armory that is not properly used. That is the power to specify the prominence that should be given to an apology. The Editors' Codebook states that while the PCC does not interpret "due prominence" to mean "equal prominence" it expects that "the positioning of apologies or corrections should generally reflect the seriousness of the error – and that would include front page apologies where appropriate".

But in practice apologies rarely receive the same prominence as the original error. To make an editor print an apology in exactly the same position and with exactly the same weight as the offending article would, I know from how I used to feel when the subject came up, cause almost unbearable anguish. The humiliation of it!

If the lay members of the PCC could achieve at least that reform, then they would have done some good after all.

a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

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