Ian Hargreaves on the PCC: The watchdog that will not bark

'The commission is far too close to the editors who dominate its proceedings, to the Royal Family, and to some politicians'
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The Independent Online

Breakfast with Lord Wakeham on the Today programme yesterday turned out to be rather more revealing than I had expected.

I was prepared, naturally, for him to defend the Press Complaints Commission's ruling in favour of The Sun's handling of the Ronnie Biggs case, since the commission's adjudication on the matter reads more like a letter from a fan than a considered verdict.

But what I didn't anticipate was the extreme weakness of the PCC chairman's arguments.

Not only did he refuse to defend the detail of the adjudication on the grounds that to do so would involve discussion of "fine legal detail" of the PCC's own code. He also seemed reluctant to resist a challenge on common-sense grounds, arguing that as chairman of the PCC his job is to administer the will of the newspaper industry, which pays for the commission's work and draws up its rules.

To cap it all, he appeared unable to remember whether in investigating The Sun's operation, the PCC had actually bothered to ask how much money it paid to Biggs, his family and the family of another Great Train Robber. The amount, he spluttered, was immaterial, as if the theft of a room full of gold bullion were morally or judicially equivalent to shoplifting a pair of tights.

Lord Wakeham's flailing responses have their root in the astonishing laziness in the PCC's reasoning and lack of forensic skills in the Biggs case. These are sufficiently serious as to call into question the effectiveness of the commission under its present management.

This is what Section 16 of the PCC code, under which the case fell, says: no payment shall be made to a convicted criminal or his associates "except where the material concerned ought to be published in the public interest and payment is necessary for this to be done".

In its entire, three-page length, the adjudication barely addresses the "material concerned", apart from noting that it, in The Sun and the PCC's opinion, avoided "glorifying" Biggs's achievements.

Rather, the commission accepts at face value The Sun's own account of its exploits, "the best Fleet Street operation for decades", according to yesterday's editorial.

This operation extended from the derring-do of Sun reporters to the boast of its editor about the ease with which he can get the Foreign Secretary on the phone to order up passports for escaped convicts. It was a good and revealing read, if shamelessly self-promotional, but it had nothing to do with the issues the Code is designed to regulate.

The commission chose to focus upon three questions: was the money necessary to get Biggs back? The Sun said "yes" and the commission (without apparent benefit of any independent evidence) agreed.

How will Biggs and his pals use the money, given that his personal access to comforting supplies of English beer is currently limited? Dunno, said The Sun. OK, said the PCC.

Did The Sun have any further plans to contribute to the upkeep of the train robbers' families? No, said The Sun. Fine, said the PCC.

On the basis of this razor-sharp interrogation, the commission found that The Sun had no case to answer. The Sun, the adjudication says, unlike other newspapers reprimanded for more trivial payments, had not glorified any crime, though it is not clear what relevance this point has to Section 16, which was framed to protect journalists who pay for information or evidence designed in a story which involves a larger public interest – for example, the righting of a miscarriage of justice.

The return of Biggs, in the PCC's view, was in the public interest and to think otherwise would be "to condone the continued presence of a wanted criminal abroad".

Crucially, the adjudication says, to have ruled against The Sun "would have been to second-guess the actions and motives of the authorities themselves" – namely the Foreign Office, which was keen for a bit of good publicity, and the police.

Let this sink in, for it is the most extraordinary remark in this whole, ragged chain of reasoning: when the political and press establishment of the country are united, the PCC would never even think of dissenting.

There are those who have been saying for some time time now that Lord Wakeham's chairmanship of the Press Complaints Commission is too concerned about protecting the privacy of the Royal Family and too little concerned with using its own code to defend the interests of other citizens and so work in the long-term interests of the newspaper industry.

I have always thought that this was a little unfair, in that following the death of Princess Diana, the PCC's leverage was successfully used to cool down the Fleet Street bidding war for royal paparazzi merchandise and to try to ensure that Princes William and Harry were able to go to school in peace without stepping over the bodies of reporters.

Since then, however, it has become all too clear that the PCC and its senior staff are far too close not only to the editors who dominate its proceedings, but to the Royal Family, not to mention some leading politicians.

The PCC's birthday celebrations at which Charles and Camilla agreed to make their first public appearance together gave a rather ghastly royal seal of approval to this state of affairs.

I am told that Lord Wakeham, who has chaired the PCC since taking over from the founding chairman Lord McGregor in 1995, is currently discussing the possibility of extending his term of office beyond next year. The evidence of the Biggs affair is that this would be a serious mistake.

What the newspaper industry needs to reflect upon is the kind of Press Complaints Commission it should have in a time when consumer redress is being strengthened in most other fields, when surveys repeatedly show that trust in journalists is as low or even lower than trust in politicians and when the business is struggling to retain readers and advertisers.

The time has come to break up the cosy club at the Press Complaints Commission.


The author is Director of the Centre for Journalism Studies at Cardiff University and a former editor of 'The Independent'