Simon Kelner: Papers must treat themselves as they treat others

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The General Medical Council, the Police Complaints Authority and the Law Society are all bodies routinely, and properly, held to account by journalists. More scrutiny of their decisions is urged, more independence from vested interests is demanded, more transparency in their decision-making is required. But when it comes to the Press Complaints Commission (a watchdog similarly comprised of industry professionals and lay members), we don't hear quite such a clamour for greater probity. In fact, quite the opposite.

During a select committee hearing on privacy and the press, I explained that I was in favour of an independent press ombudsman, possibly under the umbrella of the new regulator, Ofcom, to act both as a court of appeal for members of the public who feel dissatisfied with a PCC ruling and as a method of holding the PCC up to scrutiny. If self-regulation is to work, this newspaper has argued consistently, it must be seen to work.

I didn't think my evidence would be greeted warmly within the industry. Roger Alton, the editor of The Observer and a recent appointee to the PCC, said that I "should be taken out and shot" for expressing such heretical opinions, while the garrulous Piers Morgan, the Daily Mirror editor, opined that this was an "extraordinary clarion call to actively seek further shackles on our already massively over-manacled press freedom". It is difficult to pick up a copy of the Mirror and imagine that it was composed to the sound of Mr Morgan's manacles clanking. But it is easy to see why he should be so upset by suggestions that self-regulation should be strengthened. He operates in the most ruthless sector of the world's most competitive newspaper market, and his job is demanding enough without the attentions of more meddling do-gooders.

Yet, as Ian Hargreaves, a former editor of this newspaper, argued on our media pages on Tuesday, public confidence in the press is at a perilously low point, and the inevitable consequence of a further erosion of trust would be to invite legal restraints in the form, say, of a privacy law. Already constrained by libel laws and official secrets legislation that often act as an impediment to investigative reporting, further curbs on press freedom serve nobody's interest and can only harm the democratic fabric of our society. That is why there is so much riding on self-regulation. And that is why it doesn't help the cause that a serving member of the commission has been responsible for one of the most flagrant breaches of the code of conduct (Neil Wallis, when editor of the People, printing long-lens photographs of the DJ Sara Cox on her honeymoon); that the director of the PCC has close personal links with the Prince of Wales's office and the editor of The Sun; that there is a lack of transparency in the procedure for appointments to the commission; that an impression has been created, however untrue, that the PCC has a cosy arrangement with the rich, the powerful and the royal.

In its annual review, the PCC's own survey states that 59 per cent of complainants felt that their cases had been dealt with either "very satisfactorily" or "satisfactorily". This, of course, means that almost half of those who sought a ruling felt various levels of dissatisfaction. Ms Cox has taken her case to Europe, while the newsreader Anna Ford, another victim of a long-lens holiday snap, went to the High Court to seek judicial review, which she was refused. But those without the means – and the vast majority of cases the PCC rules on are brought by members of the public – have no recourse, no court of appeal. The commission is proud of its role as a conciliatory body, but conciliation is not necessarily justice. Moreover, it is not unreasonable to suggest that, in many cases, the ordinary complainant retreats, adopting the position of a weak party recognising the power of a strong party.

I also believe that the presence of current editors on the commission (even though lay members outnumber them) undermines the PCC's assertion that it is "demonstrably independent of the industry". While acknowledging the need to have members with practical experience to guide lay representatives, this role could surely be performed by former editors, who are free of tribal loyalties and have no vested interests. That is not to say that the present members do not discharge their duties honourably; but when trust in our trade, and confidence in our processes, is diminishing, appearance is all, and any further moves to strengthen the independence of the PCC should be welcomed.

I do not, as my critics have suggested, wish to weaken the PCC. On the contrary, I would like to see its writ run wider. As it is constituted, it acts as a complaints clearing house, but I think it should have a proactive role, helping to safeguard standards in the press, issuing rulings on, say, the coverage of asylum-seekers, or the campaign to name and shame paedophiles, or the trials by media of public figures who have not been charged with, let alone found guilty of, any offence.

These measures, together with the introduction of an ombudsman, would go some way to reclaiming the integrity of our profession. Who can argue against more transparency, greater scrutiny, increased responsibility? And, after all, if it were doctors, policemen or lawyers we were talking about, we would not even be having an argument.

The writer is editor-in-chief of 'The Independent'

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