Anyone who heard Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), on Radio 4's Today programme yesterday would have been left puzzled. The PCC was established 10 years ago as a self-regulatory body to ensure that the highest standards of probity and accuracy were applied to the British press. Yet here was its chairman, in defending the commission's decision not to censure The Sun over payments to the fugitive Ronnie Biggs and his family, betraying all-too-clear signs that the inquiry had been anything but exhaustive. He and his colleagues had seemingly failed even to get answers to such basic – and highly relevant – questions as: how much did The Sun pay, and to whom. Instead, he seemed satisfied with the quaintly discreet phrase "a substantial sum", which raised many more questions than it answered. Lord Wakeham, risibly, said he was not interested in "the fine legal detail" of the affair. How, the listener was left to wonder, does this encourage an increasingly sceptical public to believe that the press can keep its own house in order?
Of The Sun, we can expect no different. The paper talked of the "public interest" served by chartering a plane to bring Biggs back to Britain from Brazil and paying sums of money to the bank robber's family. The question of public interest – which, under the PCC's code of conduct, can provide a defence for making payments to criminals – was a smokescreen useful on both sides of the deal. Biggs wanted to return to the UK to receive expensive medical treatment; The Sun had a cleverly orchestrated scoop with which to fight its circulation war. A further distasteful element was its soft-soap treatment of Biggs, who was described by The Sun as a "frail crook" and (most bizarre of all) a "once dashing rogue".
The PCC should surely be seen to do more to promote public trust in the press, and any hint of weakness in applying its code of conduct only undermines this objective. But the PCC's relationship with the public does not seem to be at the top of its agenda. Its 10th anniversary bash at Somerset House this year – a cosy gathering of assorted celebrities, editors and royalty – raised an uneasiness that what was intended to be a watchdog with teeth had evolved into an establishment poodle. It seems reluctant to confront the tabloid titans even when they are clearly in the wrong, whether encouraging vigilantism or harassing minor celebrities on holiday with their families.
The PCC appears ready to let The Sun escape punishment for its distasteful stunt purely because it was supported by senior politicians. Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary, helped to provide an instant Biggs passport, and, in return, was backed in his failed bid to retain that office. The deal was blatant, with a leading article declaring: "Thank you, Robin. We can see why Tony Blair has decided NOT to move you after the election. When the chips are down, Cookie delivers ... and he doesn't care about the flak either." With hindsight, this looks even more of a joke.
But while, regrettably, one expects politicians to do pretty much anything to woo good headlines, we are left dismayed by the PCC's failure – yet again – to impose restraint on the press. Ultimately, its failure to act will further diminish respect for newspapers and government. Legal regulation, the worst possible outcome, will become more likely; the PCC's weakness could have a deadly legacy.
If the regulatory body fears to speak obvious truths, the prospects for self-respecting journalism in Britain in the years to come look poor. The spinelessness of Lord Wakeham's PCC sends the worst possible message to the world at large.Reuse content