Baroness Buscombe: 'I expected this job to be difficult'

Phone tapping, the Jan Moir affair, Rod Liddle's blog – it's been a tricky first year for Baroness Buscombe, head of the press watchdog.

Ian Burrell
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:16

On the wall of Baroness Peta Buscombe's London office, which is located between a pair of shops selling shirts to City slickers, is a framed advertisement bearing the catchphrase "Every housewife knows...". It is an ancient print ad, one of the earliest produced, and is designed to promote sales of a product that has funded the commercial media for decades: soap.

The prototype campaign for bars of Sunlight, perhaps the first ever brand, is an appropriate enough symbol of the soap opera of Buscombe's first year in the post of chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). An executive producer of EastEnders might have felt self-conscious about a storyline that has included Twitter storms and Facebook campaigns, the death of a young pop star, cries of racism, claims of phone- bugging, heated words in Parliament and resignations.

"It's been amazing. I expected it to be challenging and I expected it to be quite difficult. That's what attracted me to the role," she says, looking back at the past 12 months. Indeed it has been challenging. At times, as she goes back over the story, Buscombe brings to mind Nicola Murray, Rebecca Front's under-pressure minister in the BBC2 satire The Thick of It, who struggles to keep her life together while coping with a working brief in which fires break out more frequently than during a dry summer in the Peloponnese. There has been the Stephen Gately outcry, the Rod Liddle row, and claims over the hacking of the mobile phones of Max Clifford and others. The new PCC chair has variously been told that she should be suspending the publication of rogue newspapers and that she should quit.

That is very unfair. The Conservative peer is awfully nice and quite obviously a people person. Surely there is a way of working this out? Up there alongside the Sunlight soap ad is another framed image, this one a thank-you from her previous colleagues at the Advertising Association, where she was a distinguished chief executive and brought a renewed focus and unity to that sector. "You put us back on the front foot," reads the tribute.

Achieving the same harmony in the press industry, at a time when rival publishing groups are locked in a strategic war of mortal significance, is a rather different task. The PCC itself can easily end up as collateral damage in such battles. "In the advertising world I never felt this beating up of the regulator that I have felt here," she acknowledges.

In the first instance, she is attempting to bring a clarity of purpose to the PCC itself, working closely with its 17 members (seven editors of newspapers and magazines and 10 lay commissioners, ranging from a former Labour MP to a chief constable) and ordering a review of the organisation's governance. That review, due to report at the end of June, is designed to help the PCC to operate in a media environment that has changed out of all recognition since the organisation succeeded the Press Council in 1991. "For both editors and lay commissioners the speed of technological change has created a learning curve for all of us," admits Buscombe.

So the PCC has set up an Online Working Group, consisting of members of the commission and experts working in the new media industry, to help the watchdog to get up to speed. Among the areas it is exploring is the introduction of a kite-mark on newspaper and websites to distinguish them from other sites by showing they are subject to the PCC code. The group is also examining the way that newspaper and magazine blogs (as opposed to independent bloggers) are regulated, and how organisations should respond to complaints made about reader comments on those blogs. The PCC has also agreed to publish minutes to its meetings.

Buscombe, 56, accepts that the commission, which was criticised recently by the House of Commons media select committee for being "toothless" in its handling of the Madeleine McCann coverage, has something of an image problem. She has hired a new director of communications and has been on a personal mission among her political contacts to try and explain what it is the PCC actually does.

"We need to get much better at articulating what our role is and what we mean by self-regulation," she says. "When I came, I felt a sense of frustration that a lot of people seemed to be criticising the PCC without understanding our processes." The very term "self- regulation" is damaging, she suggests. "We have to somehow demonstrate that self-regulation does not mean self- interest. I guess I prefer 'independent regulation' because we are independent of the press."

This has been the year in which the PCC has been introduced to the power of the online protest. An article in October by Jan Moir of the Daily Mail, poured scorn on the gay lifestyle of the Boyzone singer Stephen Gately and linked it to his sudden death. Moir denies she was scornful of gays and says she is not homophobic. But the article, published on the eve of the singer's funeral, provoked a wave of protest on social networking sites and led to 25,000 complaints to the regulator (out of the year's total of 37,000 complaints, which also included 6,000 organised by supporters of the British National Party in relation to various stories).

The PCC rejected the complaint against Moir. Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the gay rights group Stonewall, responded by saying he would find it "very difficult to recommend" the regulator to anyone from a minority community.

In spite of this, Buscombe says that "on the whole I was hugely buoyed up and encouraged by the response", which included plaudits for the bravery of the watchdog in standing up for freedom of speech. Buscombe says that the commission "spent many hours over the judgment" on what she regards as "a really nasty piece". PCC director Stephen Abell visited Summerskill to explain the wider implications of the finding.

"This is something so important that we can't be compromised by worrying that we may be upsetting different communities. We are not by our nature as a commission prejudiced against a particular community," she says, citing the January censuring of the Belfast-based tabloid Sunday Life for the pejorative use of "Tranny" in a headline. "Five years ago, I suspect that would not have been upheld. I think we are very much in step with the times."

Buscombe inherited her post from Sir Christopher Meyer, a former British ambassador to Washington, who has since gone on to become a media personality, presenting documentaries for BBC2 and tweeting under the name 'Sir Socks' in reference to his love of brightly coloured ankle-wear. She feels she is working in potentially more challenging times, with the press under great economic as well as critical pressure.

She is impressed by the work of her "amazingly small" administrative staff and a commission which she says is not there just to represent the interests of newspapers. "Editors may sit there, but they leave their corporate identity at the door, they are there not because they are editor of the Sunday Mirror or the Belfast whatever, but because they have skills and expertise so that we can better understand the perspective of the newspaper, the journalist and the editor."

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, wasn't quite so enthusiastic about the structure of the PCC when he resigned from its code committee in November, furious that the regulator found there was no evidence that it had been misled by the News of the World over allegations of the hacking of mobile phones, or that the practice was "ongoing". The Guardian's suggestion that hacking was widespread at the tabloid when it was edited by the current Conservative Party director of communications, Andy Coulson, has led to bitter exchanges with Rupert Murdoch's News International, publisher of the Sunday paper. In February, the media select committee criticised News International executives for "deliberate obfuscation" in their dealings with the committee's own inquiry into the matter.

It is clear that Buscombe has some regrets over the PCC's role in the affair. "One of the lessons is that we have to be crystal clear in the way we explain our remit. There was an expectation that we would be able to do more than we felt able to do at the time," she says. "I can tell you now that if we got a whiff that it was happening again, we would act, there's no question about this."

As for Rusbridger, the people person wants him back. "I have said to him that I think it would be great for him to sit on the commission," she says, though this would be a decision for the Newspaper Publishers Association.

The PCC broke new ground in March by upholding its first online complaint, following a comment made on The Spectator's website by columnist Rod Liddle, who claimed that African-Caribbean men were responsible for the "overwhelming majority" of violent crime in London. Liddle reacted angrily on his blog to the "bizarre and incoherent" decision, citing the sources of his claim. Buscombe says that if the writer had posted the same information when the complaint was made, the response would have been sufficient to ensure he was not censured. "If there's a complaint out there, a question of inaccuracy, if you respond quickly then that's all we are asking."

That might not be enough for those who still think the PCC needs to grow some fangs and be quicker to act. But Buscombe says that new research commissioned by the watchdog indicates that 58 per cent of people would not want the regulator to take action against a newspaper on their behalf without first having sought consent. But in the highly charged Moir case, the PCC had decided to investigate the matter whether or not Gately's partner, Andrew Cowles, had requested action.

Every case, whether backed by 25,000 complaints or one, is handled in bespoke fashion. And despite what the commission's critics believe, none are just batted into the long grass, claims the chairman. "We spend hours deliberating among ourselves inform-ally over what the right thing is to do. And sometimes it's not easy."

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