The Tory peer who wants to convince us the PCC has teeth

Lady Buscombe tells Matthew Bell that the Press Complaints Commission is in the clear

Sunday 22 November 2009 01:00 GMT

Baroness Buscombe is terribly sorry when we meet. Since agreeing to an interview in May, a month into her role as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, her schedule has forced her to postpone countless times. But when we inform her we're running a piece with or without her input, she is in our office foyer within 24 hours, a bouquet of expensive bags and scarves.

It's been a rocky fortnight for the PCC since it published its findings into the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. MPs were furious it concluded there was "no new evidence" to support The Guardian's story that reporters at the Murdoch-owned tabloid had intercepted thousands of private phone messages. Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor, called it "worse than pointless" and resigned from the PCC's code of practice committee. Mark Lewis, a lawyer who gave evidence to the media select committee, called for Lady Buscombe to step down.

"Why should I resign?" she asks, "Alan has damned our report because he doesn't like the result. Because we haven't produced this evidence which nobody else has managed to procure, including the police."

The charge against the PCC is that it did not fully investigate the accusations, including Lewis's claim that a police source said there were 6,000 instances of phone hacking. Lady Buscombe refutes that, saying the police were misquoted and that the actual number of people hacked was "a handful". She also claims the PCC received no help from The Guardian. "Those who say there is more to the story than meets the eye have never helped us produce the evidence."

The Guardian's Nick Davies denies this, saying he posted compelling evidence on the paper's website which the PCC did not look at. And why did the PCC not question those accused of the hacking, such as private investigator Glenn Mulcaire? "We didn't ask Mulcaire because we were absolutely clear we were not going to go down routes where it was fallow ground. The remit of the PCC is set by PressBof [the Press Board of Finance], and we have already stretched our remit through this whole process."

It is not the first time the PCC has faced accusations of being toothless, and it is unlikely to be the last: MPs on the media select committee will publish their phone-hacking findings next month and, according to an insider, the PCC is due to come in for "a mauling". Is Peta Buscombe concerned?

"No. We're not under pressure. MPs are not angry. I welcome newspaper companies which ask us to scrutinise. But there's a huge difference between us and the media select committee, which has Parliamentary privilege. They are allowed to say "they think, they believe, they reckon" – we can't. What I have failed to get across to The Guardian is that if they want a Press Complaints Commission that is in any way credible, it cannot produce reports based on anything other than substantiated facts." Davies says they did precisely that, and that Lady Buscombe "has driven the PCC into a ditch from which it will never emerge".

Since it was founded in 1990 the PCC has struggled to fulfil its role of regulator while having no legal authority. It is funded by the papers it regulates, which draw up their own code of conduct. Anyone can complain to it – its a cheaper alternative to taking legal action – but the strongest penalty the commission can impose is to demand an apology.

Once a barrister, Lady Buscombe became a Conservative peer in 1998, working as a shadow minister for eight years. She was the Advertising Association's chief executive before joining the PCC, and is non-executive director of a "heavily regulated" company, Veolia Water Three Valleys, which has strengthened her belief in self-regulation for the press.

But there are fears Lady Buscombe's position on the Tory benches could cause a conflict of interest. David Cameron's director of communications, Andy Coulson, was News of the World editor during the phone hacking scandal and subsequently resigned. Now she has recruited Jonathan Collett, previously the head of News International's public affairs and press spokesman for Michael Howard, as the PCC's director of communications. "He's a terrific communications guy," says Lady Buscombe. "I don't care what his politics are."

Despite vigorously defending the PCC in this, her first newspaper interview since taking the £150,000 job, Lady Buscombe says she has been concerned about its remit since day one, which is why she commissioned a review of its scope and structure, to be published in the spring. In a speech to the Society of Editors last Sunday she noted that "we live in an over-regulated world which could not prevent the greatest financial crisis for 80 years". A curious remark as it was the lack of rigour in the banks' self-regulation that led to the crisis. Is there a better example of the dangers of toothless self-regulation?

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