Leading article: A timely defence of press freedom

Friday 19 February 2010 01:00

The Press Complaints Commission should be applauded, in spite of the criticism heaped on it yesterday, for not upholding a complaint about a notorious Daily Mail article criticising the lifestyle of the pop singer Stephen Gately.

The gay rights group Stonewall suggested there was now little point in people from minority groups complaining to the PCC, a nonsensical conclusion. It compared the self-regulation of the press to a banking system without auditors or a mining industry without rules on health and safety. Such comparisons are absurd. For the PCC to attack articles on the grounds of taste, punishing those which its members find disagreeable, would be a step in the direction of censorship. The language used by columnist Jan Moir may have provoked a record 25,000 complaints but it was her lawfully held opinion. The Crown Prosecution Service examined the article and found no case to answer.

Much of the criticism of the PCC is made by people who fail to understand its role. Far from being "toothless", it criticised Moir's journalism, saying it was "uncomfortable" with the tenor of the piece and attacked the newspaper's editorial judgment in publishing the article the day before the singer's funeral.

But for the watchdog to have ruled in favour of the complainant, Gately's partner Andrew Cowles, would have meant newspapers no longer being able to publish opinions on matters of public discussion. That would have been a far greater social evil than the views of a single columnist, unpalatable as some may have found them.

Many people who complained appeared to have done so merely because they were upset by the writer's comments. And in a digital age where people can express their dislike of articles published by papers which they do not buy, thousands did by protesting online about Moir's column via Facebook and Twitter. But the British press is wonderfully diverse and the Mail is but one of 10 national daily newspapers, each with readers who have the right to stop buying the product.

It has become fashionable to knock the PCC but in this instance the commission, its new chairman and director have demonstrated commendable courage.

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