We Have the Tools

Every day, these last few days, someone, somewhere has been having a go at the Press Complaints Commission. In so many words, its critics claim it lacks ‘teeth’ and its supposed failure to curb the alleged excesses of the press is proof, if any were needed, that the system of self-regulation has failed both the press and the public.

It’s pretty comprehensive, the code that PCC member editors are required to honour, including harassment, accuracy, payments to witnesses in criminal trials and use of clandestine methods of sourcing material.

And then there’s that other code, the one required to be honoured by all members of the National Union of Journalists, which includes the likes of protecting sources, intruding on private grief and discriminating on the grounds of sex, race, etc. Not that every member of the press is a member of the NUJ, and maybe they should be.

Taken together, the PCC code and the NUJ one cover pretty much all of the bases, which kind of makes the debate between self-regulation and its alternative (state?) often pretty sterile. The tools – or at least most of them – are already at our disposal.

The PCC has reason to be proud of its track record. Newspapers are regularly held up for scrutiny and identified for having breached the editors’ code.

But it presumably could do with the resources required to investigate possible cases of being lied to.

And it presumably could do with agreement from within the industry that corrections are genuinely given as much prominence as the original offending article(s). Page one, if necessary.

The first should be relatively easy to solve, and there can be no better time to tap politicians for a few extra quid than now.

The second, were it to happen, might be no bad thing for even the newspaper forced to apologise. A big apology says to readers: we take these things seriously, to err is to be human. A small apology, by comparison, risks being perceived as no apology at all: macho, begrudging, insincere.

But if there is perhaps one thing any brave new world perhaps should turn its attention to, it is this: what constitutes ‘public interest’. Where does public good stop and public prurience begin? The boundaries will always be hazy, but that should not stop at least some attempt to establish some ‘line in the sand’.

The noted columnist and broadcaster, Lesley Riddoch, the other day said, in her Sunday Post column, that people’s private lives should be off limits for a journalist.

She doesn’t differentiate between criminality and carnal knowledge and there is an argument that one is fair game and the other is not.

But one thing is for sure: if the nature of journalism is set to be changed, it’s an argument that absolutely requires to be had.