I took part last weekend in the first group discussion of the Press
Complaints Commission’s rewritten code of practice.
The event, where the first draft of the code was privately circulated,
was designed as a sounding board by the Guild of Editors. But the
experience left me anxious about the state of self-regulation, and the
effectiveness of the PCC at this critical point.
The code committee, composed of editors and chaired by the Mail’s Sir
David English, was publicly bounced into agreeing to make big changes
last September, in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, when the
press and paparazzi were accused of hounding her to death.
Somewhat to my surprise, I found that the industry-wide rethink sternly
demanded by both the PCC’s chairman Lord Wakeham and reinforced by code
committee member Charles Moore, editor of the Daily Telegraph, was
taking far longer than most commentators expected. The initiative has
run into a wave of resentment from the professionals closer to the grass
This poses big leadership and PR problems for the PCC.
A cynic might say the public was fooled into believing immediate changes
on the key privacy, protection of children and payments to freelance
photographers were underway, when in reality everything apart from a
cordon sanitaire around Princes William and Harry remains - still -
As if to underscore the point that life goes on pretty much as before,
the Sunday Mirror splashed with its Piers Merchant exclusive, including
furtive bedroom pictures, for three weeks in a row.
Despite pledges about respecting privacy made by individual editors, it
is clear that Wakeham’s concept of an ever-tightening code covering
everyone looks in jeopardy. For example, magazine and provincial editors
have hit the roof over the proposal to outlaw payments to minors
whatever the circumstances. This undermines the practice, by women’s
magazines, of paying parents for stories about their children’s
problems, as victims of playground bullies etc. Even Sir David, who
turned up in person to present the draft, seemed unsure of the wisdom of
this clause, and others, including a new move to outlaw ’persistent
It seems there is no prospect of a final version emerging until well
into the New Year. And the rewrite has become caught up in larger
For example, the Lords this week began the process of incorporating the
European Convention on Human Rights into British law, including Article
8, guaranteeing individuals privacy.
The delay is enabling PCC critics to sharpen their axes. Last week media
lawyer Geoffrey Robertson used the Guardian’s packed privacy debate to
attack the PCC as a ’fraud’. Amazingly, no-one from the commission
attended, the kind of oversight that spells trouble ahead.