Let's have a PCC for the 21st century

 by Martin Belam, 10 February 2009

I said this morning that I was disappointed how quickly the debate about press regulation raised by the Media Standards Trust has been simplified into "we either have the PCC as it is or we have 'Ofpress'. Or, in some quarters, "You are either with us or you are against us".

Let me be clear here, the last thing I think the industry needs right now is some new Government approved regulatory quango.

However, the PCC and the industry have to admit that we need to sit down and have a serious re-think about the way the industry is regulated. At a time when revenue is declining, and audiences are declining, and trust is declining, we can't keep having situations like the McCann & Murat payouts and apologies going on without a proper inquiry as to how we got there, and how the PCC model can be made to work for a 21st century media ecosystem.

PCC logo

Here are six things I think the PCC should act quickly to change about the way it works:

End the requirement for personal involvement

The PCC website states: "The PCC does not generally accept complaints from third parties about cases involving named individuals without the signed authorisation of the person concerned". If the BBC were to follow this line of argument, the only people able to complain about Sachsgate would have been Andrew Sachs and Georgina Baillie, and the only legitimate complainant about Jerry Springer: The Opera would have been Jesus.

End the requirement for a hard copy

To complain about a television programme you don't have to send a VHS tape to Ofcom. To complain about an advert you don't have to send a billboard to ASA. The PCC requires a hard copy supplied, and if it doesn't get it within 7 days of the complaint, it gets automatically dropped.

Not only is this burdensome to the complainant, it is also an unethical requirement. It means that the person complaining actually has to purchase and commercially reward the publication that has offended them in order to submit a written complaint.

Update the code to reflect the reality of online

The PCC code doesn't make any distinction between print and online. It should. They are different media. Of course the standards of reporting should be high for both, but how, for example, would you complain to the PCC about offensive user-generated content on a newspaper website that the paper itself refused to remove or deal with. Which part of the code would apply to that? If a newspaper is consistently allow racially inflammatory material to be published in their user comments, what redress is there through the PCC?

Insist corrections be reported online by newspapers

In the UK, The Independent and The Guardian both have sections for their corrections, but the other quality papers do not appear to. All papers should be encouraged by the PCC to gather their corrections and clarifications together online.

Hold monthly meetings in public

PCC adjudications and deliberations would be more transparent if they met in public. The format could be like a community council, where people on the floor get to participate, or like a Parliament select committee. I would suggest a monthly meeting which moved around the country, debated complaints from the previous month, and announced adjudications. The PCC will argue that it does have 'Open Days'. Here are the details of the latest 'Open Days' I took from their website:

"In 2008, an Open Day has taken place in Leeds and a further will take place in Ipswich – details will be posted on this website in due course."

Publish data

The press are always eager to announce that x thousand people have complained to the BBC about this, or that ITV has been deluged by n number of complaints about that, almost as soon as a programme has been transmitted. The most recent numerical data published by the PCC is in their 2007 Annual Report, and they produce a newsletter every few months. They should publish a monthly bulletin of complaints with detailed statistics of which publications, and which sections of the code, are generating the most contacts from the public. Then we'd all be able to see clearly the extent to which editors are adhering to the spirit as well as the letter of the code of conduct.



I agree with all your proposals but would go much further to open up the PCC

To illustrate my point, I complained to the PCC about an article in the Daily Mail that day, where online they were inviting their readers to call a named 13 yeard old girl a slut in the comments at the foot of the page. The complaint was rejected as it didn't directly affect me. India Knight picked up the story in her Sunday Times column.

I am amazed at this Martin; the whole process seems archaic and very antisocial in its concept. Your post brings to light how unregulated the current situation is and that a whole rethink needs to occur with regulations to better serve our country.

Accountability is something the whole country seems to fail on, banking, government and press. There is no encouragement of the ‘peoples voice’ and individuals with many worthwhile things to say are not heard. In the states, the whole society is geared around 'polls' to gage the general public view.

The media is very powerful, too powerful to be self regulated. The points you raise are very valid and sensible, but I would take this one-step further. News reports should always be put into perspective to improve the quality and legibility of the current topics discussed, often I hear:

• Many thousands of people are suffering from this in the UK. Without highlighting how many people are not suffering.

• Hardly ever any comparisons to similar industry's to put points into context.

• Often very narrow viewpoints are promoted which make an article easy to write, only referencing other resources to shock people even more, not to provide an unbiased sensible viewpoint.

• Not quoting other sources to put things into perspective, i.e. UK, to EU, USA comparisons.

Sometimes when I listen/watch the news, every storey mentioned is more of a point of view than a full review and summary of the situation.

All we currently hear is doom and gloom broadcasted every day. After watching the Britt awards last night, I was uplifted and for the first time in a long time, I felt proud to be British. It was a celebration of all that is good about our country. The media could have had a field day and really promote the success, but no, we are left with a majority of negative story’s and viewpoints. See here: http://leeroper.com/bbc_uk_news.png

I think some form of regulation that meant publications with a large audiences should balance their content or at least promote positive, inspiring stories. The knock on effects of something like this could change the whole country’s outlook and perception on many things.

Maybe I am naive and being too much of an idealist, but I think the points you raise are just the beginning to what could be done to improve the quality of the country’s media.

I completely agree with you, Martin!

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