The PCC's brave ruling over Jan Moir and Stephen Gately | Jonathan Heawood

With its intellectually coherent and courageous decision, the PCC has bitten hard on a trend towards glamorising 'offence'

So many people have called the Press Complaints Commission toothless that it has almost become part of its brand: the TPCC. Today's ruling on the Jan Moir column about Stephen Gately's death will undoubtedly fuel calls for its abolition. Yet this ruling, in which the PCC argues that freedom of expression must come before the distaste and even distress that Moir has caused, is far from toothless. It is a brave decision that will win the commission few friends and many enemies at a time when its future is under close scrutiny from parliament, the blogosphere and even the press itself.

The commission had three opportunities to condemn the Daily Mail for publishing Moir's piece only six days after Gately's sudden death in Majorca, and the day before his funeral. The complaint brought by Gately's partner, Andrew Cowles, argued that the Mail had breached clause 1 (accuracy); clause 5 (intrusion into grief or shock); and clause 12 (discrimination) of the editors' code of practice.

In a detailed adjudication, the PCC explains why it has not upheld any of these complaints. In terms of accuracy, it reasons that Moir's piece was clearly labelled as her opinion, and that any inaccuracies in the piece were repeated from other coverage in the days since Gately's death. In terms of her intrusion into the family's grief, the commission argues that the sheer volume of other press coverage had already placed the issue firmly in the public domain. And in terms of discrimination, the PCC sticks to its belief that discrimination against a group (gay men) is different from discrimination against an individual, and that, while Moir is clearly guilty of the former, she is innocent of the latter.

There's a lot to argue with here, but I don't think that this ruling is toothless: in fact it's full of bite. The PCC could have appeased public opinion by coming down hard on the Mail. But what message would that have sent out across the media? That unpalatable opinions should not be published? That newspapers should simply reflect consensus opinions? No. The PCC has bitten hard on this trend towards glamorising "offence", as though our sensitivities carried legal weight. The government has pandered towards this view in a series of new speech offences, and the courts are following a similar approach in their judgments on defamation and privacy. It's time to rebalance this, and to remember that we all benefit more than we suffer from free speech. Without a public sphere in which to express our opinions we would be forced to retreat into silence, martyrdom or violent dissent.

The best response to speech is more speech, and as the PCC notes, there are now countless opportunities to respond to unpleasant views such as Moir's: "The reaction to the article, and the publicity which had ensued as a result of its publication, was a testament to freedom of expression, and was indicative of a broader process at work, demonstrating the widespread opportunity that exists to respond to an article and make voices of complaint heard." In other words, because the article online attracted 1,600 comments, and 25,000 complaints were made to the PCC, there was less need for the PCC to intervene.

This is an intriguing point, which requires further thought. Would the PCC have greater cause to rule against the press if fewer people were publicly offended? If we all tweeted our responses to every article published would the PCC cease to exist, dissolving in a puff of media-saturated smoke?

There are many questions about the role of the PCC, yet this intellectually coherent and courageous decision reveals that it has a clear sense of its own role. In an age where there is a mounting belief that we have the right not to be offended, there are also new opportunities to voice our anger.

The public sphere has expanded exponentially over the last decade to encompass every shade of public opinion. As this adjudication notes, the code of practice states that there is a "public interest in the freedom of expression itself". We all benefit from the PCC's liberal regime, which understands our fundamental rights better than the libel and privacy courts, with their hostile rulings on free speech. Nonetheless, the PCC will have made life easier today for its critics, who will undoubtedly exercise their own free speech to call for its abolition.


Jonathan Heawood

The GuardianTramp

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