Comment is free – until the crowd makes Ofcom nervous

The PCC ruled that Jan Moir was free to say what she wanted about Stephen Gately, even though it was 'tasteless and offensive'. Ofcom's code says something very different

It's that old dividing line again: the difference between self-regulation (Press Complaints Commission) and statutory regulation (Ofcom). Twenty-five thousand instantly orchestrated protests, complaining about Jan Moir's Mail column on the death of Stephen Gately, pour into the PCC. The commission ponders, and decides that an apologetic Jan and her murkily confusing piece may have been "tasteless and offensive" – but that press freedom means it shouldn't deal in bad taste and offence. Columnists have a necessary right to sound off come what may. It's not for the chief constable of Cambridge, the professor of communications law at Queen Mary College, or the chairman of the Internet Watch Foundation (among others) to start blue-pencilling opinions, however grottily expressed. Comment is free, in print as online.

And Ofcom, in a parallel case? The same breed of great and good commissioners would have been deciding, of course, but they would have turned automatically to paragraph 2.3 of the broadcasting code. "Broadcasters must ensure that material which may cause offence is justified by the context (see meaning of "context" below). Such material may include, but is not limited to, offensive language, violence, sex, sexual violence, humiliation, distress, violation of human dignity, discriminatory treatment or language (for example on the grounds of … sexual orientation)." Oh! and "context" includes the size and composition of the audience.

So 25,000 angry letters, not to mention humiliation, distress and dignity, would surely have sunk Ms Moir. And the really serious question – beyond tweet or belligerent blog – is how much we want our press to be ruled by a quango that can decide what can or can't be written in terms (among other things) of how many take umbrage. Don't publish, escape damnation? It doesn't exactly resound.

Contributor

Peter Preston

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Leveson inquiry needs a lesson in press regulation history
Peter Preston: Another stab at press regulation risks bringing back the worst aspects of previous attempts

Peter Preston

05, Feb, 2012 @12:03 AM

Article image
Leveson inquiry: controlling the media will finally come down to politics | Peter Preston
Peter Preston: Lord Leveson's ideas of an 'independent' regulation regime may fall foul of Westminster reality

Peter Preston

02, Jun, 2012 @7:25 PM

Article image
When superinjunctions fail, the PCC won't save privacy
Ryan Giggs should have called the Press Complaints Commission not Schillings, says its chair – but things aren't that simple

Peter Preston

28, May, 2011 @11:03 PM

Article image
A fresh take on press regulation? No need – a PCC code is already in place
Peter Preston: A register of 'bad' journalists isn't a new idea nor is it necessary, as the Press Complaints Commission has codes on conduct

Peter Preston

01, Oct, 2011 @11:01 PM

Article image
Leveson leads the press to the last-chance saloon – again
Peter Preston: The time has come for Sir Brian to fix the problems of the press. But that's what Ross, Shawcross, Younger, McGregor and Calcutt wanted too

Peter Preston

16, Jun, 2012 @11:06 PM

Article image
Leveson: an elephantine, sloppy exercise in cut-and-paste

Peter Preston: Shuffling bundles in his Strand courtroom, Lord Justice Leveson offers surprisingly little original thought or research

Peter Preston

02, Dec, 2012 @12:04 AM

Article image
Richard Desmond and Paul Dacre don't agree on the PCC – so call in Ofcom
The Press Complaints Commission need not be the only forum for newspaper regulation, writes Peter Preston

Peter Preston

12, Feb, 2012 @12:04 AM

Article image
If junior ministers can't get their facts straight, all we are left with is comment
Chloe Smith's grilling by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight goes to show that the blurring of reporting and commentary in the media can't easily be regulated

Peter Preston

30, Jun, 2012 @11:04 PM

Article image
Jon Gaunt loses free speech case – so he calls for more censorship
Gaunt's case against Ofcom exposes the difference between broadcast and press regulation

Peter Preston

17, Jul, 2010 @11:01 PM

Article image
JK Rowling and a free press: the truth, but not Hogwarts and all
Peter Preston: The creator of Harry Potter, like many celebrities, speaks up for freedom of expression, but keeps her critics on a tight leash

Peter Preston

29, Sep, 2012 @11:05 PM