Jan Moir's Stephen Gately column shows papers should have an in-house watchdog

The PCC adjudication over the Jan Moir column about Stephen Gately highlights the need for a watchdog within newspapers

The Press Complaints Commission's decision not to uphold a complaint against the Daily Mail over its publication of Jan Moir's article about the death of Stephen Gately is now unsurprisingly the centre of heated controversy.

The adjudication made the point, often overlooked, that one of the primary functions of the PCC, or any other self-regulatory system for the news media, is to defend freedom of speech. The PCC seeks to do that in two ways: directly, as in this case, by endorsing the right of a newspaper and its columnist to publish "offensive" views; and indirectly, by working in a way which both press and public find convincing as an alternative to restrictive legislation.

On the latter count the PCC is constantly criticised for performing so inadequately that the search for an alternative system has become urgent. A seminar in the House of Lords next month will address the issue. Does this particular adjudication weigh in the balance against the PCC? On the whole, I think not.

Anyone entering the argument should read the adjudication in full, the original article by Jan Moir and the followup in which she expressed sorrow at distress caused "by the insensitive timing of the column, published so close to the funeral". The paper told the PCC that the editor of its Irish edition had chosen not to publish the column, but we are not told why in the PCC's summary.

The question to be asked within a newspaper when faced with a decision to publish something likely to cause wide offence is whether the issue is important enough to override the feelings of predictably offended readers. Is this a question that should always be answered in the affirmative purely on the grounds of free speech? To what extent was the decision to publish discussed, and by whom? Was there any argument over the Irish editor's decision not to publish? We might have been told all this if the Daily Mail had had a resident ombudsman, not as an alternative to the PCC but complementary to it, who could have shed light on the paper's inner workings and informed the ensuing argument. Any harm in that?

Ian Mayes

The GuardianTramp

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