Press Complaints Commission is not toothless, says chair

Lady Buscombe says editors take notice of upheld complaints – but newspapers have right to publish 'unpalatable' opinions

The chair of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has hit back at claims the organisation is "toothless" after complaints over coverage of the death of pop singer Stephen Gately and the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

In an open letter accompanying the PCC's annual review, Baroness Buscombe highlighted the "difficult but important" case of Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir's comments about the death of the Boyzone singer, which received an unprecedented 25,000 complaints from the public, including from his partner, Andrew Cowles.

She defended the PCC decision that the article – headlined: "Why there was nothing 'natural' about Stephen Gately's death" – had not breached press guidelines.

"It was a difficult decision to make but I believe it was the right one," she wrote, adding that it was a "fallacy" to describe the organisation as toothless.

Gately died of natural causes last October at his holiday home in Majorca.

Buscombe wrote: "The commission considered that newspapers had the right to publish opinions that many might find unpalatable and offensive, and that it would not be proportionate, in this case, to rule against the free expression of the columnist's views on a subject that was the focus of intense public attention."

The parliamentary culture, media and sport select committee's inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel, which issued a report in February, criticised some of the work of the PCC, but recommended beefing up its powers.

It singled out coverage of Madeleine McCann's disappearance in 2007 as an example of the PCC's "lack of teeth".

Buscombe wrote: "An upheld complaint is a serious outcome for any editor and puts down a marker for future press behaviour … The fact that breaches of the code can lead to public criticism means that editors have to consider the key ethical issues before publishing.

"We regularly hear about stories that are not published, intrusions that do not take place, thanks to the terms of the code and the decisions of the PCC."

Buscombe said a free press is a central component of a healthy democracy and "the undesirability of a statutory press regulator is very clear".

She added: "One can't help but notice the principle of self-regulation has taken a knock recently in reporting of the parliamentary expenses scandal and the banking crisis. It would be wholly wrong, however, to draw lessons from those unfortunate episodes for regulation of the press."

She said self-imposed restraint on the part of editors was the right way to deal with difficult cases, rather than "heavy-handed" statutory regulation.

The annual review found that last year more people contacted the PCC to raise concerns than ever before.

Overall, the commission initiated 1,134 investigations in 2009, up from 949 in 2008. Last year, there were 738 complaints which raised a possible breach of the terms of the editors' code of practice, compared with 678 in 2008.

In 2009, 609 of the complaints were amicably settled when the newspaper or magazine took remedial action which satisfied the complainant, compared with 552 complaints resolved in this way in 2008.

Contributor

Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

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