Perhaps stung by the criticism of its docile passivity in the face of the Goodman affair, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in the UK has this week come to life, swinging into acting with at least three very important developments, covered in this post and the next two.
The first is a direct result of the fallout from the royal phone-tapping affair. This week’s Media Guardian reports that the
PCC plans to write to every newspaper and magazine editor to ask what controls they have in place to prevent the sort of “intrusive fishing expeditions” undertaken by Goodman and widely speculated to have become common practice among some Sunday tabloid journalists. It will then publish its conclusions, with possible options believed to include new best-practice guidelines and the setting up of new training courses to make journalists more aware of the code and the law.
This is very welcome, but there is more than a whiff of stable doors and bolting horses about it. And the PCC can’t say it wasn’t warned. The UK’s Information Commissioner issued a report in May 2006 and a follow-up the following December highlighting the unlawful trade in personal information and calling for the two-year penalties which the UK finally announced this week. Moreover, (according to Roy Greenslade) it seems that this is all that the PCC can now do, as it can no longer pursue its inquiry in the paper’s internal conduct in the affair (see Greenslade again). In the first of these pieces, he says that “it is sobering to realise that the PCC has not has a single complaint about the Goodman affair”. This may in part be because the public does not see the PCC able to make any difference in these kinds of matters. That perception may not be true, but it is only by being active, and being seen to be active (as the Information Commissioner is) that the public can gain awareness of the powers of the PCC in such cases. Furthermore, there is an important lesson in all of this for our forthcoming Press Council. Quite simply, it should try from the off to be as pro-active as the Information Commissioner rather than as slowly and incompletely reactive as the PCC.