Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Richard Desmond and the PCC

Imagine this, if you can: you pick up a copy of the Daily Star and see a front page story that you don't think is accurate. You think 'I should make a complain about this'. Who do you turn to?

Well, as of today, not the newspaper regulator, the Press Complaints Commission.

They (and the Press Standards Board of Finance) have decided that the Star, the Daily Express, their Scottish and Sunday editions and a host of barrel-scraping celebrity magazines - in other words, every magazine and 'newspaper' published by Richard Desmond's Northern and Shell (N&S) - are now outside of their jurisdiction.

The PCC is funded through PressBoF, which collects a voluntary 'registration fee' from publishers who want to be part of the self-regulatory system. PressBoF explains:

PressBoF's move follows a decision by the publisher - the second occasion on which this has happened since 2008 - that it no longer wishes to pay the voluntary industry levy to support the work of the PCC. Every effort was made by the PressBoF Board to reverse that decision before Northern & Shell's membership of the system lapsed on 31st December 2010.

This decision means that the Northern & Shell titles will now automatically cease to be covered by the work of the PCC, which will as a result of the publisher's decision no longer deal with complaints from members of the public about them, or of the Editors' Code Committee.

Well, that'll teach Northern & Shell, won't it?

So if someone does want to complain about one of the N&S titles, but doesn't want to take legal action, what can they do? According to the PCC:

The Commission will continue to assist individuals to frame their complaints about published articles and will direct individuals to the relevant departments of the titles within the Northern & Shell group.

But we don't know, at this stage, how N&S will handle such complaints - or if they handle them at all.

As Roy Greenslade says:

If Desmond's editors choose to ignore complaints altogether, nothing can be done for the complainant.

Assuming they will accept complaints, we don't know what rules N&S are now playing by (not that the Star or Express seemed to much care about those rules anyway). Will they still (claim to) adhere to the Editor's Code of Practice? Will they produce their own in-house Code? Will they tell their readers how their complaints system will work?

So far, N&S have declined to comment about these developments. We don't even know for sure why they've decided to opt-out.

In December, the Independent on Sunday's 'Feral Beast' claimed:

Richard Desmond has finally had enough of the frequency with which the paper is referred to the PCC.

Roy Greenslade added:

I understand that the Northern & Shell letter offered no explanation for the decision to stop funding Pressbof, merely stating that it no longer suited Desmond's business needs.

Whether this means that his opposition is due to the number of complaints to the PCC about his papers' ethical lapses or whether it is simply about money is unclear.

[UPDATE: The PCC, in responding to the Media Standards Trust, have said: 'all we have been informed is that the decision was taken for monetary reasons.']

Of course, it is easy to argue that this makes very little difference as the PCC has never had much success in holding these papers to account anyway. After the regulator actually upheld a complaint against the Daily Star over a completely misleading front page story, the paper continued to publish the same awful, untrue rubbish they did before. Now they've decided to opt-out of the system altogether.

As Martin Belam said:

Self-regulation becomes self-selecting regulation

Clearly, Desmond and N&S do not take the PCC very seriously. But what now? Greenslade quotes two MPs:

John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, said: "I regard the exclusion as a very serious development. The committee is on record as saying that if self-regulation is to have any credibility it must encompass all the major publishers. This now creates doubt about its efficacy."

He noted that Desmond's exclusion does "carry some consequences" (as outlined above). Another committee member, Paul Farrelly, agreed. He thought Express Newspapers might find judges in libel and privacy cases more hostile towards papers that are not regulated by the PCC.

However, he also said that the exclusion illustrated that publishers lacked effective sanctions against one of their number willing to thumb their nose at self-regulation, adding that it further exposed the PCC as being "ineffective and toothless."

Will Gore, the PCC's Public Affairs Director, who told Jamie Thunder last year:

'Ultimately if major newspapers say “There’s no point in this system anymore, we’re not going to bother with it” eventually it will start to fall apart and in that scenario there will have to be something else.'

So will the PCC 'fall apart'? Somehow, it seems unlikely. It will probably carry on as usual, reassuring everyone who listens that the system still 'works' when it clearly doesn't. Indeed, their website claims:

Self regulation works because the newspaper and magazine publishing industry is committed to it.

And what happens to Desmond? Well, it appears there's nothing to stop his papers carrying on as usual - filled with all the lies, hatred and dreadful 'journalism' that have filled their pages since he bought them. Will it get worse now the PCC fig-leaf has gone? Can it possibly get worse?

As Roy Greenslade says:

He is a rogue owner running rogue newspapers.


  1. It will get worse as they now no longer even have to pretend they are following a code. They won't make a new code and will ignore any complaints headed thier way. Desmond must have some pretty big lies and hatred coming up on his front pages this year if he has decided to drop out of self regulation. His pathetic EU pull out is only the start.

    However, since the PCC no longer has a say over the paper then perhaps people can now go higher than them and get some results. In the past a complaint would only make it to the PCC and was usually ignored by them. Now the chance exists to take it further, perhaps to the Police or and claim that there was nowhere else to turn, especially if the N&S group ignore criticism.

  2. I think this could harm Desmond's papers. This is because the PCC, along with its equivalents in other industries, is a useful way of shielding complaints without the risk of any real liability.

    For example, a paper under the PCC can run a grossly offensive story such as "75% of benefit claimants are faking illness", which is on its face ridiculous and implausible. But people who read it will be vaguely aware that "they couldn't say it unless it was true". Of course they actually can, because if anyone tries to complain, the complaint will not even be investigated, so the shield is very effective for the paper and gives it undeserved credibility.

    But if they come out from under the shield, it will be just ever so slightly obvious that it is the story itself which is completely fake.

  3. 21 years since David Mellor warned the tabloids that they were drinking in the Last Chance Saloon. Some last chance, eh?

  4. Stuck in the Middle12 January 2011 at 13:44

    Use the police. Surely there must come a time when they can prosecute the Express, Mail et al for promoting racial or religious hatred.

  5. I wonder if Richard Desmond just stayed with the PCC until his bid for Channel 5 had been approved and now he own's Channnel 5 he no longer sse the need to pretend to be respectable.

    Papers like the Star must be running up huge losses if they are only being sold at 20p a time. Even at 20p a time the paper has failed to increase readerhip substantially so the only way for it to go is further downmarket.

    It will be interesting to see if Murdoch pulls out of the PCC once he's gained full control of BSKYB.

  6. Clearly, Desmond and N&S do not take the PCC very seriously.//

    And quite rightly. I doubt if anyone will notice the difference that these titles fall outside PCC jurisdiction now. It's not as if the PCC actually did (does) anything anyway.

  7. I'm hoping this will turn out to be a good thing for public perception. Most people still don't seem to be aware of the extent of the lies they are fed. They really believe that there are fact checkers and editors that ensure stories are true. They believe that if stories are not true the PCC is there to do something about it. They don't seem to realise that the PCC is completely ineffective anyway.

    This move might slowly wake people up to those facts and finally see the contempt in which they are viewed by the Press and the big organisations that control them.

    I'm really hoping it can lead to public demand for real accountability in 'News' reporting and a proper regulatory body. And lets face it, fines for their bull***t would be a nice revenue stream for the Government.

    You never know, maybe if they had been made to pay a measly £100 fine for every lie or misleading statement in the last year, the big scary deficit monster might have been banished!

  8. There's at least one thing the PCC should be able to: ban papers from calling what they publish news and calling themselves newspapers... it would at least be somethign

  9. Plan B of the Calcutt report in 1990 was to enforce legal regulation if the PCC couldn't get its act together or it collapsed.

    I wonder if the government will resort to it, this time.


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