The PCC’s standard position on third-party complaints is to dismiss them. Their initial response to contact about Jan Moir’s poisonous Stephen Gately column implied that they intended to hold to the same line in this case, although there was a small suggestion that they could be pressed into expanding their remit:
On initial examination, it would appear that you are, therefore, a third party to the complaint, and wemay [sic] not be able to pursue your concerns further. However, if you feel that your complaint touches on claims that do not relate directly to Mr Gately or his family, please let us know, making clear how they raise a breach of the Code of Practice. If you feel that the Commission should waive its third party rules, please make clear why you believe this.
Email from the PCC, 16 October 2009
It appears that the massive response to Moir’s column (21,000 complaints) has caused them to follow up on that hint of action, because today they sent out a further response:
The PCC generally requires the involvement of directly-affected parties in its investigations, and it has pro-actively been in touch with representatives of Boyzone – who are in contact with Stephen Gately’s family – since shortly after his death. Any complaint from the affected parties will naturally be given precedence by the Commission, in line with its normal procedures.
If, for whatever reason, those individuals do not wish to make a complaint, the PCC will in any case write to the Daily Mail for its response to the more general complaints from the public before considering whether there are any issues under the Code to pursue.
Email from the PCC, 19 October 2009
One of the problems with the PCC is its institutionalised refusal to look on accuracy as a responsibility held by newspapers to all their readers, rather than a duty they only have towards the people they choose to write about. That means that the PCC has previously been able to ignore any complaints from a third party, and avoid adjudicating on matters (like Moir’s Gately column) when the harm and offence caused spreads much wider than the direct subjects of the piece.
It’s welcome, then, that the PCC will give consideration to the prejudice and inaccuracy in Moir’s piece that animated so many people to complain. At the same time, the PCC is still composed of print industry figures (including Mail On Sunday editor Peter Wright) – and even if they did wish to punish the Mail for this, they have very few sanctions to use.
When the Scottish Sunday Express offered an “insufficient apology” for its intrusion into the privacy of Dunblane survivors, the PCC couldn’t compel the paper to do any more. In the Gately case, the attention on the PCC may be so extreme that they will have to be seen to take convincing action, or face imminent and widespread unhappiness with the self-governing structure.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009