Misuse of the law is not an argument for self-regulation

There’s something curious about Baroness Buscombe’s speech to the Society Of Editors. She talks a great deal about our “dysfunctional democracy” and the role of the press in supplying oppositional scrutiny. She is – and this is very welcome – severely critical of superinjunctions, and the harm they do in restricting information. But none of these things are within her remit as chair of the PCC, and she seems adamant that while there’s plenty to be fixed around the PCC, everything inside is working just fine.

The PCC is a “discreet”, “sensible”, “democratic” service she proclaims, and she has a chilly warning for anyone who thinks the PCC should be doing more:

So to those people who have recently signed a petition on the Number 10 website urging the government to put the PCC on a statutory footing I say: be careful what you wish for.

Yes, there were many people angered by Jan Moir’s controversial article about the death of Stephen Gately; and indeed 25,000 people were sufficiently moved to complain about it to the PCC. But when there is – in the PCC – already a channel to express dismay that a paper has overstepped the line, do people really want a government body telling us what we can read and think? […]

But a statutory press council is, in any case, pie in the sky. We need look no further than the other great development of the last few weeks to see why. The most benign thing that can be said about the recent Trafigura injunction fiasco was that it showed a touching naïveté on the part of the highly paid lawyers advising the company.

Baroness Buscombe, “Speech to the Society of Editors”

From a restricted perspective, the revulsion at Moir and the exposure of Trafigura might look like contradictory impulses: the conflicted twittermob wants The Mail to hush up, and The Guardian to speak freely. But Trafigura was about verifiable, public interest information. Moir offered nothing but crass speculation – and it’s important to note that she didn’t just outrage the delicate and arbitrary mores of online liberals. Her column broke the PCC’s own code – a code which her employer, The Mail, is ostensibly committed to maintaining.

The PCC’s impotent position means that newspapers feel able to disregard the rules they’ve signed up to. Buscombe, in her interview on Today the next morning, congratulates the PCC on the work it does in averting breaches pre-publication, but when something as clearly egregious as Moir on Gately can make it online and in print, her confidence looks misplaced.

Superinjunctions and libel law need reform, badly. But if legal remedies are going to be made increasingly inaccessible, the PCC will have to do more to assist individuals who end up on the wrong side of reporting: ugly intrusions into personal grief are not the fair price of a free press. The PCC could impose all sorts of penalties on a columnist like Moir without standing in the way of a single Trafigura. But the conflation of personal intrusion with public interest has long been the PCC’s argument for doing nothing: Buscombe is simply aligning recent events to fit a very old way of doing things.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

One thought on “Misuse of the law is not an argument for self-regulation

  1. Well, absolutely.

    The idea of legislating the press can’t just be based on the principle of castigating the press, which is the mindset people approach the problem with. The idea of legislating the press is also to afford protections to them that would stop instances like the Trafigura nonsense.

    If the PCC isn’t able to sufficiently hold the press to account, and the law can be abused in order to silence things clearly in the public interest, then the system isn’t working. Well-constructed, balanced legislation that approaches the issues from the idea of fairness on both protections and assurances of freedoms has to be considered.

    But really, do you expect a Tory head who supports the Tory government to say anything else? Cameron doesn’t want to rock any boats he’ll need to be sympathetic toward him, and so at least until he’s secured the election and can start making some headway on real policy, he won’t dare touch the PCC or legislate.

    Too many editors are afraid of legislation because they see it as a tool of punishment, not empowerment.

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