Desmond editorial chief hints at return to the PCC

Northern and Shell editorial director Paul Ashford has hinted that the rebel publisher could return to the Press Complaints Commission if the body was made more independent and less like an industry “gentlemen’s club”.

Ashford attended a seminar on the future of media regulation held at City University yesterday and spoke in depth about his company’s decision to withdraw from the PCC last year publicly for the first time.

The unilateral withdrawal of the Express and Star titles, plus Northern and Shell’s magazines, has been seen by some as a greater threat to the future of press self-regulation than the hacking scandal.

Ashford said that as the newest Fleet Street publisher: “We entered an industry where there are lots of personalities and there were bitter rivalries…We were invited a little grudgingly into this gentlemen’s club called the PCC where we all regulated ourselves and each other…

“As far as we were concerned we were being regulated by what appeared to us to be a private club…it was difficult to draw a line between commercial attacks and working together on a regulatory body.”

Ashford said that the biggest reason for Northern and Shell’s withdrawl from the PCC was the watchdog’s decision to single out Express Newspapers for criticism over their coverage of the Madeleine McCann disappearance after those titles made a record libel payout to the family in 2008.

He said: “The Express group wrote more negative stories about the McCanns than anyone else, we also wrote more positive stories – we wrote more stores. During the time when everyone was writing stories there was no discussion of this through the PCC, no discussion saying let’s get together and say what our stance is on this. After it we were vilified by the PCC, which we would say is beyond their remit.”

Asked by City University head of journalism George Brock what sort of press regulation system he would like to see, Ashford said: “I think the PCC system of self-regulation is probably the best one we are going to get”, but added that it would need an “independent board”. And he hinted that were the PCC to be “differently constituted”, Northern and Shell might no longer object to paying its subcription to the system.

PCC director Stephen Abell said that the Northern and Shell owner Richard Desmond’s issues were with the industry – and not the PCC.

He said: “These are people who are fairly competitive and who don’t trust each other. If we can get agreement with the industry about what the industry is and what the industry stands for, that is the heart of the question that we are all trying to answer in different ways.”

Former PCC chairman Peta Buscombe voiced a similar response, speaking at the same event. She said: “You’re talking about the industry [not the PCC].” Adding that, at meetings she had held with Richard Desmond it had been clear to her that his problem was with the behaviour of other members of the industry, rather than with the PCC.

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