By Mary Stevens
Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger is standing by his threat to pull out of the Press Complaints Commission after receiving full support from his fellow broadsheet editors.
The editors of The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent rushed to support Rusbridger after the PCC ruled it was wrong for the paper to pay prisoner John Williams for a diary detailing his time in jail with Jeffrey Archer.
Rusbridger said he was “astonished” by the ruling and would pull The Guardian out of the PCC if it also found that “A life inside”, a separate column written by prisoner Erwin James, was against the code.
When asked if he thought the ruling could damage self-regulation, Rusbridger said: “I think it has already. I can’t think of any other issue where we have had four editors come out on the same day and say this is a rubbish decision. The editors who have spoken out are all mystified.
“I had phone calls from two of them within an hour of the ruling hitting the streets. I think the other editors felt strongly about it, as you can see from what they have written. As I see it, it doesn’t seem to come remotely within what the PPC had in mind when the clause came into effect. It seems to be a ridiculous interpretation.”
A Daily Telegraph leader column said the PCC had “shot itself in the foot” by finding The Guardian at fault while it was thought to have exonerated the News of the World for paying convicted conman Florim Gashi £10,000. The full adjudication is expected next week.
The PCC has asked The Guardian to send it examples of the “A life inside” column but the paper has not yet decided whether it will do so. “I would be amazed if they really tried to stop us from running this column because it has had such fantastic reviews,” said Rusbridger. “Everyone who has read it perceives it to be an interesting and unprecedented look into prison life. It was agreed with the prison minister and we have played it by the book.
“For the PCC to adopt a more restrictive position than the prison authorities would be unthinkable. I can’t believe they have this in mind, but then I was extremely surprised after this rogue ruling.
“If we have got the PCC trying to block that sort of commentary on penal life and penal reform, I can’t see how we could stay. Well, we have two options. We could carry on publishing it and have regular rulings against it, or we pull out of the PCC.”
A spokesman for the PCC said it had requested the “A life inside” columns after The Guardian had brought them to its attention, but it wasn’t necessarily going to investigate.
He said that although other broadsheet editors had supported The Guardian, they acknowledged it had been at fault. “The comments since have accepted there was a breach of the code, but they have then said the commission shouldn’t have found them to be in breach. The Guardian paid a criminal and the material wasn’t in the public interest, so we thought it was legitimate to pursue it. Some commentators seem to think The Guardian has a special place and should be immune to investigation.”