Guest blog: Has change just exposed the PCC's weakness?

I doubt if the changes, announced yesterday, in the way the media presents Press Complaints Commission adjudications prompted spontaneous celebrations from the tabloid critics at the Leveson Inquiry.

Instead, I suspect they were greeted with comments like “too little, too late”.

The changes, announced by the Editors’ Code Committee , mean that from 1 January, editors who breach the code must publish critical PCC adjudications with a prominence that has been agreed in advance with the PCC’s director.

Committee chairman Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, believes the action will kill the myth that adjudications are routinely buried in the paper. “It should dispose of another misconception,” he said.

In my experience, this practice wasn’t always a misconception. An editor I knew once published an apology amid the classifieds – it replaced a house ad. And as a sub, I was often instructed to bury an apology or correction … “on a left hand page up the back somewhere”.

The Daily Mirror famously went to the other extreme and published a grovelling full page apology to American millionaire Steve Bing – with an article on the facing page saying how Americans didn’t understand British sarcasm.

The situation has certainly improved in recent years, largely thanks to the PCC. Many papers now have an apology column on page two.

However, I don’t believe we go anywhere near far enough in righting our wrongs. Mud Sticks … and a couple of pars on page two do little to unstick it.

The Defamation Act 1996 offers a better solution. Someone defamed in a privileged article can insist on their right of reply receiving “like manner of publication” in terms of prominence and position.

The changes announced by the PCC are certainly a step in the right direction. But what if a publication could not agree the prominence of an adjudication with the PCC’s director? What would be the ultimate sanction?

A PCC spokesman explained: “In practice, there has never been an occasion when an editor has refused to publish a critical adjudication.

“The system of self-regulation requires buy-in from editors, and indeed it is a strength of the system that editors accept the commission’s rulings.

“Agreement on prominence is already frequently negotiated by the PCC in advance of publication anyway. This Code change now formalises that process.”

And if there was no agreement?

“Ultimately the matter would be referred to the Commission.”

And then? Hmm …

The new arrangements may improve the situation. But I fear our critics will see them as another demonstration of the PCC’s ultimate lack of power.

Cleland Thom is a consultant and trainer in media law.


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