Media watchdog demands answers on PCC libel payout

An independent media charity has demanded to know the financial cost of the Press Complaints Commission‘s legal battle with phone-hack lawyer Mark Lewis.

Last Friday, the PCC made a statement at the High Court court expressing ‘regret’over comments made by chairman Peta Buscombe at the 2009 Society of Editors conference.

She implied in the comments that Lewis had misled MPs by misquoting a policeman and exaggerating the number of individuals targeted by phone hacking at the News of the World.

The terms of any cash settlement between the PCC and Lewis are confidential and the PCC has declined to comment about them.

But the Media Standards Trust has asked the Press Standards Board of Finance (PressBof) – which collects fees from UK publishers to fund the PCC – a series of questions about the matter.

In a letter to PressBof chairman Lord Guy Black, the Trust says: “The PCC has, over the last 18 months, repeatedly emphasised its increased commitment to transparency (most notably in the 2009 Annual Review).

“It also, along with the press, often makes a virtue of the comparative low cost of press self-regulation as compared to, for example, Ofcom or the Advertising Standards Agency.

“The details of the settlement – notably the amount paid in damages, the legal costs, and the costs of the case overall – are therefore highly relevant and in the public interest.”

In the letter the Trust asks how much the settlement was (including legal costs) and also who paid for it.

It also asks what Peta Buscombe’s terms of employment are and in what circumstances PressBof could ask her to stand down.

It says: “What action does Press BoF intend to take following the libel settlement?”

Adding: “This is the first time that the chair of the PCC has had to apologise to the High Court and pay libel damages for misleading comments made.

“It would therefore be helpful to know what action the Press Board of Finance intends to take, particularly concerning how it intends to prevent this happening again, and how it intends to make financial provision for this in the future.”

The most recent accounts for the PCC for 2008 show it had annual costs of just under £2m of which £97,584 was spent on lawyers.

The Media Standards Trust is an independent charity with a remit to “foster high standards in the news on behalf of the public”. It mainly derives its funding from a range of charitable foundations.

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