Sir Christopher Meyer: “privacy laws are offensive in principle”
New chairman Sir Christopher Meyer’s first proposals for reform of the Press Complaints Commission include the appointment of a “Charter Commissioner” to review its handling of complaints. He also wants:
An extra lay commissioner, bringing the ratio of lay members to editors to 10:7. All lay members to be elected by openly advertising around the UK;
An annual audit of the PCC’s customer service by an independent panel appointed by the PCC and reporting to it;
An annual audit of the Editors’ Code by the code committee – to include suggestions for change from the public;
Newspapers and magazines to clearly brand the PCC’s critical adjudications in a common form;
Open meetings in UK cities and towns to promote the work of the PCC;
A user’s handbook on applying the code for every newsroom in the country.
Meyer unveiled his first thoughts on the PCC to the Newspaper Society annual lunch in London on Tuesday.
“What I want to do is nail to the door of the Newspaper Society eight ideas which would reinforce it [the PCC] to the benefit of the ordinary citizen,” he said.
The Charter Commissioner will not be a legal ombudsman to which disgruntled complainants could “appeal” a decision of the commission, he said. “As a matter of principle, why should one person’s view on a complex matter be better than seventeen’s? As a matter of practice, appeals against the decisions of the commission would merely mean once again the insertion into the system of lawyers – meaning, once again, cost and delay.
“But there is a crucial difference in my mind between appeals against the substance of an issue – which should be the preserve of the commission – and review on procedural grounds.”
Instead, the Commissioner could be one of the members of the audit panel, who would report regularly to the PCC with recommendations for changes.
“This would be tantamount to creating our own internal system of judicial review, just as PCC case law parallels that of the courts.”
What he is determined will not change will be the commission’s independence – not subject to an ombudsman or Ofcom; not an agent for fines on, or censorship of, the press.
“No one pretends that it is perfect or all-wise,” he said. “Self-regulation of the press Ã‰ has its jagged edges and imperfections and it always will. But the alternatives – state regulation or privacy laws that will necessarily favour the affluent – are offensive in principle and would be defective in practice.”
If the PCC is one of the many guardians of the public’s interest, it must be an independent body, free from the pressures of the state, the establishment and of the press itself, Meyer said, adding: “That is why the term ‘self-regulation’ perhaps fails fully to capture what is involved. It is self-regulation ‘plus’. The PCC is not the fox in charge of the hen house.”
Meyer gave an unexpected insight into politicians’ views of journalists when he related how he was interviewed by the then Prime Minister John Major for a job as his press secretary.
“What did I think of political journalists, Mr Major asked? I said that they gave off a more pungent smell of journalism than the diplomatic editors to whom I was accustomed,” said Meyer, who was at the Foreign Office.
“Pungent?” said the PM, “Pungent? Putrid, more likely.”
Meyer was undeterred, he said, and after an interview lasting all of five minutes, accepted the job.
By Jean Morgan