New threat to bring PCC under control of Ofcom

PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer will face parliamentary threat

The press faces a new threat to self-regulation with controversial moves to bring the Press Complaints Commission under the supervision of media regulator Ofcom.

If backed by Parliament, the PCC would, in effect, be licensed by Ofcom, which could withdraw its support if it judged self-regulation was not working, paving the way for the Government to bring in statutory controls.

The Liberal Democrats served notice this week that they would press an amendment to the Government’s communications bill, in an open warning to new PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer that they expected him to enforce higher standards.

"The PCC all too often seems to act as a buffer against justified criticism, rather than an enforcer of standards," Lord McNally, the Liberal Democrats’ broadcasting spokesman in the House of Lords, told the party’s Brighton conference.

"I wish the new chairman of the PCC well. But such an amendment will put him on notice that Parliament expects him to initiate robust reform of the PCC as a matter of urgency,"

he said.

The Liberal Democrats’ move comes just a few weeks after the Lord Chancellor gave the PCC a final chance to  enforce a voluntary ban on payments to witnesses in criminal trials or face legislation making payments a criminal offence, with penalties of two years’ imprisonment and unlimited fines.

Lord McNally and the Liberal Democrats’ broadcasting spokesman in the Commons, Nick Harvey, were members of Lord Puttnam’s scrutiny committee, which examined whether self-regulatory bodies should seek accreditation from Ofcom.

Lord McNally told the conference: "Self-regulation is part of a contract of mutual trust between the public and each particular sector. You will see from our report that we found that, in the main, self-regulation worked well in advertising, but we had less confidence in the Press Complaints Commission. I think that finding reflects the public mood.

"I give notice that at the appropriate time, Nick or I will introduce into the communications bill an amendment along the lines of the recommendation of the Puttnam committee that self-regulatory bodies in the communications sector seek accreditation from Ofcom so that their policy objectives, independence, transparency and accountability can be assessed.

"This approach, applied to the PCC, would enable us to judge whether self-regulation can work in the print media. As the Puttnam committee  points out, the strength of such oversight by Ofcom is that ‘withdrawal of accreditation similarly would imply the need for additional or re-imposed statutory regulation’."

Ofcom will take over its role of media regulator once the bill becomes law next autumn. The Government is now putting the finishing touches to the bill, which it plans  to introduce soon after the Queen opens the new session of Parliament.

Newspaper publishers have already expressed fears that under the Government’s proposals, Ofcom will also have an advisory role in newspaper mergers.

Puttnam interview, features

By David Rose

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