PCC records seven-fold increase in annual complaints

The Press Complaints Commissioned has revealed that there was a seven-fold increase in the number of complaints it received last year fuelled by Jan Moir’s controversial article about the death of Stephen Gately.

The figure was revealed in the organisation’s annual report which was presented to journalists yesterday. During the briefing Baroness Peta Buscombe, chairman of the PCC, said that the findings of a governance review into the PCC would be published next month and that it was part of a drive to make the organisation more transparent.

She said past ‘misconceptions about what we do and why we do it’had stemmed from the regulator not successfully communicating its purpose in the past.

‘I appreciate that perception is as important as reality,’she said.

‘Therefore its very important that when we tackle some quite difficult issues here at the PCC we are aware that we must be careful to ensure that we articulate our process clearly and make clear the extent of our remit so that we are not misconstrued.”

Despite recent criticisms of the PCC, Buscombe said she was comfortable that the organisation was both ‘a mediator and a regulator’although admitted that she had considered that changing the name of the organisation could help improve public understanding of its work.

In February, the commons media select committee recommended the overhaul of the PCC, with its chairman John Whittingdale saying it needed to take a more active role in upholding standards as it was seen as “lacking credibility and authority”.

The committee of MPs went on to criticise the PCC’s recent investigation into allegations phone hacking at the News of the World, calling it ‘simplistic’and saying the regulator needed to take a more active role in upholding standards as it was seen as “lacking credibility and authority”.

Responding to a question asking if the PCC could have dealt with its NoW investigation better, Stephen Abell, director of the PCC, told reporters the PCC hadn’t been sufficiently clear about what its function was during last year’s investigation into phone-hacking and about what its limited powers could achieve.

He said: ‘We weren’t clear enough about what our role was, how we fitted into a system where there was a police investigation, where there was the existence of the Information Commissioner’s office, and that of the PCC where we received no complaints from anyone at the time about this having happened to them.”

Buscombe added: ‘From a legal standpoint we had to be extraordinarily careful not to do anything that would interfere with any other investigative powers…we were very careful about not treading on other people’s toes. That’s a lesson learned and we should have been clearer about that.”

The commission’s annual review revealed how it had investigated 1,134 complaints last year, 738 of which raised a possible breach of the editor’s code of practise with 609 resolved satisfactorily.

However, the PCC recorded a more than seven-fold increase in the number of complaints it received in 2009 about articles that appeared in newspapers and magazines.

More than 37,000 ‘contacts’were made to the press watchdog during 2009, it said – up from 4,700 complaints received the previous year.

The great escalation came after the PCC was contacted by more than 25,000 people over Jan Moir’s Daily Mail article about the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately.

The most complained-about article in 2008 was a Matthew Parris piece in The Times in which he suggested that cyclists should be decapitated. It attracted 584 complaints.

The PCC said the ‘particular outrage’over Moir’s piece led the article to become the most complained of in the organisation’s history.

The regulator also received more than 5,971 complaints last year over a series of 14 articles, appearing in ten different newspapers, relating to the British National Party.

An article written for the Mail on Sunday by TV chef James Martin, in which he admitted running cyclists off the road, attracted 395 complaints, while OK! Magazine’s memorial tribute to Jade Goody, published before of her eventual death, brought 197 complaints.

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