George Bernard Shaw counselled any institution bent on reform not to empty the baby with the bathwater. Alas, Lord McGregor of Durris, founding chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, was not listening. We may now be about to pay a heavy price for that.
For the bathwater was the old Press Council which, though destined to go down the plughole, had nevertheless harboured a rather useful baby. The name it answered to was The Waiver.
It was much cherished by editors, whom it protected by requiring complainants to abandon their legal right to sue.
So nobody (and nobody’s lawyers) could use our self-regulatory procedure as a test run. Any complainant could choose the Press Council remedy or the High Court remedy. But not both. Yet McGregor insisted that by abandoning the waiver, the industry was "moving forward".
Naive? Woolly? Optimistic? Whatever, his was not a view shared by the most eminent legal figures among former Press Council chairmen. Their experience told them it would risk limiting the co-operation in-house lawyers could advise editors to give.
With the press wisely busting a gut to support its last-chance self-regulatory body, the PCC has survived waiverless for a decade. Then along comes the Human Rights Act.
Just look what’s happening in the matter of Radio 1 DJ Sara Cox. She took the Sunday People to the PCC over paparazzo pix of her nude with husband in a private pool while honeymooning in the Seychelles.
Headline: "Barer Sara!"
Editor Neil Wallis, himself a member of the PCC, settled for a prominent and unqualified apology, and thought Cox had settled too. So did the PCC.
But no. Cox announced that she is suing the newspaper under the new Act. If the case ever gets to court, the judge will determine whether intrusion into her privacy was justified as serving genuine public interest and whether the editor has a serious claim to freedom of expression.
We do not know whether the published apology might serve her argument or his. But the newspaper could be in for not just a hefty award but the hefty legal costs of both sides. Even if it believes itself wholly or partly in the right, it could still be cheaper to settle without going anywhere near the Royal Courts of Justice.
What a mess. Please mister, can we have our waiver back? We’re really starting to miss the little beggar.