The Culture, Media and Sport Committee is collecting evidence for its review of the regulation of the press, and even Sir Christopher Meyer, the Chairman of the PCC, recently said that self regulation is going to have to “raise its game”. That certainly seems to be an urgent priority given the PCC’s latest adjudication on the remarkable story published in the News of the World in June, that Paul Burrell had had sex with Princess Diana.
The Problem of Bias
One of the fundamental problems with the PCC as presently constituted is that seven of the seventeen commissioners have a direct commercial interest in the outcome of its adjudications because they are newspaper editors. As Paul Dacre said so forcefully in his recent speech, all restrictions on press freedom have commercial consequences. This was always the case but is even more so now that the PCC is formally operating a system of precedent. Commissioners know that any adjudication they make (although the PCC makes an extraordinarily small number) may one day be cited against them in a complaint.
The Issue of Prominence
There is no element of the PCC Code (which is drawn up exclusively by representatives of the press) where this innate bias comes more clearly to the fore than on the issue of the prominence with which papers have to publish corrections. Paragraph 1 (ii) of the Code provides that inaccuracies “must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence”. Any truly independent body would not adjudicate, as the PCC has, that apologies and corrections are acceptable at 5% of the size of the original article.
The need for the PCC’s intervention comes from the alarming right of the newspaper to decide on the appropriate prominence for corrections and apologies that it publishes. Column inches are the stock in trade of newspapers as they are sold for advertising. It is in the papers’ direct financial interest to keep apologies small.
What about the Millions of Non-Purchasers of the Paper?
It is obvious that millions of individuals (more than actually purchased the paper by a substantial margin) will have read only the startling front page headline alleging a sexual relationship between Paul Burrell and Princess Diana. These will include viewers of breakfast television programmes where headlines of the national newspapers are shown to camera, people passing newspaper stands at railway stations etc, people visiting newsagents to buy their own papers, people reading front pages from fellow passengers on tubes, trains and buses.
The only words those millions will have read were: “BURRELL: I HAD SEX WITH DIANA”. None of these are going to get the benefit of any antidote in the form of a PCC adjudication anywhere except the front page, and even then not if it is in much smaller letters on the same page.
What has the PCC said about Prominence?
One might assume that when the PCC is dealing with one of its own adjudications, at least an appearance of fairness on this issue might be attempted. The PCC’s own Chairman has spoken out on this issue. This is what he said to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in May 2003 on the issue of front page “transgressions”:
“What I am saying is this. If we go to formal adjudication, you come out with a formal adjudication, and had there been some hideous transgression on the front page, then I would expect the adjudication to be published, or at least start on the front page, depending on how long the adjudication was going to be. I think that would be entirely reasonable.”
The Disparity between the Prominence of the Article and the Adjudication
This was an allegation that was so sensational it unsurprisingly took up the entirety of the front page of the 15 June edition of the News of the World along with the whole of pages 4 and 5 and virtually all of pages 6 and 7. Those pages concerned only the allegation that Paul Burrell had sex (including sex of a kinky variety) with Princess Diana in various places including the bath. It was (as always) a cocktail of other stories, some new, some rehashed. However, the News of the World chose to claim on its front page that the “FULL SHOCKING STORY [could be found on] PAGES 4, 5, 6 & 7.”
The PCC adjudication concluded that “there was a strong likelihood that the omission of any denial from Mr Burrell may have misled readers into believing that he accepted [the] allegations. Given the startling nature of the claims, and the narrow basis for them, the newspaper should have contacted the complainant [Mr Burrell] and published his position on the matter. Readers could then have made their own assessment as to the value of his comments in the context of the piece and the light of his reputation.”
However, in the News of the World of 30 November 2008 only about a third of page 28 was taken up with the adjudication. There was no mention of it at all on the front page. This means that millions of people who saw the headline would have been none the wiser that Mr Burrell had even complained to the PCC, let alone that there had been an adjudication.
If the PCC’s own glossy publicity is to be believed, this should not have happened. In its Review magazine of 2007 it boasts proudly: “Looking only at apologies of newspapers, not one appeared more than five pages further back than the original…” It also boasted that the Daily Express had been taken to task for running an apology 28 pages back from the original article, which by a remarkable co-incidence is precisely the distance between the original article and the PCC adjudication in this case.
A regulator which consistently flunks its sole sanction to the obvious benefit of the very industry it is supposed to regulate is in serious need either of reform or better still replacement. Let us hope that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee shows the necessary courage to recommend decisive action when it reports on this issue next year. Whether the rest of our elected representatives would then have the courage to do anything effective about press regulation remains to be seen.