Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Who watches the watchers? The PCC (aka no-one)

The whole News of the World scandal running in the UK at the moment was uncovered by a Guardian journalist called Nick Davies, adding another considerable feather to his already extensively plumed hat. His admirable reporting-on-the-reporters stance seems to be a bit of a labour of love for Mr Davies - journalistic malpractice is also the prime focus of his most well known book - the scathing, intoxicating and truly important 'Flat Earth News'.

If you haven't already read it and live in the UK, you must. Even without the current scandal, it'll change the way you view newspaper reporting).

In the past, the newspapers have been hesitant to criticise one another to the point of ignorance. You need only look at the front pages around the first few days of the current excitement - little or no mention of phone hacking, even from newspapers outside of the News International group. While the rest of the country was gripped with stories of the illegal hacking of Milly Dowler's mobile phone and the false hope given to the parents that she was still alive, the Mail led with front page splashes about Will and Kate visiting Canada.

To my mind I can think of a number of reasons why this may have happened. Perhaps the tabloid media were hoping the scandal would go away; perhaps they have skeletons of their own to hide; perhaps they didn't want to turn on their own kind.

We've already heard allegations of threats made against MPs for daring to speak out against the newspapers. We've also seen the hatchet jobs undertaken on two celebrities who dared to criticise, namely Hugh Grant (who had the temerity to appear on Question Time and be charming, humble, incisive and honest - what price for him to be our Reagan?) and Steve Coogan (who appeared on Newsnight and lambasted the distinctly creepy former NOTW journalist McMullan – for whom the Spitting Image press characterisations seem unerringly accurate).

Both celebrities were amongst a number named and shamed (complete with numerous photographs and details of their past indiscretions) in a piece by Melanie Phillips in the Mail. The article was ostensibly about freedom of the press but spent the first half telling us exactly what these celebrities have done in the past in sordid detail.

Indeed, it's this type of power which has allowed the media to 'cosy up' to politicians and led to the theory that newspapers like the Sun and the News of the World (the largest selling daily / Sunday papers) and, by extension, News International are the kingmakers of British politics. Certainly the power wielded by the group is in excess of what would be acceptable in, say, the USA and Australia for exactly these sorts of reasons.

All this is overseen by the press complaints commission; finally recognised and lambasted as 'ineffective and lacking in rigour' by David Cameron who also demanded 'a new system entirely'. His labour counterpart has gone on record to say the PCC is 'toothless poodle'.

In addition to the Met police and various others looking into the numerous occasions of phone hacking, stretching right back to the original cases in the early part of the last decade, the press complaints commission was the body intended to be the watchdog. However, it seems reluctant to confront the tabloids, perhaps because, as a self-regulatory body, the newspapers pay their wages.

Any television broadcaster has to abide by the rules, regulations and directives of the independent body OFCOM; it's a similarly independent body I expect to see set up in the wake of this abject failure for the printed media.

This is the same body who refused to find anything wrong with a homophobic attack on a dead pop singer and his lifestyle (even before his funeral), despite a record 25,000 vehement complaints. This is the same body who weren’t going to even look at these 25,000 complaints unless someone directly involved complained.

As I’m sure you can imagine, a grieving family’s first thought at the time of their loved one’s funeral is rarely to complain to the PCC, something which all those complaining about a pre-emptive obituary for Jade Goody found out (this wasn’t investigated).

Whatever the future holds for the wider groups (News International, BSkyB, News Corporation, the British tabloid media, the press complaints commission, the Metropolitan Police) along with a whole host of individuals is anyone’s guess.

I for one am glad that the likes of Nick Davies are continuing to report on the reporters and has the balls to stand up against the tabloids when even the most senior politicians weren’t. Journalistic malpractice needs to be investigated, independently regulated and the rule-breakers punished. As he said at the end of his prologue in Flat Earth News: “Let dog eat dog

(A side-note to all this is the distasteful political manoeuvring around this issue. Away from the illegality, the ethical and decency debates, the mistakes made and the conversations about Rebekah Brooks/Wade, Andy Coulson, et al, Westminster seems intent on having their very own bun-fight and detracting from the real issues. Take, for example, Labour leader Ed Milliband’s repeated hounding of David Cameron's leadership, judgement and integrity over Andy Coulson. To balance things out, the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was similarly guilty in a recent parliamentary debate. Having taken minutes to point out perceived deficiencies and weaknesses in the opposition and their arguments, he then concluded his point-scoring exercise and sat down almost immediately after saying (paraphrasing as I can't remember the precise quote): 'but this is not about point scoring, we've all been a bit rubbish'.)

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