The NOTW scandal shows why we DON’T need a beefed up PCC

This post was written by Reuben on July 8, 2011
Posted Under: Uncategorized

As the behavior of the News of The World comes under heavy scrutiny, it has once again become fashionable to assert that “self-regulation doesn’t work”, and that the Press Complaints Commission ought to be replaced with some kind of statutory check on the media. Writing for the Guardian, Geoffrey Robertson QC suggests that we follow other nations in having “statutory ‘press ombudspersons’ who adjudicate public complaints, direct retractions and compensation, enforce rights of reply and monitor ethical standards.”

The Press Complaints Commission itself, is something of a fudge between civic action and state coercion. While it was established, nominally, as a means of self-regulation, it was nonetheless set up under duress: the Tory government of the early 1990s had threatened imminent government legislation if the press did not come up with a mechanism to regulate itself – and thus the PCC was born. What the likes of Geoffrey Robertson are calling for now, is full and explicit regulation of the press, backed up state power.

This would undoubtedly be a backwards step for our democracy. If we are opposed to censorship, then there is no way we can demand that a external body with officially sanctioned powers be given the general right to haul papers over the coals for what they publish. And as a citizen, I do not want or need a state-backed body to decide what I can and cannot read.

But perhaps more importantly, the News of The World scandal has shown that, when it comes to checking the worst elements of the British media, state coercion isn’t the only show in town. It was civil society that forced the News of The World to shut down. It was a prolonged campaign by the Guardian – combined well as excellent work of Libcon, Political Scrapbook, and many others involved in social media who campaigned for an advertising boycott – that brought things to where they are. In other words, there are ways of checking the power of the corporate press which do not involve extending the hardly disinterested power of the state into areas it really ought not to govern.

In a somewhat misconceived intervention, Brendan O’Neill has complained that the NOTW shut “under pressure from so-called liberal campaigners who ultimately felt disgust for the newspaper’s ‘culture’”, and that “History should record yesterday as a dark day for press freedom”. All I can say is that Brendan O’Neill appears to be using his very own definition of “press freedom”. For most people, it means the freedom of the press from the threat of punishment or coercion by the state. It does not mean the freedom to not to  be campaigned against, or morally condemned. The principle of a free press goes hand-in-hand with our ability as citizens to cast judgements, and to deploy our own civic rights in campaigning against what we despise.

And so yesterday was a very good day, not only because it struck a blow against Murdoch, but also because it struck a blow for our own capacity as democratic citizens.


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Reader Comments

While I agree that statutory regulation is certainly a bad thing, I’m not sure that I entirely agree that relying on the disgust of a certain proportion of the public is actually going to make any difference to how the press works in the long term.

We’ve been here – or somewhere similar – before, when public disgust after the death of Diana persuaded all the papers to say they wouldn’t buy intrusive paparazzi shots. How long did that really last?

And remember that the disgust here has arisen largely because the NOTW was found to have attacked people who have been built up by the tabloids into innocent victims for whom people show near-Diana levels of empathy. When people have been spoon fed “poor Millie”, “poor Maddie” and so on, then they will react angrily when anyone is deemed to have besmirched those memories (even when, for example, a police officer made the very reasonable point that one reason the Soham murders attracted so much attention was the “pretty and white” nature of the victims).

Outrage at what the papers have done is not, I think, because of exactly what has been done. It is because it has impacted upon those whom the press have tried to elevate to a state of near state-hood; it if was simply the fact of intrusion, then the actual proof of hacking would have brought the NOTW down long ago, surely?

And, I think it’s worth remembering what was written here last year, about Gareth Mead, who lost his job after a Sunday Mirror article.

Moral outrage on the part of the public may stop the press from being quite so despicable – or, more likely, from making the mistake of targeting the same people people that they have been encouraging their readers to venerate – but it’s unlikely to be sufficient to stop them from continuing to wreck the lives of other innocent, law-abiding people, just for the sake of titillation.

Written By Nigel Whitfield on July 8th, 2011 @ 11:52 am

Reuben, what the hell is this? Keep writing sensible stuff like this, and I’m going to end up agreeing with you. And then what will become of the world we live in? Where’s the ridiculous outrage and hyperbole I’ve become accustomed to?

Written By Owain on July 8th, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

I think we all bear a huge responsibility for the current NOTW crisis. We’ve tried to express this with an apology at

Our capacity as democratic citizens may have eventually brought NOTW down but should we also be wondering about our complicity in encouraging them to run wild in the first place?

Written By Andy on July 22nd, 2011 @ 9:54 am

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