What next after this PCC limbo?

If the new, post-Leveson Press Complaints Commission is to be of any worth, it must listen to the pu

The PCC is closing down. After 21 years of self-regulation we enter into an interregnum; a limbo time between the PCC and when PCC2, or whatever the new regulatory body is called, comes in to being sometime post-Leveson. Will we notice the difference? And does it mean that the PCC has failed?

"Something needs to change" -- that appears to be the logic behind the move to scrap the PCC and replace it with, er, something else; we don't know quite what, but it won't be called the PCC and it won't be exactly the same (although some of the bits and possibly personnel will be the same). With the most open mind in the world, it's hard to avoid thinking that this seems to be change for the sake of change.

You might think it's a kind of rebadging exercise similar to the one that saw the toxic News of the World brand disappear from newsstands, only to be replaced not long afterwards by the somewhat familiar Sun on Sunday.

If you're more cynical than that, you could claim that the Press Complaints Commission was never a satisfactory regulatory body in the first place; that it merely represented a verisimilitude of regulation while ensuring that the industry it purported to regulate remained largely untouched, unpunished and as free as possible to do whatever the hell it liked, regardless of the consequences that certain publications' actions had on the people featured in the stories, as well as the wider reading public.

If you felt that way, you would consider that reorganising the lego bricks of the PCC into a slightly different shape was perhaps an attempt to be seen to do something, anything, to avoid more stringent regulation being imposed or suggested when the Leveson inquiry came to its conclusion sometime in the near future -- or to imply that all necessary changes have already been made, and therefore nothing else need be done.

I don't necessarily feel that way, but I do think that the timing is important. For years many complaints and suggestions from campaigns and Joe Public about the activity and makeup of the PCC have been politely batted away. We didn't know what we were on about; the PCC knew what was best for us (and in our best interests). Now, all of a sudden, it's not fit for purpose anymore, and needs to be burnt to the ground. Well, what happened in the meantime? What happened between not needing to change and needing to start from the ground up?

Perhaps it is an admission that the PCC really wasn't working. People saw that the industry had decided how it would be regulating itself, set up some guidelines and then broke them again and again, with no negative effects other than occasionally having to print the odd correction deep into the newspaper or tucked away on a website. Maybe enough was enough, and that really wasn't good enough.

What's clear is that in the meantime, the PCC (or what remains of it) says that it's going to listen. I think that should mean not just listening to the likes of Lord Leveson, but listening to what the punters want. Do we want papers to be regulated at all, and if we do, how do we want that to happen? Is there a middle ground between complete freedom of expression, and insidious state control of the media? Has anyone asked you? Do you care?

It's significant that this move for change is happening now in the wake of the phonehacking scandal; if it turns out to be change at all, and that still remains to be seen. If there really is a listening exercise going on then let the voices of the people who buy newspapers, and who end up featuring in them whether they want to or not, be heard. Otherwise we could end up with a replacement that is just as frustrating and just as disappointing as the PCC was.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.