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
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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.