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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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear