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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.