How do you solve a problem like the PCC?

If the press falls under statutory control, newspapers will have no one to blame but themselves.

It says much about the veracity of recent inquiry into Britain's press excesses that an A-list actor wearing a listening device down a pub in Dover sheds more light on illegality within tabloids in one hour than the police, House of Commons and Press Complaints Commission manage in five years.

Hugh Grant may hold a bigger grudge against newspapers than most, although he admits occasional blows to his public image have done little to diminish a successful Hollywood career. Others haven't been so lucky. Take Chris Jefferies, the landlord of Bristol murder victim Joanna Yeates.

Amid the maelstrom of media hysteria over the death of a pretty, young, white woman last Christmas, Jefferies, a retired schoolmaster, was arrested – and before the cuffs had clinked shut the tabloid press deigned him guilty, describing him as a "creepy oddball" with potentially paedophilic tendencies. Not a campaign of wicked whispers; they screamed it from their front pages.

He was later released without charge. His name was cleared, yet his reputation for eternity left in tatters.

If Hugh Grant had been Joanna Yeates's landlord, the same never would have happened. Grant would have called in the legal cavalry of Carter Ruck and Fleet Street would have taken heed. Unfortunately Chris Jefferies, lacking the same means, was forced to seek solace in the bosom of the Press Complaints Commission. Six weeks later he was selling his home and moving far away.

The PCC calls itself the police of Britain's press industry, meting out divine punishment on code of practice miscreants. Yet the truth is that it inspires about as much authoritarian fear among reporters as a stripper wearing a Toys'R'Us helmet and carrying a plastic truncheon. I know because until last month I was one of the worst offenders, a Daily Star hack with a rap sheet of dubious journalism stretching halfway down Fleet Street.

Story of no glory

I've experienced the censure of gruff legal warnings on behalf of celebrities like David Beckham and Amir Khan, but a PCC complaint was always just something to be folded tightly and used to fix a wobbling chair.

It is the greatest lie ever disseminated by the British newspaper industry (and there've been a few) that the public has nothing to fear from press power because of the shackles of the PCC. But look closely and you'll see those shackles are merely furry handcuffs hanging next to the bed they share with certain newspaper groups, namely Associated Press and News International.

The current phone-hacking scandal has been just as humiliating for the PCC as the News of the World. Unwilling and unable to either investigate or punish the red top, it has stood slack-jawed on the sidelines, spluttering its meatiest rebuke in the direction of the Guardian newspaper for daring to open such a can of worms in the first place.

Earlier this week the MP John Whittingdale, chairman of the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee, accused the PCC of being in "the thrall" of the newspaper industry, adding: "I don't think they've covered themselves in glory."

But the PCC has never sought glory; quite the opposite. For over 20 years it has quietly conducted a smoke-and-mirrors game of paying lip-service to public outrage while keeping at bay those demanding tighter regulations of the newspaper industry.

Section one of the PCC editor's code of practice states: "The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information."

Yet open any red top or mid-market title, and you will find misrepresentation, or even downright lies, are rife. The internet is awash with fantastic bloggers exemplifying this very fact.

Last year there were just over 7,000 complaints made to the PCC, yet it addressed just 1,687. One-quarter. The rest were tossed back in the sea of discontent as "outside our remit". These crucially include any complaint made by a "third party"; anyone the PCC judges not "directly affected" by a story.

Mind your language

To cite an example, on 3 February this year the Daily Express wrote a story beneath the headline: "A mere 37 per cent of NHS doctors are white British". It was a lie. The self-appointed "Greatest Newspaper in the World" maliciously lumped the 25 per cent of respondents to a General Medical Council survey who didn't specify their ethnicity into the "non-white" category to help cook the stats.

The second paragraph of the story ran: "Experts last night said they feared the tide of foreign-trained medics could put patients' lives at risk because some may have poor English language skills."

Yet the survey looked merely at the ethnicity of doctors, not their nationality, so the assertion that many are "foreign" and therefore have "poor English language skills" is a fabrication of the most offensive and debased kind.

But were I an ethnic-minority doctor complaining to the PCC that such lies not only misrepresented my profession but risked worsening racism towards staff on hospital wards, I would be given short shrift. Outside our remit, sir, you're not "directly affected".

What the PCC doesn't want you to know is that newspapers are free to say anything they want about Muslims or gypsies or immigrants without the slightest fear of censure. The PCC Code is totally irrelevant in such cases. In my opinion, this is a greater scandal than phone-hacking, one that tears at the seams of our whole society, and I am deeply ashamed to have been part of it.

Following my resignation from the Daily Star over its endemic anti-Islamic bias, a letter demanding an investigation was sent to the chair of the PCC, Baroness Buscombe, by the campaign group One Society Many Cultures, signed by the likes of Diane Abbott MP and Claude Moraes MEP.

I am sad to say they wasted their time.

Beyond the PCC's intrinsic lack of authority over such matters as demonising whole ethnic groups, Richard Desmond this year pulled his media titles out of the regulatory body after deciding that it "no longer suited his business needs". One of Britain's biggest publishers went rogue, and all the PCC has done is bluster over this ignominy with grey statements about a "funding dispute" that it "hopes to resolve soon".

Dragged under and gagged

Perversely, Desmond's grand snub to the PCC may be his greatest, many would say only, gift to the canon of British journalism. For with all publications no longer singing from the same hymn sheet, the music must surely stop. Self-regulation has been fatally undermined.

You'll see few tears from tabloid journalists themselves. Contrary to popular belief, hacks don't enjoy peddling lies for a living, or trawling through people's voicemails. It's their paymasters who deem that an inciteful, sensationalist and obfuscating editorial agenda is the best, and cheapest, manner to prop up flagging circulation.

Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks stood before the Commons media select committee in 2009 and stated: "The threat of a complaint being upheld by the PCC is what terrifies editors – not particularly a financial sanction; it is the actual adjudication. It carries an enormous amount of weight and carries far more significance than a fine."

If the committee members had listened hard enough, they would have heard exactly what Fleet Street has known for a long time. It is precisely the spectre of financial punishment that terrifies editors. It's the clammy nightmares about a day when printing a false story is more than a simple calculation about the subject's means to sue versus the potential spike in circulation: when printing demonstrable lies becomes more expensive than hiring an adequate number of reporters and letting them do their jobs properly.

I'm no fan of a free press being dragged under the wing of statutory control, but if it comes to pass, newspapers will have no one to blame but themselves. Certain publishers can quite rightly complain that self-regulation and the flexibility of the PCC Code has allowed them to chase and expose scandals that undermine our democracy and shape foreign policy. Sadly, an equal number of publishers have chosen to betray that code both in spirit and practice, purely for the purpose of celebrity rubbernecking and social divisiveness.

But what stands in the way of reform is the appetite of the government. It always has done. Which prime minister of the past few decades has felt secure enough in power to bite his or her thumb in the direction of Rupert Murdoch or Paul Dacre? The idea that newspapers win elections, true or not, still echoes around Westminster, and no one yet is brave enough to test the theory.

And yet, if promises still count for anything in politics, the coalition would do well to cast its mind back to 1990 when the Calcutt report, commissioned following the collapse in confidence in the Press Council, concluded that a voluntary body should be formed with "18 months to prove its effectiveness", or the industry would face legal imposition.

I wonder what Sir David Calcutt would be saying were he here today.

Richard Peppiatt is a former reporter for the Daily Star.

Getty
Show Hide image

Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change