MPs: PCC should fine papers or suspend printing

A committee of MPs has recommended the overhaul of the Press Complaints Commission after criticising

Drawing together evidence from almost two years of public hearings, the commons media select committee today recommended that the PCC be given new powers to fine newspapers that breached its code of conduct and, in more serious cases, suspend the publication of offending titles for one issue.

John Whittingdale, chairman of the committee, said the PCC needed to take a more active role in upholding standards as it was seen as "lacking credibility and authority".

Publishing a report of findings from its investigation, called Press Standards, Privacy and Libel, the committee called for the PCC to appoint a deputy director to enforce standards and to be renamed the Press Complaints and Standards Board to reflect any enhanced powers it should adopt.

Last year, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger called for reform of the body which oversees self-regulation of the press in the UK, saying the "weak" regulator needed to establish some form of investigatory mechanism.

In January, the Media Standards Trust published the results of a survey which suggested the public was in favour of a regulator that monitored compliance and conducted investigations.

Today's report said a revamp of the regulatory body was necessary as the PCC had "failed the test of self-regulation" by not seeking to limit widespread and careless reporting that followed the disappearance of three-year-old Madeleine McCann in Praia da Luz, Portugal in May, 2007.

"In any other industry suffering such a collective breakdown - as for example in the banking sector now - any regulator worth its salt would have instigated an enquiry. The press, indeed, would have been clamouring for it to do so," today's report said. "It is an indictment on the PCC's record that it singularly failed to do so."

MPs said it was obvious by May 2007 that a number of newspapers were ignoring the PCC's regulations yet the regulator remained silent as coverage became "a matter for public concern".

The PCC failed to take forceful action and only spoke out after Express Newspapers paid a £550,000 libel settlement to the girl's parents almost a year after the initial reporting in question happened, MPs said.

"By then, as we have seen, hundreds of false and damaging articles about the McCanns and others had been published across a large number of titles," the report concluded.

"This was an important test of the industry's ability to regulate itself, and it failed that test."

The committee also criticised the PCC's recent report into further allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World, calling its conclusion that there was no new evidence of hacking "simplistic".

The PCC acted in good faith in 2007 when it investigated the phone hacking at the News of the World that led to the jailing of royal reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, MPs said.

However, when the PCC reopened its investigation in November it did not "fully or forensically consider all the evidence", the committee claimed.

The report praised the "good work" of the PCC from May 2008 following a spate of suicides which blighted Bridgend but said it could have acted "sooner and more proactively".

The committee said the PCC offered suitable guidance on the reporting of suicides but it urged the press watchdog to do more to monitor the conduct of journalists and the standard of coverage in such cases.

In addition, the committee called for the Editors' Code which the PCC enforces to be amended to offer greater protections around possible breaches of privacy, to make editors more responsible for comments left on websites and for headlines to more accurately reflect story content.

The PCC is currently engaged in review of its own. Baroness Buscombe, who replaced Sir Christopher Meyer as chairman in March last year, announced a wholesale review of the way the organisation is run in August.

Oliver Luft writes for Press Gazette

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.