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10 May 2011

The Telegraph has been told off. Big deal . . .

A toothless PCC won’t stop other newspapers using the Telegraph’s tactics: the rewards outw

By Steven Baxter

The Telegraph has been given a pretty stern ticking-off by the Press Complaints Commission for its sting against Vince Cable and other senior Liberal Democrats. The Telegraph will go and sit on the naughty step and think about what it’s done; and then everything will carry on much as before.

It’s a decision that shows exactly how powerful – or not – the PCC is. But maybe there is no point in pretending that the PCC has any power other than the ability to wag its finger and go red in the face when its unruly charges step out of line. Maybe that’s what the industry wants – and maybe that’s what we as consumers want. Perhaps we don’t like anything other than light-touch regulation, where publications that breach the code are forced to print the adjudication decision, on a page of their choosing.

So the Telegraph has been told off, but there’s nothing to stop it, or any other paper, from going out on another “fishing expedition” this afternoon, or repeating exactly what happened with the Lib Dems. And maybe that’s as it should be. There seems little appetite for change, as far as I can tell. Every year the PCC asks consumers what they think; every year, the vast majority of their suggestions are politely rejected. And no one makes a fuss about it. So, it may not be unfair to conclude that we must be happy with the current situation.

Richard Desmond’s newspapers and magazines have pulled out of the self-regulation agreement without any considerable difference or shrieking outcry. Desmond has saved himself the cost of the whole self-regulation business, and everything has carried on.

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Looked at from Desmond’s point of view, it makes sense. Under the PCC, he had to pay money to be told, every now and then, that his newspapers had done something wrong – and bear the consequences. Well, I say “consequences”, but there were no consequences other than having to print the adjudication. Everything carried on just as it was. Why pay for nothing to happen when you can pay nothing for nothing to happen?

There has been no great clamour for the Desmond newspapers to return. Readers have not demanded that Desmond’s newspapers and magazines should return to the fold of the PCC, nor wrung their hands in worry about where to complain to get justice when they have a problem. It may be because we’re entirely happy with the way things are, with a PCC regulating some of our newspapers and leaving others to fend for themselves; or it may be because readers don’t anticipate there being any benefits to Desmond’s papers being back under the PCC. It could be that, I suppose.

So, the Telegraph has been told off. Big deal. It got a huge story out of the secret recordings, several days’ worth of front-page exclusives. Put that in one pan and put the wagging finger of the PCC in the other, and you can see whether it will dissuade anyone from using such tactics in the future.

And we don’t complain, we don’t demand reform of the PCC, we don’t want things to change; so we must be happy that this is the way things work.