Friday 14 January 2011

Publishers show a united front on PCC...but does Richard Desmond care?

This is an article I've done for InPubWeekly on Northern & Shell's departure from the PCC:

All the major industry bodies representing national and regional papers as well as magazines were quick this week to show a united front as Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell put itself outside the jurisdiction of the Press Complaints Commission.

The Newspaper Publishers’ Association, the Newspaper Society, the Scottish Newspaper Society and the Periodical Publishers’ Association all issued statements supporting self-regulation and claiming it was “business as usual”.

The trouble is, it isn’t business as usual when a major player, with high profile newspapers like the Daily Express and Daily Star and celebrity magazines like OK!, departs from the voluntary self-regulation system.

Most publishers support the PCC because they see it as vital in keeping Government regulation of newspapers and magazines at bay. Losing Desmond increases the risk of statutory regulation.

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt was quick to highlight this point when talking at the LSE on Wednesday night. He said of Desmond: "I would think the last thing he would want is statutory regulation and, by undermining the system of self-regulation, he risks bringing that a step closer. I think it was a curious and regrettable decision."

But the question that publishers must be asking is: “Does Desmond care?” He seems to revel in a rogue status of being an outsider, not part of the publishers’ club.

The PCC said the only reason it has been given by Northern & Shell for stopping paying its subscription to the Press Board of Finance, which funds the self-regulation system, was that it was “monetary”. The PCC explained: "To preserve its independence, the PCC does not involve itself directly in obtaining funding from publishers. However, a refusal to support the self-regulatory system financially means that a newspaper publisher effectively withdraws from the PCC's formal jurisdiction, which the PCC considers regrettable.”

What is at stake here is the credibility of the PCC. The departure of Desmond’s titles is a gift to the enemies of the Commission, which see it as some kind of cosy club that only exists to stop an independent regulatory regime that could impose tough financial penalties on rogue publishers.

Martin Moore, the director of the Media Standards Trust, said: “The Press Complaints Commission argues consistently that it exists as a better alternative - and deterrent to - statutory regulation. It now needs to explain what impact Northern & Shell’s withdrawal will have on the general public, and what it plans to do to ensure the comprehensiveness and sustainability of press self-regulation.”

The PCC can only hope that Desmond’s departure, like that of David Montgomery when he was in charge of the Mirror titles, is short lived and he will rejoin the fold.

In the meantime, Desmond’s actions have handed the many critics of the PCC a load of ammo. The attack will start in earnest when the Express or Daily Star commits some editorial outrage. Something the papers’ libel record and infamous coverage of the McCanns show is more than likely to happen.

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