against the PCC, for the Competition Commission

I expect there’s going to be a hell of a lot of ink spilled in the next few months about different schemes for “regulating the press”, how the very idea is an abomination and this has nothing to do with my column in some Murdoch rag, how this outrageous behaviour makes it utterly necessary for journalists to have to justify themselves to some sort of horrible post-Hutton BBC quangocracy, yadda yadda.

My position is this. Press regulatory bodies will probably be very much like “regulators” of all the kinds that have sprung up since the privatisation era. That is to say, they’ll either be impossibly bureaucratic or pathetically complicit or both. The problem with regulators, especially the post-80s, all mates together in an orderly market sort, is that they are a weak-sauce compromise.

Once you create a regulator, you’re doing two things: accepting that the forces of the market aren’t going to fix your problem, and withdrawing the forces of democracy in favour of the forces of bureaucracy. Compare the Home Affairs Committee’s vicious and pointed quizzing of Andy Hayman to, well, anything the IPCC ever gets up to. Nye Bevin’s crack about dropped bedpans echoing through the halls of Westminster was very much to the point. Everyone moans about ministerial line management, but when did you last vote for the OFCOM Director-General?

There’s a coda to this – over time, if you leave it to the departmental government, the temptation to fiddle and to indulge in recreational reorganisation will get progressively stronger. My point, however, is that very often regulatory bodies function either as a veiled form of ministerial control or else as a flak-catcher protecting the powerful from public scrutiny.

In this case, I would argue that any regulatory committee will be either complicit or floppy if it has to face up to something like News International. The problem is not one of processing complaints more efficiency, although that would of course be nice. It is one of power and only changing the realities of power will fix it.

The trust must go. We don’t need more quangology. We need a genuinely competitive and diverse media market. We need to break the bastards up and set the rules to prevent them reforming. And the agency to do this is the Competition Commission, one of the oldest regulators and one of the few that has the taste of saying “No”. But it is absolutely necessary to set its terms of reference so that it will have no choice but to break up the trusts. That means changing the law.

  1. Regular Reader

    I don’t think this is quite fair. Not least because you call for no more quangology before recommending recourse to the CC, which is an independent body created by statute. Sound familiar? The PCC is not a quango. It’s an NGO. And there are plenty of things it was set up to do that an NGO is best suited to. The most sensible comments I’ve seen about press regulation are those that identify the enforcement gap. What effective independent regulation does is provide a quicker, more proportionate and _less_ bureaucratic response to small-scale problems than may be provided for in statute. But you need statutory back-up for when the scale of the problem gets bigger. That’s how it works elsewhere and how it ought to have been able to work for the PCC. Unfortunately the PCC is backed up by a) the Information Commissioner, whose office is under-funded and has an occasional reputation for, shall we say, a reduced appetite for enforcement; and b) the police. And we know more and more about why that didn’t work out. Except that, in theory, referral straight to the police is the ideal way of achieving what you’re arguing for – the elimination of a mediating statutory body into which problems may disappear over lengthy periods before any case is brought.

    I’m not arguing that criticism of the PCC is _entirely_ unfair. I think the Guardian is being merely politically circumspect in not pointing the finger straight at the powerful but so far completely out of the limelight Newspaper Society on this one; instead, they’re using the stick of statutory back-up via Ofcom (ultimately not really an option) in an attempt to force the media industry’s hand to granting the concession of a beefed-up PCC that will refer more stuff to, I guess, a suitably purged police force. But your argument ignores several things, IMHO. There’s the regular work of the PCC that would get lost entirely in a statutory regime, for one. A more difficult point is about the relative vulnerability of statutory bodies to ministerial interference and regulatory capture in relation to NGOs. It is not actually impossible for an industry-funded NGO to be independent enough of industry _and_ government to do a decent job within certain parameters and to have criteria in place for referral to beefy dawn raiders where necessary. But the point that is really key and that people seem to keep dancing around is that regulation of the press in a society that not only prizes free speech but, under ECHR, is actually bound to respect it, is always going to be bloody difficult and fraught with problems. I’ve seen scant acknowledgement of this anywhere.

    I’m a regular reader and occasional commenter but given my professional proximity to this issue (albeit I don’t work for the PCC) I hope you won’t mind my keeping anonymity on this one.

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