What should replace the Press Complaints Commission?

I realise this blog is becoming little more than a Sunday afternoon activity. Which isn’t good. My only defence is that my day job working on the Multimedia Journalism degree at Teesside University keeps me pretty busy.

On Friday, that day job took me to neighbours the University of Sunderland on Friday for a conference examining the future for regional Media. (#mediafuture)

The speaking and panel list included: Helen Goodman, shadow minister for Media; Society of Editors stalwart Bob SatchwellTyne Tees Political Editor Gerry Foley; editors of local press and yours truly, amongst others.

Thinking of new ways to create revenue in regional media and the eternal quest for 30 per cent profit margins for regional newspaper companies was a hot topic. Helen Goodman made a strong case for a reduction in international ownership of regional news and a reduction of profit demands.

And as you can imagine the Press Complaints Commission’s ‘winding down’ announcement was also up there on the agenda.

There’s been much speculation about what will and what should replace the PCC. Leveson rumbles on and PCC chairman Lord Hunt faced an uncomfortable questioning. It was, perhaps, only a matter of time before they disbanded.

But what should happen next? The industry is divided between those who think we need a statutory regulatory system and those who claim that would lead to government control.

For me, it’s not the Code of Practice which is the issue. If you follow it strictly you were unlikely to stray far from the path of the righteousness. It’s how it is regulated and enforced.

The PCC is reactive. It relies on members of the public to make a complaint and then it investigates.

But surely what we need is a  proactive regulator? One which scrutinises papers looking for those who have actively broken the code, including those who breach the clause about accuracy. When a newspaper breaks any of those sections which have the public interest clause, they would have to make a case for the breach.

Persistent or deliberate breaches could lead to an independent and open inquiry in to the paper to examine culture. Those who’ve broken the law would be prosecuted. And this would happen before we hit the crisis point which led to Leveson.

After all, there’s nothing like the fear of bad publicity to bring things into stark focus. Just ask News International.

Of course this would be expensive and it would have to be funded from somewhere. Perhaps by some form of regulation tax being levied against media against profits.

And the code itself needs a bit of a makeover to allow for changes to law around privacy, subterfuge and payments. There is still a public interest defence for listening to mobile phone messages, for example. No, really.

But I know plenty of out-of-work journalists who could do a brilliant job investigating the way their colleagues operate. Believe me, we can spot a dodgy story a mile off.

I’m sure there’ll be a fair few gasps of horror about this idea. And some may be warranted. The idea of a team of people going through the press every day checking for inaccuracies and other rule-breaks definitely has a bit of an Orwellian feel. When it comes to how people are monitored in our democracy,  I’ve always been uncomfortable with the old ‘if you’ve nowt to hide’ adage too.

And perhaps the whole thing is unfeasible. How much would it cost to run this kind of organisation?

But overall, I’d rather a team of good journalists acted as the eyes-and-ears of the public when scrutinising media than Government. Because that has even more of an Orwellian feel…..shudder……..

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