News that the Press Complaints Commission is to be shut down after 21 years was quietly reported last week, in light of the fact that it failed to fully investigate the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World. Its chairman, Lord Hunt says it will be replaced with a “robust, independent regulator with teeth”. The Press Complaints Commission is the way that the British press is regulated. Rather bizarrely, it’s not an independent body, containing neutral adjudicators who have no vested interests as you would expect in a modern democracy, but instead it’s made up of representatives of the main publishers (the exception being The Star and The Express newspapers who won’t even have anything to do with it). To my mind, getting journalists and editors to govern themselves is a bit like putting bullies in charge of the playground, and so the closure of the PCC is a hopeful step in the right direction.
While the PCC has tended to do a reasonable job when a newspaper has printed a clear inaccuracy, it isn’t so good at preventing cases where opinion columnists spout hatred about minority groups. When celebrity columnist Robert Kilroy-Silk wrote in The Daily Express (January 16, 1995) that “Moslems everywhere behave with equal savagery”, complaints to the PCC were rejected on the grounds that “The column clearly represented a named columnist’s personal view and would be seen as no more than his robust opinions.” Years of comments like that in the British press have helped pave the way for the English Defence League which we are all so proud of, so thanks PCC.
The PCC’s most infamous decision though, was the Jan Moir debacle of 2009. Ms Moir, in The Daily Mail, wrote an opinion piece full of conjecture and implicature, only days after that the death of Boyzone’s Stephen Gately. Among other things she insinuated “we would have to admit that the circumstances surrounding his death are more than a little sleazy” and claimed that “Another real sadness about Gately’s death is that it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.” The Daily Mail tends to have a “ooh, nasty smell” attitude to homosexuality, and Moir’s article was actually a lot more timid than some of its earlier fare (more on that in a later column). I get the impression that The Mail is also a rather nostalgic newspaper, looking back on the 1950s as the pinnacle of British society, and wishing it could return to those golden times where women stayed at home and gays stayed in the closet. Yet it’s not so good at looking forward, and as a result, the newspaper hadn’t realised that there were these new-fangled wotsits called Twitter and Facebook which made it really easy for people to share newspaper articles with each other and complain about them. The poor old PCC was overwhelmed by 25,000 complaints. Welcome to the 21st Century Daily Mail!
And so, like a character in a grind-house movie advert from the 1970s, The Mail “became the hunted rather than the hunter”. Advertisers pulled their products from the online site of Moir’s column and poor old Jan told us she’d even received death threats (no matter what she’d written, that’s just wrong). A week later she rather crossly “apologised”, writing “I would like to say sorry if I have caused distress by the insensitive timing of the column” and “I regret any affront caused.” Here’s a heads-up Jan – next time, replace the word “if” with “that” and then replace the word “any” with “the” and that would count as an apology.
But ultimately, it all worked out OK for The Daily Mail as the PCC didn’t find it to be in breach of their guidelines. Because once again, it was opinion. Are you getting it now? You can be as horrible as you like in a British newspaper and as long as it’s “opinion” it’s OK.
That’s not the end of the story though, there’s a little coda. Paul Dacre, The Mail’s editor, was questioned during the Leveson Inquiry recently, and Jan’s article was brought up again. In a spectacular display of ambivalence, rivalling the original article itself, Dacre managed to be defensive, dismissive and distancing. He defended his columnist, saying “there isn’t a homophobic bone in Jan Moir’s body” (maybe there’s a bit of homophobia in her brain instead then), but then he distanced himself from the article, saying that it could have “benefited from a little judicious sub-editing” and claimed he didn’t personally OK it because he was at the opera with his wife that evening (I hope they at least got good seats). Then he dismissed the complaints themselves: “You realise that these are all online complaints and this is an example of how tweetering can create a firestorm within hours. A well-known celebrity, who admitted he hadn’t read the article, said it was unpleasant. It was then tweeted to other people who retweeted and we had a viral storm. Most of those people conceded they hadn’t read the piece. That’s where the 25,000 complaints came from to the PCC….” Dacre didn’t go on to elaborate about how he’d talked to all 25,000 complainants to get proof that they didn’t read the article, but I’m sure he can produce 25,000 transcripts of interviews to back that outrageous claim up. Perhaps what’s most telling though is how he’s basically saying that Twitter doesn’t count. It’s that quaint “not-wanting-to-look-forward” aspect of the Daily Mail again which makes me love it so much and even want to protect it, like a nanna who can’t get out much these days.
My hope is that whatever replaces the PCC takes a careful look at how complaints about offensive opinions, especially regarding minority groups, are handled. Because journalists and editors may dismiss Twitter complaints, but advertisers certainly won’t, and nor will audiences. But that’s just my opinion… and I apologise if I might have caused anyone any offence by it.