“I don’t think the PCC can survive in its present format”, said Alison Hastings, during a talk at University College Falmouth. A very well practiced journalist and BBC Trustee, Hastings came to talk Journalism students through the PCC (Press Complaints Commission) and it’s specialised Editors’ Code of Practice which all journalists have to abide by. Hastings has sat on the PCC as editor Commissioner for about 5 years and she also gives training and consulting for the PCC to journalists of all skill level, from undergraduates to editors of national newspaper.
Also Vice President of the Board of British Film Classification, Hastings had to watch Human Centipede 2 three times over, with it’s final classification as ‘unclassified’, she commented saying, “I wouldn’t recommend it personally”.
The PCC has been around for almost twenty years. It’s controlled by self-regulation and there are 17 members that sit on it, the lay members include non-journalists and have never worked in the industry who have to be in the majority. “If there were just editors on it or if the editors were just on it there would be a bit of a stitch-up and they would look after themselves.” When Hasting sat on it, she sat alongside editors of Daily Mail and Daily Express, who she said were “not natural bedfellows”.
The PCC It receives between 6-7000 complaints a year, of which about 70% are under the ‘Accuracy’ category of the code, which states publishing “misleading or distorted information” is against the code. Hastings revealed that “the BBC receives 250,000 complaints a year” which is a major difference in comparison to the PCC’s complaints.
Hastings made a particular point about the importance of publications making public apologies, which ideally should be on the front page, however, she stated that: “There is a public perception that you’ll be the victim of some inaccuracy in the paper or the magazine and through the PCC you get them to say they’ll put it right and they’ll tuck it away on page 96.”
Privacy was also a topic that was highlighted, and it was the category that most celebrities’ complaints were under. Hastings explained that the PCC is an important factor when dealing with privacy complaints relating to celebrity culture or crime.
She added: “There are instances that I would discribe as ‘kiss and tells’ that meet a privacy threshold and usually thats because the person involved is the captian of the England football team.” She stressed that if a complaint is in the public interest, in John Terry’s case it was with his affair being front page news, then the complaint would most likely lose it’s argument.
Although Hastings managed to skim over the details of the PCC’s involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, she did not escape questions on the subject. When asked about the PCC’s investigative powers regarding the phone-hacking scandal, Hastings suggested that it’s primarily the polices responsibility where the law has been broken, which makes the PCC’s code irrelevant.
She did however comment on the polices investigation saying “what’s obviously happened is that they’ve investigated in an extremely narrow way. They probably thought ‘well we’ve got enough to definitely nail these two guys, send shockwaves out that we jailed people and that will probably just close down [the investigation]’.”
The phone-hacking scandal is now in it’s third police investigation with 120 officers working full time on the operation.
Hastings admitted: “I don’t think the PCC has covered itself in glory at all on it.”
She also said that she doesn’t think the PCC can survive in it’s present format and that it’s standards have been ‘neglected’. She did however stress that: “no one has criticised the code, everyone thinks the code is quite workable, nobody has criticised the complaints side of it, I think that side of it probably won’t change too much but i think the standards bit will change.”