Richard Desmond, owner of Express Newspapers and founder of Northern & Shell, has effectively withdrawn his suite of newspaper and magazine titles from the Press Complaints Commission in a move that could prove detrimental to self-regulation of the press.
The publisher of titles including OK!, New!, Daily Star, Daily Express and Sunday Express was yesterday evicted from the PCC following a second instance of non-payment to the Press Standards Board of Finance, the funding body of the PCC. It is understood an annual fee of around £175,000 was withheld by Northern & Shell.
This has lead PCC chair Peta Buscombe to comment that Northern & Shell “will not now be able to demonstrate to their readers that they are committed to adhere to the set of standards which are independently enforced by the commission.”
Readers of the publisher’s titles will no longer be able to complain to an independent watchdog.
A statement issued by the PCC said: "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."
"The Commission has accepted this recommendation and, therefore, must now regard Northern & Shell as being outside its jurisdiction. As a result, the PCC will be unable to deal formally with new complaints about Northern & Shell titles until the funding dispute is resolved. The Commission will continue to assist individuals to frame their complaints about published articles and will direct individuals to the relevant departments of the titles within the Northern & Shell group. The PCC will endeavour to resolve amicably its current workload of investigated complaints where possible."
While the PCC will aim to direct complainants to the relevant departments within Northern & Shell, Campbell Deane, head of the media and entertainment department at law firm Bannatyne Kirkwood France & Co, admits there could be potential problems in complaining to Northern & Shell as the publisher is no longer party to the code of conduct of the PCC. Not being bound by the commission’s code and having fulfilled any legal requirements, there could be an increase of complainants being advised to consult their solicitor should they seek remedy to a complaint.
Deane commented: “This could well be a calculated risk from Northern & Shell. With the PCC being effective and quick in its dealing with complaints, there is always a greater possibility of reaching resolution under its regulation. Now though there is the possibility that complaint to Northern & Shell could be met with a stark lawyer’s letter saying ‘get lost, you haven’t a leg to stand on’”.
This withdrawal from the PCC's remit threatens to further undermine the commission’s position; a position which was already under considerable pressure following criticism of the PCC and its perceived failings in its handling of phone-hacking allegations concerning the News of the World, with The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger resigning from the PCC's Code Committee over its approach to the scandal.
Despite this pressure Deane still sees a need for the PCC and thinks it unlikely, with remaining publishers banding together in support of self-regulation, that the PCC will be weakened.
“Self regulation is the way forward” he said. “What we don’t want is governmental legislation saying what can and cannot be said or published. The ministerial expenses scandal, for example, might never have come to light had government imposed regulatory measures been in place.”