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Tuesday, January 11, 2011 

Richard Desmond and the PCC: still not a fork in the road.

Richard Desmond has then followed through on his threat to cease the funding of the Press Standards Board of Finance, the body that independently (snigger) subsidises the running costs of the Press Complaints Commission. Unlike the last time he did so, the PCC has stated that it will immediately cease to exercise regulatory oversight over the titles Desmond's Northern and Shell company publishes, which as well as the Express and Star also includes OK! and another couple of celebrity focused magazines.

While it's still difficult to know what Desmond's exact motivation is for withholding funding, especially as Northern and Shell have refused to comment on the news, it's clear he was informed of the consequences of his actions this time round. Almost certainly recommended as a result of Desmond's previous non-payment, the PCC adopted a policy of excluding publishers that refused to pay their dues, although only as a last resort. PressBoF plainly made this apparent in response to the initial indication from Northern and Shell that they would no longer be funding the PCC, ostensibly according to Roy Greenslade as it "no longer suited Desmond's business needs", and it's equally clear that despite this PressBoF had next to no expectation that he would change his mind. Quite whether he anticipated that both bodies would make their disapproval so apparent in their press releases, as well as bring further attention to his first period of not funding the body is less certain. Desmond didn't however get where he is without being utterly shameless, even if he has a remarkably thin skin, so the criticism seems unlikely to have much of an effect.

In one sense at least it seems to be an incredibly short-sighted action on the part of Desmond. While it's long been apparent that his publications with the possible exception of the Express regard their own readers with utter contempt, the PCC doubtless acted as a helpful shield when it came to those with some sort of clout behind them. Not all celebrities or those with the resources will instantly resort to m'learned friends when they feel they've had their privacy invaded or been libelled, instead at least giving the PCC a whirl to begin with. With that avenue now denied to them, the number of suits or claims against Desmond's papers is only going to increase. The PCC is also useful when it comes to negotiating the wording and placement of retractions and apologies, so even if lawyers now essentially take up the role PCC staff would have formerly played, the bill for their work is bound to be exponentially larger than the £150,000 to £200,000 a year it's estimated Desmond is refusing to stump up.

One conclusion to be drawn is that while any paper and proprietor is concerned about libelling the rich and famous, it's far more irksome and embarrassing when any pleb can complain about an inaccurate story and essentially force the newspaper to admit just how badly they got it wrong. The likes of the Star and OK! take this to a whole different level: they don't just show a complete lack of care in the composition of their articles, they actively lie and mislead on their front pages with the aim of drawing in readers. The number of times the Star and OK! have run headlines or blurbs on their front pages which bear only the slightest resemblance with the actual articles inside simply can't be counted as it happens on almost a daily (or weekly) basis, on occasion with the celebrities themselves complicit. One such example was Jordan appearing on the front page of OK! in tears at Peter Andre's dalliance with another woman, only for it to be revealed inside that the person involved happened to made out of plastic. On more than five occasions over the past few years this exact practice has been complained about to the PCC, all resolved without adjudication. It was presumably only a matter of time before either a reader took it to the board to make a judgement on or for the PCC independently to make clear that they weren't going to tolerate many more complaints on the same matter.

Just how into disrepute Desmond's decision will bring the PCC and the wider press as a whole is uncertain. No one with any real knowledge of the PCC regards it as either anything approaching independent or an effective regulator, despite its increasing attempts to both make itself more relevant and fight back against those critical of it. It also seems unlikely, for now at least, that any other publisher will follow suit. The obvious candidates would be Trinity Mirror or the Independent (excepting the Guardian making a further protest over the PCC's hopeless investigation into phone-hacking at the News of the World), and that would probably be as a result of pleading poverty rather than any real problem with the PCC's actual role. Key will be the response from politicians, some of whom have long been critical of self-regulation and will see this quite rightly as an opportunity to show how the media policing itself, despite being allowed to do so for so long, has abjectly failed. No one however either has a viable alternative to the PCC, or the stomach to get into a fight with the media over it, especially as everyone regards Desmond as a rogue rather than someone to model; one thing this isn't is a repeat of Wapping. This time round Desmond has chosen his fight carefully: the only real losers will be the poor bastards who continue to buy his papers. It's up to everyone else to try to convince them to stop doing just that.

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Statutory regulation of the lot for me please. Their disregard for elementary rules of decency let alone contempt of court has earne dit for the press.

My main concern would be how this eventually affected local newspapers. The PCC come down pretty hard on local rags when they find a fault. The Nats just don't seem to care, but that doesn't mean local papers are equally as bad and in need of "statutory regulation"...

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