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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 11:43 GMT
Battle to raise standards
Press Complaints Commission logo
Most editors say the PCC has improved standards
By media correspondent Torin Douglas

Ten years ago, newspaper editors were warned that they were drinking in the last chance saloon.

The words were those of David Mellor, then a home office minister, speaking some years before his own private life was exposed in the press.

The Conservative Government - urged on by MPs such as Labour's Clive Soley - was threatening to introduce laws to curb intrusive and inaccurate coverage, and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was "the last chance".

Publishers were given 18 months to prove self-regulation could work, or laws would follow to protect privacy and introduce a right of reply.

Prince William
Prince William: Party guest
The commission nearly did not survive.

Editors drew up a code of practice on how reporters and photographers should behave, but in the early years the much-publicised problems of the royal family were made worse by the press's use of secret and long-lens cameras.

The break-up of the marriages of the Duke and Duchess of York and the Prince and Princess of Wales took place in the full glare of front-page articles and photographs.

Reprimanded

Secret pictures of the Princess of Wales exercising in a gym and Prince Edward kissing Sophie Rhys-Jones, and an intercepted phone call, allegedly between the Prince and Camilla Parker-Bowles, led to new rules on the use of long-lens cameras and bugging devices.

And when Earl Spencer complained that the News of the World had intruded on his wife's privacy, taking long-lens photos of her in a private clinic, the commission came down on the paper hard.

So did its publisher, Rupert Murdoch, who reprimanded the editor.

But in 1997, Earl Spencer spoke out again - this time blaming newspapers for the death of his sister, Diana, Princess of Wales.

His powerful words at her funeral fuelled a public outcry against the press.

Within weeks the code of practice had been toughened and extended again, with new rules about the use of paparazzi photographers and greater protection for the under-16s.


"There are no consumer rights people on the PCC and that is a major failing."

Clive Soley
Labour MP

Since then the commission's chairman Lord Wakeham has worked closely with editors and the Palace to protect the privacy of the princes William and Harry - in return for some authorised access to them, such as the pictures and interviews during William's gap-year trip to Chile.

In recognition, Prince William and the Prince of Wales will be guests of honour at the commission's 10th anniversary party on Wednesday evening, along with celebrities and ordinary members of the public who have had complaints dealt with.

Good enough?

Ten years on, Lord Wakeham says the commission has raised standards of reporting and protected the vulnerable, resolving complaints more quickly than the courts could, at no cost to the complainants.

Most editors agree the commission has improved things.

But Mr Soley says it is still not good enough.

"Other regulatory bodies are far stronger, far more pro-active and really do represent the consumer," he said.

"There are no consumer rights people on the PCC and that is a major failing."

Mike Jempson, the director of the PressWise Trust, an independent body which helps people who have had problems with the press, says the system still favours the rich over the poor.

"When we have Catherine Zeta-Jones and co., selling their wedding to a particular publication and then suing anyone else who uses those pictures, just imagine what that feels like to someone whose picture has been snapped outside their house, or as they go in or out, to be told by the PCC 'The picture was taken in a public place, you have no protection'."

But the PCC was praised on Wednesday by the Prime Minister.

Apologising for not being able to attend the party, he said the commission had worked hard to strike a balance between the freedom of the press and the need to treat fairly those who found themselves in the news.

The threat of new laws has receded, at least for the time being.

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See also:

07 Feb 01 | UK
Press watchdog marks decade
06 Mar 00 | UK
Privacy: A pressing problem
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