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Baroness Buscombe - interview

Question: what is the favourite watering hole of newspaper editors? Answer: the Last Chance Saloon, of course. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen them drinking there. Trying to keep them on the straight and narrow over the years, has been the Press Complaints Commission, and it has a new chairman, Baroness Buscombe. Ray Snoddy met up with her to discuss the challenges facing self-regulation.

By Ray Snoddy

Baroness Buscombe, the new chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, is due to take over from Sir Christopher Meyer on April 1. But she will absolutely not be found at the Commission’s Holborn offices on that day.

"I’ll come on April the second, or maybe the third. I just think it’s a dangerous thing to turn up on April Fool’s Day," says the barrister, Conservative politician and former chief executive of the Advertising Association.

Apart from a slight superstitious queasiness about her starting date, Baroness Buscombe - Peta Buscombe – cannot wait to begin her new task.

At the AA, she was a doughty defender of the advertising industry’s right to freedom of commercial expression.

Now she is delighted to have the opportunity to take on "such an important role at such an interesting and challenging time in terms of freedom to print responsibly."

Peta Buscombe is obviously well equipped by experience to play what she regards as a crucial pivotal role at the PCC "between the public, Parliament, courts and the press."

When Sir Christopher arrived at the PCC more than six years ago, one of the first items in his in-tray was a draft Privacy Bill – yet another back-bench attempt to bring in legislation to curb the errant press.

Six years on, self-regulation of the newspaper and magazine industry has survived, and there seems little appetite for legislation at senior levels of either the Government or David Cameron’s Conservative opposition.

It is a threat, however, that never entirely goes away, and ebbs and flows, some cynics believe, in line with how much the press believes it can get away with.

The PCC is also always potentially vulnerable to the allegation that it is a toothless creature of the newspaper industry.

To welcome her to her new role, Baroness Buscombe has to contend with John Whittingdale’s Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee looking into aspects of the PCC’s work including the McCann case.

Media Standards Trust

There was also the attack last month (February) on the Commission by the Media Standards Trust, an independent charity set up to investigate media standards.

The chairman of the Trust, Sir David Bell, who is also chairman of the Financial Times Group, claimed the "existing means of press self-regulation are incapable of dealing with the serious and growing threats to press standards and press freedom."

Baroness Buscombe says she is not afraid of the Media Standards Trust nor worried about the outcome of the Commons Select Committee.

"Obviously John Whittingdale and his Select Committee are looking at certain aspects of the system and the PCC and the McCann case. I am happy about that," says the next PCC chairman who will look carefully at anything that the Whittingdale Committee comes up with.

"I am not afraid of the Media Standards Trust, or anyone, in terms of proposing some possible way forward. I see it as an opportunity to ask is there more we can do to show that this is a robust system," she adds.

Steven Barnett, media professor at Westminster University and a co-author of the Trust’s interim report, says the next stage of the Trust’s work is to look at what would be necessary to bring the press up to the standard that is being demanded of virtually every other industry or organisation in the UK in terms of regulation.

"We have a press that routinely calls for heads to roll in the banking crisis, policing, social services with Baby P, but no one has been accountable for the hundreds of inaccurate stories in the Madeline McCann case. The public believes that standards have declined considerably," says Prof Barnett.

Baroness Buscombe is also unfazed by talk – and opinion polls – that say trust in the press is low.

"Trust in journalism is low. Wasn’t it always the case," she points out.

Despite being prepared to listen to any constructive proposals to improve self-regulation, Baroness Buscombe believes it "unfortunate" that the Trust report was published without giving the PCC an opportunity to be consulted.

"Who selected them? Who appointed them and who are they accountable to?" asks the incoming PCC chairman. She also wonders whether the Trust has fully understood the importance of dispute resolution in the PCC’s work as opposed to the number of disputed adjudications dealt with.

Her first impressions of the work of the PCC, after sitting in on a session as an observer, are good.

"I found it extremely encouraging. There was strong debate, rigorous argument and nothing was taken for granted or taken at face value. Clearly all the people round the table had really thought about each and every case and I know that in at least one or two instances people changed their mind," says Baroness Buscombe.

It reminded her a bit of a good debate in the House of Lords where people are prepared to listen to the arguments," she added.

Baroness Buscombe also says she "very much takes on board" advice from Sir Christopher that she will have to keep her eye on two things simultaneously - make sure the bread and butter work of dealing with complaints is handled well, while taking a strategic view of future developments.

Raising PCC’s profile

But the new PCC chairman intends to go far beyond that, in particular making sure that the PCC is much better known to the public rather along the lines of the Advertising Standards Authority.

"Every time a complaint is upheld by the ASA, it’s on the Today programme. The advertising industry gets deeply upset but that’s brilliant in a sense because that helps to build public trust and public knowledge about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable," says Baroness Buscombe.

"I am not thinking in terms of advertising campaigns but maybe there might be more opportunities to articulate what the PCC does and its strengths - that it’s fast, it’s flexible and it’s free," she adds.

Mostly the new chairman of the PCC is convinced that there is a good story about the organisation and she is determined to tell it.

Greater emphasis is also likely to be put in future on defending press freedom – not formally part of the organisation’s role - although there are many issues that are difficult to avoid such as the effect of the Human Rights Act helping to create a creeping form of privacy legislation.

There is also the impact of conditional fee arrangements – no win no fee - offered by lawyers to pursue libel actions against the press.

"I wouldn’t be able be help myself (speaking out on press freedom) because to me it is very important but I have to proceed with care," she says.

At the very least, she will have a powerful platform for the issue in the House of Lords.

"I see part of my role as saying press freedom is absolutely critical but for it to be enduring and sustainable we must have a self-regulatory system - without a credible, robust, self-regulatory system I would be deeply worried we would have serious erosion of our freedom to print," argues the Baroness.

Sir Christopher Meyer

As for Sir Christopher Meyer, he has been uncompromising in his defence of the PCC and his six years at the helm.

Asked recently whether the PCC was merely a fig-leaf for the ills of the press, the former British ambassador to the US replied: "It’s a load of bollocks."

Editors fear, above all else, he said, being "named and shamed in their own newspaper" by being required to publish adverse PCC adjudications.

Sir Christopher continued in a similar diplomatic vein in an interview at the London College of Communications, when talking about the 47 judges of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and their effect on privacy cases in the UK.

"I know of a (European) judge who believes newspapers’ role is to inform not entertain. I know one judge who believes newspapers’ role is to defend the reputation of public figures, for Christ’s sake," said Sir Christopher.

In the closing months of his chairmanship, Sir Christopher has been keen to emphasise a number of themes. One of them has clearly been judges, not just in Strasbourg but in the UK, and the threat they pose to press freedom.

In particular, he believes that the Human Rights Act in the UK may have to be modified to protect self-regulation of the press.

Sir Christopher argues that Section 12 of the Act, which requires judges to take account of the PCC code of practice, is a serious issue. When it was drafted, it was meant to be a buttress of press freedom but "it is not clear to us that the judges take this into account when they look at privacy."

Funding issues

Money is also an issue. Sir Christopher has warned editors that the future of the PCC in its present form was in danger of being emasculated if the organisation was subject to financial cuts.

The newspaper industry had to invest if the PCC was going to be able to hold off "the monstrous regiment of judges and lawyers".

Money, or rather the lack of it for the PCC, was one of the points made by the Media Standards Trust which pointed out that the PCC’s £1.8 million a year budget had not even been kept in line with inflation since 1991.

"Lack of funds should not be allowed to compromise the need to do the right thing – that’s always a challenge," admits Baroness Buscombe.

But she arrives at the PCC with a strong hand as the unanimous choice of the Press Board of Finance (PressBOF), the body which appoints the PCC chairman.

The PressBOF chairman, Tim Bowdler, says Baroness Buscombe got the job because she had "a very clear commitment to the whole fundamental of self-regulation and was an articulate and accomplished lady who will continue the impetus that Christopher gave."

Apart from coping with the judges and privacy, the new chairman, Bowdler believes, will have to decide how far to extend the remit of the PCC online – a move begun by Sir Christopher. She will also have to make sure that the organisation’s remit is wide enough while not straying beyond "sensible bounds".

Baroness Buscombe says she is optimistic that the PCC can continue to show it has considerable strengths as against some other form of rigid, costly and very public regulation.

"But it certainly isn’t going to be a quiet life," predicts the new chairman of the Press Complaints Commission.