The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) did itself no favours last week when it published it’s ‘no action’ decision on Jan Moir’s article in the Mail attacking the late Stephen Gately. My colleague and chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom appeared on both Sky News (Thursday 18 February, the day of the judgement) on the BBC’s ‘The Big Questions’ yesterday morning to put the Campaign’s viewpoint.
As you may recall some 25,000 people complained to the PCC about the Moir’s article published on 16 October 2009 (the same day as Stephen Gately’s funeral – very tasteful!). They and many other who did not complain will be doubtless angry at the outcome. Writing on the CPBF web site (www.cpbf.org.uk) Julian says: “So, surprise, surprise, the PCC adjudication states that ‘the article was a comment piece, clearly attributed to the columnist, representing her views on the sudden death of Mr. Gately, in which she speculated on the manner of his death and employed conjecture widely’ and that ‘the piece was published in the comment section of the paper, where readers would expect subjective opinion on issues in the public eye’. In the Commission’s view as it was purely comment it thus did not breach Clause 1 of the PCC Code, which states that ‘the press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact’.
What the PCC’s judgement ignores, however, is the innuendo which absolutely drenches Moir’s article, with its constant and insistent suggestion (note, not opinion, not conjecture, not speculation) that his death was at best connected with and at worst directly caused by his gay lifestyle. Take, for example, the remark that ‘the sugar coating on this fatality is so saccharine-thick that it obscures whatever bitter truth lies beneath’. That a ‘bitter truth’ does indeed lie beneath, and that Moir is on the track of it, is suggested by the further remark that ‘the circumstances surrounding his death are more than a little sleazy’ and the punch-line: ‘under the carapace of a glittering, hedonistic celebrity, the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle has seeped out for all to see’. This is classic smear journalism – never say exactly what you mean (and so avoid the courts) but make it abundantly clear by every sub-textual means at your disposal. Moir’s piece ought to be required reading in classes on discourse analysis for decades to come…’
Julian went on to say that her article was also factually incorrect on at least two counts, but the real problem (apart from the PCC itself) was the Code it operates to judge such cases as this. (Please read Julian’s article in full – it’s worth it.)
The NUJ is of course no fan of the PCC and at last year’s Southport conference we passed late notice motion 3 condemning the failure of the PCC to mount a proper investigation into the widespread ‘phone tapping by the News of the World announced that month (thanks in no part to some great work done by NUJ member Nick Davies) and motion 93 which called for the reform of the PCC. The last policy committee meeting (see previous blog) decided to set up a meeting with interested parties to look at a possible programme for reform, but in my view the PCC would itself reject any effective reforms and the newspaper industry would not continue to fund it if it was too effective! But we have our existing policy and must see what comes out of it, but why not start a serious debate on the abolition of the PCC and its replacement with an effective code and regulatory body, with a wide range of representation on it including working NUJ journalists on its governing body coupled with a statutory right of reply?