Thursday, February 26, 2009

Do we need a Blog Complaints Commission?

I don't think it could ever be said that I'm a great fan of the Press Complaints Commission.

During my years as an active campaigner I had lots of opportunities to test the PCC's effectiveness and to discuss their weaknesses with the Commission's staff.

Despite a few successes (once I'd worked out the technique) I never felt that, when it came to the crunch, the system worked quite as advertised for the average person who found themselves attracting unwelcome press attention.

Self-Policing

The root of unease for many would be the simple fact that the Press Complaints Commission is a body that's created by the press to police the press. Some argue that this is like recruiting street gangs to monitor what gangs (including themselves) are up to in your neighbourhood and then expecting them to tick each other off.

Maybe that's not entirely fair as an analogy, but you can understand the source of the suspicion.

It's clear that the PCC relies upon consensus among newspaper and periodical editors in order to function successfully.

Editors sign up to abide by the Editors' Code and, by and large, they seem to stick to the PCC's adjudications – if only from fear that PCC failure could always lead to a harsher system of control being imposed from outside by the Government of the day.

Inadequate provisions

The problem is more often that the Editors' Code itself is inadequate in some areas.

For instance, the biggest issues I've found are that

  • the code does not cover denigration of whole groups; and
  • only the 'victim' of a press item can complain – others, tarred by association, cannot

I have a particular familiarity with the code because I led a lobby some years ago to get it extended. It seemed at the time that the code was particularly ineffective at protecting individual trans people and I set out to change that.

You can read how I did that in my report, "Transsexual People and the Press".

Hard to change

The campaign to ensure the Editors' Code was more effective for transsexual people (even if not entirely bulletproof) illustrated how difficult it can sometimes be to secure changes in systems like this.

The PCC was far from convinced initially that they needed to change anything. As far as they were concerned, the existing Code worked perfectly well. This is why the essence of the campaign turned on getting dozens of people to lobby personally in their own words to say how terrorised they felt – and how the Editors' Code hadn't helped them in their hour of need.

In the end the PCC agreed. All they actually changed was one word. (Thank God I hadn't wanted them to alter an entire sentence.)

Yet, to be fair again, the Editors' Code Committee did also issue a clarifying statement to Editors. The debate also meant that some key Fleet Street editors involved in the change process obtained some exposure to the effects of their policies.

Getting better

The result is that, whilst the problems have not gone away entirely, press coverage of trans people in the UK has generally got better. And, when people have contacted me subsequently in blind panic because a journalist is on their lawn, the advice to call the PCC's emergency help line has always done the trick.

My close involvement with the PCC's governance processes also means that I retain an interest in what the PCC is doing, and I read the Commission's newsletters and press releases with great interest. These are available on their web site. There is no RSS feed unfortunately, but you can join their mailing list by writing to pcc@pcc.org.uk

The interesting thing about studying that regular trickle of news about key adjudications and further changes in the Code is that, by and large, the Commission does seem to be getting more effective as time goes by. It may not be perfect, for the kinds of reasons I've explained above, yet – as with having OFCOM and the ASA to complain to about TV, Radio and Advertising – the PCC is there, and it does work so long as you know the limitations and how to pitch a complaint.

But what about the Blogosphere?

So that brings me to my rhetorical question...

The world of Blogging, amplified by social media such as Facebook or Twitter, has become a significant force within the eco-system of news.

Look back ten years and, if you had something to say, then your best chances of reaching a significant audience were to try and get your words published in conventional media.

At best, to go it alone, you would need to spend significant effort (and some cash) to build a web site and try to drum up a regular following by word of mouth, or through some kind of email distribution.

Before the advent of Yahoo groups and their ilk you would need to have some technical expertise (and again some cash) to set up a list server. Again, you would need to invest significant efforts in growing the readership for this – just as conventional paper publications once had to do.

And you only need to go back twenty years or so to find that, although there were academic list servers around, there was practically no audience online for your views outside of the universities.

These factors meant that access to any form of mass audience was restricted to all but a few, and the views expressed would either be subject to traditional editorial controls or would have only a restricted audience.

Brave new world

All that has changed now of course. Anybody can set up a Blog for themselves in a matter of minutes. Publishing has never been easier. And social media have an enormous magnifying effect that can allow anybody's Blog to go viral around the world in hours, if the content is judged interesting enough.

Personally I find that this potential just adds to the traditional obligation I feel to check my facts, be constrained in what I write, and consider the effects of my words. Like most Bloggers, I am my own editor.

Yet the very accessibility of the medium means that there is a huge growth in people who follow no such disciplines.

Bloggers can largely get away with writing what they like, it seems. They can do things that the trashiest of tabloid hacks would never dream of attempting. And, in the right circumstances, their words can travel further than any newspaper or magazine, and remain on the web potentially forever – long after today's papers have been used to line the bottom of the cat's litter tray.

No redress?

And if you just happen to be on the receiving end of a libellous Blog then what can you do about it?

Well, in theory, you can try and take action by reporting the Blog to the organisation that provides the platform. If you're lucky then this may be successful. Yet I can sympathise if some service providers claim they're not there to arbitrate in disputes about whether a comment is accurate or not – or whether the reverse side of the complaints coin amounts to an unacceptable constraint on fair comment and free speech.

Yet newer media offer even less potential for control. If you make a libellous statement on (say) Twitter and everyone re-tweets the information then how can that be stopped? You may not even be able to pin down who initiated the statement once the message has moved through two or three sets of hands.

Just as the helplessness engendered by globalised identity theft has led to a burgeoning of services to sort things out, do we need a body to help us when we are unfairly misrepresented by irresponsible or malicious blogging?

How would it work? How could an individual in the UK (say) seek redress against something written in Venezuela?

Or do we just give in because the global communications tool we've let loose is too big and complex to control?

If so then the minor grouses we might have about the effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission could soon seem totally irrelevant.

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