The PCC is constructed in such a way that it looks like a regulatory body for the press. It's got letterheaded notepaper and a website and everything. It's even called "the Press Complaints Commission", which might lead some people to think it has something to do with responding to complaints about the press.
What people are becoming increasingly aware of, though, in the wake of the Jan Moir story and its record-breaking volume of complaints, is that it's a bit cargo-cult: it looks like a rough approximation of a regulatory body, and it's quite a good job, but it's never going to do what you want it to do. Hoping for the Press Complaints Commission to investigate press complaints? You might as well sit in a bamboo control tower with coconut earphones waiting for a plane to land on your rubble airstrip. It ain't going to happen.
It's worth looking back re-reading the experience of one person who complained to the PCC to try and sort out what they had seen as a gross inaccuracy. You might not be startled to learn that despite their meticulous case and best of intentions, the newspaper concerned - and you won't be bowled over to know its identity - managed to weasel out of it: specifically, by saying that readers would understand the columnist in question - and you won't be amazed to know who it was - was not stating a fact when they wrote "The fact is".
The PCC has announced that it will politely ask the Daily Mail to make a response to the 21,000 complaints over the Jan Moir atrocity. Yes, that's right, regarding the most complained about newspaper article in history, it's going to ask the Mail to have a free hit at defending itself.
Well, that's jolly tough of them, isn't it? As Sunder Katwala says:
The tone of that offer to write to the Daily Mail is rather deferential - in the "is there anything else you would like to say to us today, Mr Dacre" style of the 1950s television interviewer.
And what punishments await if they don't respond? A stamped foot? A kicked doorstop? A mumbled "Well that's not very sporting, is it?" Or even - and this is probably a censure so great that it won't come to pass - a letter written in a slightly harsh tone, saying that it's not entirely right that they've done what they've done.
Sarah Ditum points out that this is progress, of a sort:
One of the problems with the PCC is its institutionalised refusal to look on accuracy as a responsibility held by newspapers to all their readers, rather than a duty they only have towards the people they choose to write about. That means that the PCC has previously been able to ignore any complaints from a third party, and avoid adjudicating on matters (like Moir’s Gately column) when the harm and offence caused spreads much wider than the direct subjects of the piece.
The only thing to hope is that the 'third-party complaints aren't allowed' policy is now jettisoned by the PCC as going completely against the spirit of genuine self-regulation, but I'm not sure even that is certain. All they are saying is that they'll do it on this occasion. They don't even seem to think that it's a bad policy in the first place. What if a person with no relatives dies and has appalling inaccuracies written about them - is there really no justifiable way that readers who may have been offended by such bad journalism should have their complaints dealt with? Why shouldn't general readers be included in the list of people who can complain, as they are with Ofcom?
Now don't imagine for a moment I'm all for huge censorship of the press. But wanting newspapers to be accurate isn't anti-free speech. There's a difference between saying "I may not like what you say but I defend to the death your right to say it" and "I may not like what you say, particularly when you tell lies about people who aren't rich enough to seek redress through the courts and ruin their lives, but I know that you're trying your best, so we'll let it slide." And please. Jan Moir is hardly Camille Desmoulins. It's not like writing nasty stuff about recently dead pop stars is some kind of search for democratic freedom - indeed, that's precisely why the piece upset so many from right across the political spectrum; it was the sheer superfluousness of it that made it a hundred times worse.
Accuracy is important. Newspapers' opinions do still carry a lot of weight, sadly enough. And it's perfectly possible for polemicists to get all worked up about all kinds of things without having to resort to getting it wrong, or failing to check their facts. Having to be accurate would make the press better, not less free. This isn't about sacking people when they get it wrong; it's about whether it's right to offend thousands of people not in a life-or-death struggle but in a casually horrible article about a dead person who's not around any more to defend themselves. It's about there being some form of redress and some form of regulation over the press, not just a procedure set up by the press itself which allows the escape hatch of a microscopic correction on page 94.
But still, the PCC creaks along. You can't see the matchsticks and Blu-Tack holding it all together, but you just get the suspicion that something isn't quite right. It still looks like a regulatory body, and it's trying - under intense scrutiny - to behave kind of like a regulatory body might do; but there's no suggestion that the Moir case has brought about any soul-searching or questions about whether they're really doing a good job or not. They'll just keep their heads down and hope they can carry on with business as usual once this business has all died down. They might well be right - unless enough people notice, enough people care, and enough people do something to stop them.