It's a bit of a cliche to describe the PCC as toothless, or a "toothless bulldog", or ineffectual, or feeble, or a cargo cult construction, or pointless, or a verisimilitude of regulation that doesn't actually do the regulating it claims to, or meek, or a mild-mannered knee-knocking milquetoast knocking on the dragon's door and asking it to please not set fire to the village again, or a waste of time, or hopeless, or like trying to fight off a knife-wielding maniac with a cream bun, or depressingly predictable, or like asking footballers to decide whether they were offside or not rather than a referee, or useless, or not fit for purpose, or a man with a bucket and spade trying to clear away the Sahara, or dismal, or shit. All of this is a cliche. And wrong. Well some of it's wrong.
Anyway, today it appears to have found a milk tooth, with what might turn out to be a rather radical decision, upholding a complaint against Rod Liddle. Then again, it might also be a decision that augurs very ominously for some of the rest of us. But more of that later.
In what will hopefully never be called 'Goat currygate', Liddle typed in a late-night Friday evening rant on his Spectator blog saying that "the overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community". He was wrong. Lots of people got annoyed by him saying this; others got annoyed that people got annoyed by it.
The Spectator did attempt a defence against the complaint under Clause 1 (accuracy), using as its sources the Daily Mail and the Sunday Times. Scoff at that choice if you like, but the key thing is that these articles mentioned 'accusations' and 'proceedings' rather than convictions. An important distinction when you're trying to claim proof for an assertion like the one Liddle made. Have a look at Five Chinese Crackers's stellar post 'Rod Liddle - more racist than the BNP?' from 2009 for a good analysis.
Yes, it was a poisonous, vile little rant from an awful little man; but the important point to make is that he was wrong, wrong, wrong. Yes, he may be a polemicist, and yes, he may be trying to provoke rather than inform, and yes yes yes, all of that. But he said something was true when it wasn't, something which could bring about a misleading perception of one racial group in society. Toxic, destructive and dirty. But also wrong.
Interestingly, the PCC have previously ruled against complainants who have accused newspapers of inaccuracies vis-a-vis comment pieces, saying that because these are columns, they won't be taken seriously as sources of factual information by readers. The PCC said last June:
While the column had been phrased in stark terms - the journalist had made one claim which was prefaced by "the fact is", for example - the author's claims would nonetheless be recognised by readers as comment rather than unarguable fact.
So is this a sea change from the PCC, then? Or is it simply a case of there being two different adjudications in two slightly different articles? A blogger in that instance had complained about articles regarding gay adoption, so it's a similar complaint about potentially discriminatory inaccuracy. It's a similar argument: present something as a fact in a column, reader complains about accuracy.
There is another possibility: that if the Spectator had defended its article by dint of it being an opinion piece, rather than on factual grounds, it may well have succeeded. But it didn't: as well as the factual evidence they used to defend it, they said that Liddle's article was a blog, and that meant that the factual dissection could take place in the comments rather than in the article itself.
Now, blogs as such - like this one, or yours, or any - aren't covered by the PCC at present. But I wonder if this decision might be leading us up that path. Look back to November of last year when the PCC's Baroness Luscombe said:
Rather, a system of self-regulation (such as exists by the PCC for newspapers) would be more appropriate, if any bloggers wished to go down that route.
And now, here's the PCC dealing with a complaint about a 'blog', or at least what the Spectator called a blog rather than a paid column by a salaried journalist which happens to support comments and be regularly updated by the authors themselves.
I wonder if there might be some mission-creep going on, or whether we're in the foggy world of "What is blogging and what is journalism?" which, frankly, I'd rather not go down again if it's all the same to you, for the sake of my sanity. Perhaps I am a little paranoid and there's nothing in this. But perhaps the line between 'blogs' on sites like the Spectator's and elsewhere is a little more blurry. Who decides who should be covered by the PCC and who shouldn't? It's voluntary as far as I am aware, but voluntary so that regulation isn't enforced.
At present, we don't subscribe to the PCC or an equivalent regulatory body. Should we? Who should and who shouldn't? Does it make you a better blog if you are? But who can afford the time to answer dozens of PCC complaints that might arrive in your inbox, possibly vexatiously from people who simply don't like you, without the time and resources of a professional publishing outfit to do it?
Some might say the bloggers who rejoice in Liddle's discomfort the most might want to look over their shoulders, because they could suffer the same kind of thing themselves soon. I don't think it's quite time to panic. Not just yet. But as the delineation between the big shots and the little shots gets ever more confused, might the pressure not grow for there to be a regulatory body for blogs? And might, then, those of us who cheerily demand teeth for the PCC be walking into a ruddy great bear trap?
So has the PCC found a tooth? And is it ominous for bloggers? I'm not so sure, on either case. Liddle has been correctly told off, but it's not so much a stinging slap on the wrist but a wagging finger. Hmm. For now, I can't help being delighted that Liddle's been made to look like the odious little man he is.
Will it make a difference to his output? I should cocoa. It might make him think twice. Will there be an apology, a correction, anything like that? We'll see. The PCC has no powers to enforce one. Remember, it's the 'shame' of being ruled against that is meant to be such a big deterrent from getting things wrong (not just wrong by mistake, but let's make it clear this Liddle's post was wrong, misleading and highly offensive). Let's see how much shame the Spectator suffers, if any. And then let's see how worried we should be.
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