Roy Greenslade has written a couple of interesting articles today about the attitude of Richard Desmond towards the Press Complaints Commission. The Star could potentially opt out of regulation by the PCC; but not only that:
I am now given to understand that one of Desmond's executives has written formally to say that Northern & Shell will not pay the required annual fee to the Press Standards Board of Finance (Pressbof), the body that funds the Press Complaints Commission.
As one senior industry spokesman said: "If he goes through with this, it will be a major fork in the road."
It will effectively be the end of the PCC, and possibly self-regulation. If Richard Desmond wants his newspapers to opt out of scrutiny by the self-regulatory body, then that will be that: there's no point in anyone continuing.
At present, there is an appearance of regulation, since all national newspapers are signed up to the PCC code, and all co-operate with the PCC's investigations when required to do so; they even go so far as to print the required adjudications in the event of them ever being found to have done anything wrong. But if Desmond's newspapers withdraw, the PCC will start to look even more like the wooden frontier town in Blazing Saddles. It won't be long before people start to realise what's going on.
The withdrawal of the Star and Express, I think, won't make the PCC look powerless all of a sudden; it will actually make very little difference at all. People will shrug their shoulders and say "So what? You couldn't get any joy out of complaining about the Star or Express while they were in the PCC; you can't get any joy out of complaining about the Star or Express now they're not in the PCC." Same same, but different. What will really change? If the PCC becomes something that can simply be opted in to or opted out of, will that make any difference to readers' concerns about the effectiveness of having their complaints handled? Or will it just take away the semblance of regulation?
I can see why Greenslade might fear for 'a free press' under self-regulation, since the possible demise of the PCC could possibly usher in a new era of state regulation as opposed to the more comfortable self-regulatory regime. On the other hand, our national newspapers have already signed up to be regulated, so presumably they approve of the idea of some form of regulation (or at least a verisimilitude of regulation). State regulation, as opposed to self-regulation, might actually be more effective for punters who feel hard done by and genuinely wronged; it all depends on what framework of regulation might be put in place. It's possible it might clamp down more on freedom of expression, but equally possible it might not. If the Express and Star are refusing to pay their subs to be part of the PCC, that may be down to cost considerations as much as anything else, plus the extra costs of having to involve lawyers every time one of his papers gets in a scrape for getting something horrifically wrong. So why would they accept anything other than being forced to be regulated after that?
A 'fork in the road', then. Can the PCC carry on as a credible body if Richard Desmond picks up his ball and refuses to play any more? Will it be the end of self-regulation and the beginning of state regulation - or no regulation at all? I can't see there being too much mourning for the demise of the Press Complaints Commission, if indeed it is their demise. It's what comes next that will be interesting.