Peta Buscombe: a change of style

In Debate on May 27, 2009 at 9:00 am

Baroness Peta Buscombe was interviewed on 5Live on Thursday to mark her recent appointment as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. It was a 30 minute interview by Colin Murray, standing in for Simon May. It was an interesting interview because the style was markedly different from her predecessor. You can listen again from 1.05.

Buscombe said that she joined the PCC to discover an “amazing team” at the commission and whilst the organisation faced “challenges” it had a “good story to tell”. She did accept, however, that there was “probably room for improvement”.

1. Encouraging people to use the PCC
Her focus for improvement was on encouraging the public to use us – “the most important thing”. This picks up on a theme of her predecessor, Christopher Meyer, who told the culture media and sport select committee that “the industry could do more to advertise the services that we provide”.

However, Buscombe did not place the onus on the members of the commission to boost its profile and perhaps the forthcoming open day in Ipswich is a sign that the PCC is going to be more proactive in increasing its profile.

She later cited the publication of a leaflet by the Greater Manchester Police which would be distributed to every victim of crime on how to deal with the media, as an example of promoting the role of the PCC.

2. Defining the role of the PCC
The PCC does not have a publicly available mission statement, set of principles or any other description of who it serves. However, Buscombe has a clear sense of purpose, telling 5Live that “we’re here to take on people’s complaints and concerns whenever or wherever they have them”.

3. Promoting pre-publication work
Buscombe is clearly impressed by the work of the PCC prior to publication. She said that she hadn’t been aware of the extent of the work undertaken by the “advice bureau” provided to editors who regularly consulted the PCC prior to publication of a controversial article. Buscombe said that the PCC was “good at stopping a lot of things being published”.

She also argued that if we had a privacy law, we may never have found the truth about Baby P. I inferred from this that she considered that this would have been a bad thing.

4. Promoting independence
The presenter put it to the chairman that the PCC lacked independence. Buscombe thoroughly disagreed saying that the PCC was “not on the side of newspapers . . . that’s the great thing about self-regulation”. She explained that the press funds it (saving money for the taxpayer) but does not control it – a state which Buscombe thought was the “joy of self-regulation”.

Buscombe argued that had Max Mosley gone to the PCC the newspaper would have been “seriously reprimanded” and his “privacy restored”. This was a slightly different to the impression I was given by Meyer’s remarks to the select committee which were that he “may have got a remedy at the PCC discreetly”

5. Rejecting fines
Buscombe explained that the PCC doesn’t “talk about fines” or “get involved in ex gratia payments”. Rather, its research conducted by Ipsos-Mori suggested that 68% of people would rather an apology than a fine.

Instead, she believes that fines would have a limited impact, arguing that Ofcom’s fine against the BBC didn’t punish the editors involved but the licence fee payer.

The current forms of redress were powerful, Buscombe argued. She cited the prominence of apologies which had improved significantly, and said that there were even apologies on the front page. Recently she had seen in action a negotiation involving a woman she couldn’t mention who had been wrongly involved in a story and agreed an arrangement with a newspaper that at the end of any story about the issue, there would be an explanation of her role. Buscombe argued that deal “restored” the woman’s privacy.

Buscombe argued that she would “certainly look” at issues concerning the placement of apologies “but would rather reserve judgment”.

6. A distinction of style over substance

The response from listeners didn’t appear to be significantly different from the reaction that the PCC often gets. The BBC may be under no obligation to read out a representative sample of messages but the two that the presenter chose were both negative.

Buscombe’s style was conversational and engaging – appropriate for a 5Live audience. She wasn’t confrontational and although her responses were robust, they were more confidently assertive than brash and bluster.

I finished the interview feeling as though I’d heard a different approach from the chairman of the PCC. Once she’s spent some time in the role, we will be better able to judge if there’s a change of substance.

  1. […] PCC is not funded by the taxpayer – a significant advantage of self-regulation according to Buscombe – but it does perform functions in the public interest. The press review group found that the […]

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