One of the victims of collateral damage in the News International affair has been the Press Complaints Commission. The, er, watchdog attempted to investigate hacking allegations in 2009 but was stalled by what has turned out to be false testimony from NI witnesses, and has now retracted comments it made at the time about the Guardian newspaper's investigation.
For the moment there seems to be a great gulf between PCC insiders and most others who have offered comment, as to whether the body is doing much good. Take for example this comment piece from a (recently appointed) PCC member defending its "vital and generally unsung work of providing access to justice", and the string of over 60 posts it attracted, almost all derisive apart from one from a fellow member.
Lawyers appear to be equally split: one I know wouldn't waste a stamp on sending a complaint there; another says that editors do actually take the PCC and its code seriously.
Looking at the PCC's history since it was set up in the 1990s – following David Mellor's famous "last chance saloon" comment over the press and its behaviour, much seems to have depended on the approach of the chairman of the day and their ability to command the confidence of the public on the one hand and the editors on the other. But while the self-regulatory approach for the press has in the past been, and continues by some to be, held up as the better and in any event more workable one to follow, we may well have reached a watershed such that some change is necessary going forward if the PCC is to restore its reputation.
Perhaps we have too many eggs in one basket. If there are virtues in being able to operate as the PCC currently does, but on the other hand there are cases where press conduct indicates that a stronger approach is needed, do these functions need to be carried out by the same body? It isn't the current fashion to create new quangos, but the PCC, which has a budget, it is said, of less than £2m – compare the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission at £2.8m! – should not be a huge drain on the industry and there ought to be scope for a further panel or tribunal with stronger powers for serious cases or those where the PCC's ruling is felt to be inadequate.
One for Lord Justice Leveson to consider at any rate.