Two Scots who insist on defending the indefensible

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by Kenneth Roy

In a rare show of unanimity, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition have condemned the performance of the press regulator and called for its replacement.  Yesterday, the Scottish Review presented a raft of evidence in support of this political consensus; today, we will produce more.  But does the Press Complaints Commission show a morsel of contrition for its failure to prevent systematic criminality in the British press?  Does it hell.

Its response to the damning indictments delivered, not only by David Cameron and Ed Miliband but by other political leaders such as Alex Salmond, is a disgrace in itself.  Its various statements since 8 July have been largely ignored by the same press which foots its bills, but they are worth looking at for their lack of grace, their air of unreality and most of all for the absence of any expression of sympathy for the family of Milly Dowler, the 7/7 victims and the many other innocent people who are suffering pain and distress because of press cruelty and depravity.

One statement attacked Ed Miliband personally for being ‘long on rhetoric but short on substance’.  Another, reacting to Cameron’s view that ‘we need a new system [of press regulation] entirely’, spoke of its work being ‘grossly undervalued’ (by Cameron, presumably) and said that the PCC would not be a ‘convenient scalp’ for the hacking scandal.  But the most remarkable of all its unwise utterances in the last 10 days was a declaration signed by the nine ‘public members’ (the other eight members being ‘editorial commissioners’ – ie journalists) which stated boldly that the government could not order its replacement and that the PCC ‘must’ continue as an ‘independent’ organisation.

Well. How’s that for a blatant subversion of the democratic will?  You elected lot may think you can get rid of us.  But you elected lot are wrong.

Seven of the nine signatories need not concern us, space being short.  But two should be named here and now – the public members from Scotland.  They are John Home Robertson, a former Labour MP who also once sat in the Scottish Parliament, and Esther Roberton.

At the Labour Party conference in 1976, John Home Robertson moved the resolution which committed the party to a policy of devolution for Scotland.  He was once parliamentary private secretary to someone called Jack Cunningham.  One of his forebears was a member of the original Scottish Parliament and opposed the Act of Union.  Apart from these facts, and his membership of the Press Complaints Commission, I can find absolutely nothing of interest to say about John Home Robertson.

Esther Roberton is one of those ubiquitous Labour appointees who flit, seemingly effortlessly, from one public job to another, often managing to service several important-sounding committees at the same time.  If I were to list all her quango-related work in the last 10 years, I might well lose the will to live.  When she joined the PCC, she said she had been ‘impressed with how it has promoted its range of services, particularly those aimed at preventing or dispersing media scrums’.  I have tried to unearth other examples of Esther Roberton’s wit and wisdom, but so far without success.

Casting around Scotland, it would not be difficult to find people of more distinction to serve on the Press Complaints Commission than this pair.  But their place in history is now assured – if only in a footnote as two of nine people in July 2011 who attempted to defend the indefensible.

You would think – would you not? – that the Press Complaints Commission, currently so keen to impress us with the ‘brilliance’ of its work over the years, would have had something to say in its annual report for that year about the serious implications of Brooks’s statement to the select committee.

Just how indefensible becomes clear on a visit to the annual report of the Press Complaints Commission for 2003.  In June of that year, Rebekah Brooks (as she then was not) told a parliamentary select committee that ‘we’ had paid the police for information in the past.  This acknowledgement of an apparently corrupt practice – the first hint of the many horrors to come – was reported in the Guardian and seized on by the Labour MP Chris Bryant who suggested to Les Hinton, Murdoch’s top man in London, that the newspaper industry should ‘clean up its act’.  As we reported yesterday, Hinton responded aggressively to this admirable idea.

You would think – would you not? – that the Press Complaints Commission, currently so keen to impress us with the ‘brilliance’ of its work over the years, would have had something to say in its annual report for that year about the serious implications of Brooks’s statement to the select committee.  Oddly enough, however, there was no mention of it in the annual report; and despite the assurance of the then chairman, Christopher Meyer, that ‘PCC staff are engaged in countless initiatives’, it appeared that there had been no investigation of the admission that police officers had been paid for information.

On the contrary, Meyer insisted that there was ‘no general culture of intrusion into privacy by the press’ and handed over a full page of the annual report to the chairman of the ethics code committee, who congratulated himself and his colleagues for ‘raising journalistic standards’.  His name? Les Hinton. The same Les Hinton who was heading up Murdoch’s operation in London.

There was only one Scot on the commission at the time: Charles McGhee, then editor of the Glasgow Evening Times.  His smiling features adorn the committee page of the report.  If he or any of his fellow commissioners were concerned by the myopic nature of their organisation’s annual report for 2003, there was no public hint of it.  He and the others put their names to a document lauding the ‘authority’ and ‘renewed credibility’ of the Press Complaints Commission, thanking the director, Guy Black, who was leaving after seven and a half years to become director of communications for the Conservative Party.

It is perhaps just as well that annual reports do not include details of the social arrangements of senior staff, otherwise it would have had to be dutifully recorded that Mr Black – who now rejoices in the title Baron Black of Brentwood – had gone on holiday with the same Rebekah Brooks who gave evidence to the parliamentary select committee in June 2003 acknowledging that the police had been paid for information.  Baron Black is now executive director of the Telegraph media group.

How grateful we must all be for the ‘independent’ Press Complaints Commission.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review

Image by Bob Smith – http://bobsmithart.com