One of the questions coming out of the phone hacking scandal and the announcement that News of the World will be shutting its offices following its final publication this Sunday is the sufficiency of the Press Complaints Commission as the industry’s self-regulator. The PCC did very little when the first hacking allegations came to light. When Clive Goodman was imprisoned for hacking in 2006 the PCC announced it was launching an investigation and concluding later that it was an isolated incident. The PCC it can be said has had nothing to do with bringing to light what has happened here. Rather, the outrage of the public and dogged pursuit of certain MPs and competing papers and the plans for public inquiries caused NoW’s fall. This highlights that more regulates the behaviour of the press than a formal regulator. Bringing to mind regulatory theorists for the Internet environment, such as Lawrence Lessig, Colin Scott and Andrew Murray, this incident reminds us that the public has a role to play in regulating behaviour, that naming and shaming indeed can at times be quite effective. But that is cold comfort to the family of Milly Dowler and any of the other victims of NoW hacking, and it is only effective after the fact in penalising behaviour. What the hacking scandal also highlights is the weaknesses of the PCC as a regulatory body, in terms of its accountability, independence from industry, and fundamental role in maintaining a standard of conduct for the press.
Is the PCC enough? Well certainly not in its current form. But before we go gallivanting off arguing for stricter regulation of the press we must be mindful of the critical role the press plays in pursuing the public interest and the consequential need to give due attention to independence of the press and freedom of expression in this environment. More regulation might hamper their ability to carry out this role. Sure the PCC has utterly failed as a self-regulatory body and needs to be reformed, but the answer is not necessarily to reconstitute the body as something akin to OFCOM with greater government oversight. What has happened here is as much a cultural problem as well as a legal one – the culture in the offices of NoW, but also the public culture in consuming the paper every week. NoW had a weekly circulation of 2.7 million. Our appetite fed the practices and while the blame no doubt falls on Rupert Murdoch’s empire for engaging in such criminal practices, we should take a moment to consider whether we need to change our own practices as consumers.