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What the rebirth of the PCC could mean for the climate conversation

  • 08 Mar 2012, 16:00
  • Ros Donald

Our friends at the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) have decided to shut up shop and create a new, more effective regulator. We submitted two assessments of our dealings with the PCC over several months while we eventually got recalcitrant Mail Group newspapers to retract incorrect statements about the cost of renewables subsidies to households.

According to the Independent, the commission officially discussed its closure at a meeting chaired by Lord Hunt today. It says Hunt is anxious to have a "new authority in place and functioning well ahead of the first draft and any early recommendations" by Lord Justice Leveson, whom the government charged with making recommendations on the future of press regulation.

The details of the closure and the shape the new body might take won't be announced for another six weeks, the Independent says - though Hunt has expressed the need to create a "regulator with teeth".  According to the Guardian, a transitional body will replace the PCC, and a new, permanent regulator should be up and running in either 2013 or 2014.

What could better regulation do to improve the way climate science and policy are portrayed in the media?

Notably, the PCC hasn't been able to prevent the press from pursuing the more ludicrous angles in their climate change coverage. But there's also the less obvious distortions - last month, we reflected on the difficulties we encountered working with the PCC to get the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday to retract incorrect figures about green costs on energy bills.

This long and painful process yielded somewhat unsatisfying results - tiny corrections buried on pages two or four of the print edition of the newspaper. Perhaps more worryingly, printing PCC-negotiated corrections didn't stop the newspapers making repeating use of the inaccurate figures. This is either a particularly careless mistake, or an indication that the PCC's intervention wasn't taken massively seriously.

As it stands at the moment, newspapers with an interest in selectively reporting the truth or publishing unsubstantiated statements can do so knowing any their readers will barely notice any corrections.

Better standards

A group of charities including the Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK - a charity that suffers particularly from media coverage which suggests links between cancer and almost anything you can think of - suggested to the Leveson Committee that where discussing scientific matters, articles should provide references.  This would at any rate allow readers to check sources for themselves, which would be useful when that function is pretty obviously lacking in some newspapers' climate reporting.

The charities also suggest that corrections should be printed with the same prominence as the original, incorrect story - a prospect that could well give editors pause when they consider whether to quote dodgy evidence. After all, avoiding a public climbdown might be more of a motivator if it was going to take up most of the front page.

Commentators such as UK education secretary Michael Gove have warned further regulation could have a chilling effect on press freedom. But enforcing standards of accuracy and accountability is not the same as seeking to influence newspapers' editorial lines. But this should be a welcome step - whatever your views, the quality of any debate can only improve if the argument is kept in the realm of the truth.

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