Britain’s press watchdog, criticized as toothless, is disbanding

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REPORTING FROM LONDON -- Britain’s press watchdog organization is being disbanded, a victim of the scandal over tabloid phone-hacking tactics that the group failed to spot or prevent.

Criticism has rained down on the Press Complaints Commission since the hacking scandal broke open last summer with the revelation that the sensation-seeking News of the World had illegally tapped into voice mails left on the phone of a kidnapped 13-year-old girl. Many observers dismissed the commission, which is funded by the media industry, as a toothless body that had shown itself incapable of doing its job of upholding ethical journalism.


On Thursday, the organization’s spokesman, Jonathan Collett, said the PCC’s directors unanimously agreed Wednesday that the commission should begin shutting down and transferring its responsibilities to an interim body. The commission had already been slated for a phase-out sometime in the near future, but directors decided to accelerate that process.

Set up about two decades ago, the PCC was supposed to be an exercise in self-regulation by Britain’s media, which operate in one of the most fiercely competitive news environments in the world. Its mandate was to investigate alleged abuses by the media and to demand redress where necessary, though it did not have the power to levy monetary fines. The aim of successful self-regulation was to keep government interference in the media at bay.

The PCC often rebuked newspapers and tabloids for what it deemed to be intrusive or dishonest news-gathering practices, but it lacked the ability to enforce its decisions. Its weak and hesitant response to the swelling tide of allegations of phone hacking discredited it in the eyes of many.

Authorities now say that the cellphones of hundreds of celebrities, politicians, athletes and even families of crime victims were systematically hacked by scoop-hungry tabloids, in particular the News of the World, which media titan Rupert Murdoch summarily closed down in July at the height of public outrage. Murdoch and his son James have since appeared before British lawmakers to explain how hacking became endemic at the now-defunct tabloid.

An independent judge-led investigation into press practices and the media’s relationship with politicians and police is underway. The inquiry is expected eventually to recommend a replacement for the Press Complaints Commission.


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