Head of press watchdog is next to resign over hacking

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THE phone-hacking scandal claimed yet another high-profile scalp yesterday when Baroness Buscombe announced she is to quit as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

The Conservative peer will step down from her role following widespread criticism of the watchdog for mishandling the scandal.

Lady Buscombe will relinquish her post once a replacement is found, making her the latest in a succession of well-known figures who have become casualties of the controversy.

So far the scandal has led to the departure of several executives in the Murdoch empire, including Rebekah Brooks, senior Met Police officers and the closure of the UK's biggest selling newspaper the News of the World.

Yesterday it was announced that Lady Buscombe, who receives a six figure salary per year for working a three-day week, would not continue beyond her three-year term of office, which began in April 2009.

Lady Buscombe's tenure has been marred by criticism that she has failed to deal convincingly with the phone-hacking allegations at the News of the World, an impression that was backed up by a recent unconvincing performance when she was interviewed by Andrew Neil on the BBC's Daily Politics Show.

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Her difficulties had their origins in a PCC report she signed off in November 2009, which failed to see through the News of the World's claim that phone-hacking had been restricted to one rogue reporter.

Since then it has emerged that phone-hacking was far more prevalent. Public outrage has been fuelled by the revelations that Sara Payne, the mother of a murder victim, and the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler were among the victims of the practice.

The Media Standards Trust (MST), a long-time critic of the PCC, welcomed the move, arguing that there has "clearly been a failure of leadership at a time when the PCC needed firm direction".

The MST said that Buscombe presided over a "wholly inadequate" investigation into phone hacking, adding that her departure "should not deflect the need for, and serious discussion about, the comprehensive reform of the self-regulatory system".

"As we have previously argued, the fundamental problems of the PCC are structural - in terms of its lack of independence from the industry, the opacity of its funding arrangements, and its lack of adequate formal powers," the organisation said.

The PCC will be scrutinised by Lord Leveson's judicial review of phone hacking and media practices. The phone-hacking scandal has led to the watchdog's existence being called into question by politicians.David Cameron described the PCC as "ineffective", Ed Miliband called it a "toothless poodle" and Nick Clegg said it ought to be replaced.

Yesterday Lady Buscombe's decision was welcomed by the Shadow culture secretary Ivan Lewis. He said: "The organisation needs new leadership to take it through a difficult period until Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry makes recommendations about the future of Press regulation."

A statement issued by the PCC thanked Lady Buscombe for making yesterday's announcement and for a "major contribution" to the watchdog.

"Her work has led to many improvements over the last couple of years. She leaves the Commission structurally stronger then when she came in," said a statement from the PCC, which includes John McLellan, editor-in-chief of Scotsman Publications, as a member.

Yesterday Lady Buscombe appeared to support calls for a tougher approach to press misconduct. Outlining "three clear messages", she said: "First, the public rightly demands stronger powers for dealing with the misconduct of the press. They must get them.

"Second, the public needs the existing work of the PCC to continue and be built upon.

"I have worked as chairman to ensure that we give real help (both before and after publication) to members of the public, who otherwise would have no one to turn to. The staff of the PCC are unsurpassed in terms of the effort and intelligence they bring to their work.

"And third, the importance of a free press has never been greater.

"It was thanks to investigative journalism that the phone-hacking scandal was brought to public attention. Newspapers and magazines must have the proper freedom to represent their readers' interests, and also to expose wrongdoing wherever it may be found.

"In this world of shifting media provision, I am convinced the answer to ethical concerns about the press is not statutory intervention. What is needed is a greater sense of accountability among editors and proprietors."

Criticism of Lady Buscombe had stemmed from the PCC's report into revelations that phone-hacking was more widespread than claimed by the News of the World.

The November 2009 report examined articles in the Guardian, which suggested that the unethical practice was more commonplace than the "one rogue reporter" that News International admitted to at the time.

The report concluded that there was "no new evidence" of widespread phone-hacking.

The PCC report was also controversial in that while failing to acknowledge the extent of the wrong-doing at the News of the World, it criticised the Guardian newspaper's coverage of phone hacking.

In July 2009, the Guardian had written articles suggesting that there was widespread phone hacking at the News of the World.

The PCC accepted News International's word that there was no truth in the stories published by the Guardian.But it also said the Guardian's articles "did not quote live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given".

There was more trouble for the Tory peer, in November last year when the PCC found itself in the embarrassing position of formally apologising and paying damages for misleading remarks she had made.

Lady Buscombe and the PCC made a formal statement of regret at the high court to settle a libel action brought by Mark Lewis, one of the lawyers at the centre of the phone-hacking scandal.

They also agreed to pay a sum for damages and legal costs.

The case related to evidence given by Mr Lewis to the House of Commons' culture, media and sport committee.

Mr Lewis acted for Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, when he sued the News of the World for breaching his privacy by using a private investigator to intercept his voicemail messages.

Mr Lewis told the committee that during legal hearings in Taylor's case, Detective Sergeant Mark Maberly, who had been involved in the original investigation into the News of the World, had told him that there were "something like 6,000 people" who had had their phones hacked.

This clashed with the official version of events, which acknowledged only eight victims, including Mr Taylor.

The Press Complaints Commission, which had already endorsed this official version, then produced the 2009 report that came to the same conclusion.

In a subsequent speech to the Society of Editors in November last year, Lady Buscombe defended the PCC's reports and claimed that she had received "new evidence" from Scotland Yard saying that Maberly had been misquoted.

Mr Lewis started an action for libel against Buscombe and the PCC, complaining that they had made no attempt to check Scotland Yard's claim and that her speech implied he had lied and invented the figure of 6,000.