Archive for September, 2010
The Press Complaints Commission has ruled that a Daily Star frontpage article “misled readers in a significant manner” and the newspaper published the adjudication. It is only the third national newspaper to have had an adjudication upheld against it this year. However, it is the 10th time the newspaper has come to the attention of the PCC this year – an average of more than one case a month. So why is the Daily Star breaking the code with such frequency?
All of the other cases against the Daily Star in 2010 have been resolved with the publication of an apology or correction. Most recently, the Daily Star corrected another inaccurate frontpage. On the day the civil air authority allowed airplanes to fly through the ash cloud, the Daily Star splashed with ‘Terror As Plane Hits Ash Cloud’ on the front page, complete with a photograph of a plane in flames in the sky. At the bottom of page 8 the paper noted that the picture was from a television documentary.
In this case it turned out that the council did not pay for the loos, they were installed by a private shopping centre. Nor were they exclusively for Muslims. But the PCC has expressed its clear dissatisfaction with the newspaper by taking the case to adjudication rather than allowing it to be resolved. Whilst this case isn’t materially different from the Terror As Plane Hits Ash Cloud story, clearly the PCC has expressed its dissatisfaction by taking the case to adjudication rather than accepting the newspaper’s offer of an adjudication.
It must be significant that the two recent cases involved controversial front page headlines – an important commercial consideration for the newspaper. The apologies for the ‘ash cloud’ and’ muslim toilets’ cases appeared on page two – numerically significant for the PCC’s end of year statistics which measure relative prominence but commercially less significant than giving up space on the front page. If the Daily Star is wilfully misrepresenting stories for commercial benefit, then the PCC’s adjudication is unlikely to have an obvious impact.
Perhaps the previous interventions of the PCC have not been treated sufficiently seriously by the Daily Star. The chairman of the editors’ code committee, Paul Dacre, has previously suggested that resolved cases cannot be understood as part of a case against a newspaper.
The strongest advocates of self-regulations argue that having to publish an adjudication is embarrassing for a newspaper and so a deterrent against breaching the code. It will be interesting to see if the Daily Star now complies more frequently.
However, understanding of the PCC’s code does appear to be uniquely poor at the Daily Star. Its sports journalism has also been criticised in the last month for reporting a number of articles containing quotes from top international football players which were all unlikely, and all subsequently denied by the players in question. If this is the case the PCC should consider a programme of intervention – much as it did with the News of the World after the phone hacking stories first emerged.
Finally, the newspaper (and Northern and Shell, its owner) may not have a culture of respect for self-regulation. Only a year ago it emerged that Northern and Shell had secretly stopped contributing financially to the Press Complaints Commission. The newspaper contains no regular advert for the PCC’s services (unlike the Daily Mirror, for example) and no obvious means of complaining to the newspaper about its content. When I called the newsroom about the Ash Cloud article the journalist was unsure of what to do and the newspaper failed to respond to email queries.
Whatever the reasons for the Daily Star’s problems, the persistent problems suggest that the PCC’s current remedy – asking for the publication of an adjudication – is failing. The PCC requires three important reforms in order to be equipped to deal with persistent offenders .
When a newspaper breaches the code, the PCC should have a mechanism for considering the publication’s previous performance. Whilst the PCC appears to do this informally, Editors do not see a resolved complaint as being a cause for concern. A ladder of remedies which escalated the seriousness of the punishment depending on the offence and the newspaper’s performance would enable the PCC to take more tough action. A league table of offenders, published in conjunction with its annual report would provide further opportunity for the PCC to shame Editors.
Without sanctions of commercial significance, there are some cases (of which this appears to be a prime example) where an adjudication will not be sufficient. Whilst PCC Watch is attracted to the idea that a newspaper could be forced to carry a disclaimer that its content may not reflect reality, a more traditional proposal would invest the PCC with the power to place a commercial value on an adjudication (measured by advertising value) which could increase for each instance of re-offending.
Finally, the PCC must have the courage to suspend or terminate the membership of persistent offenders. Failure to do so tarnishes the reputation of those that do respect and abide by the PCC code – just as any club is judged by its high profile examples of wrong-doing. What good does it do the Financial Times to say that it is covered by the same regulatory body as the Daily Star?
In other regulatory systems – such as the Advertising Standards Authority – the body has a back-stop to which it can report persistent non-offenders. The ASA has done this recently in the case of Ryanair which it reported to the Office of Fair Trading. This would require a statutory footing for the PCC – a step too far for newspapers.
With these three elements in place, the PCC could have acted differently against the Daily Star. Firstly, in each of the nine resolved cases, it could have come to an opinion as to whether the code had been breached. With each breach, it could then have made clear to the newspaper and the public that further breaches would have been accompanied with stiffer penalties. Its annual report could then have highlighted persistent bad practice at the Daily Star whilst the Editors’ code review could contain a threat that continued offences by the Daily Star would lead to a suspension of membership. This may be bureaucratic and legalistic. But if the newspaper continues to misrepresent ‘news’ articles, how else will the public be sure that it can believe what it reads in the Daily Star?
The Liberal Democrats’ annual conference passed a motion on reform of the Press Complaints Commission this week – not that you’ll have read about it in a newspaper. The political significance of this is that the Lib Dems are now an important part of the coalition and on this their views were distinct from the Conservatives. The PCC was sufficiently concerned that Baroness Buscombe wrote an article for Lib Dem News setting out why the motion should be opposed.
Now it is also true that the Lib Dem conference is prone to passing motions on a wide variety of subjects (often providing fodder to opponents who want to highlight ‘silly’ Lib Dem policies). And attendance at the debate was in the low hundreds. But a major party conference spent the best part of an hour debating how to reform the PCC and in doing so involved former journalists, politicians and community activists.
The debate highlighted the central challenge at the heart of reforming the PCC. Lib Dem activists were united in their view that the PCC should be more independent than it is at the moment – and united in their opposition to ‘illiberal’ government regulation. But all considered that in a system of self-regulation the ‘self’ was likely to triumph over the ‘regulation’ – as activist Philip Goldeberg told the conference. Some saw the answer to this as needing a greater proportion of lay members on the commission; others as removing the involvement of serving editors. Mark Pack said that the commission should be accountable to the complainants rather than the industry. None suggested alternatives to the industry funding the PCC.
No one disagreed that the PCC should have strengthened powers. Mark Pack argued for a right of reply; there was a debate over the merits of financial penalties; Bristol delegate Peter Tyzack wanted newspapers to be less partisan. But there was a lack of clarity over who should give the PCC this greater power. The conference did not encourage newspaper editors to invest this power in the PCC (and the rhetoric will not have encouraged them to do so) and the opposition to state regulation means that conference presumably opposed the government delegating powers to the PCC also.
Self-regulation is the only viable model. So the challenge for the newspaper industry is how it reforms the PCC to maintain public confidence. There are three key elements to this:
1. Clarity of purpose and role – not claiming to perform regulation or investigations where it cannot and acting on behalf of the public rather than a complainant.
2. A set of remedies so the PCC can meet expectations. As with any club, the PCC could choose to levy fines against it’s members for non-compliance and should consider a threat of ostracising persistent offenders.
3. Best practice in operations – transparency in its dealings with newspapers, ultimate sources of funding and decision making process. And on this, the PCC appears to have recognised the basic framework for freedom of information.
But if the PCC fails to meet expectations of effective self-regulation, complainants will look to the courts and politicians to their own powers.
Peter Crouch has criticised the Sun for breaking the news of the pregnancy of his fiancé Abbey Clancy before he had time to tell members of his family. He said that the newspaper had been wrong to reveal private information and had done so before the pregnancy was 12 weeks old. A good example of the weakness of the PCC? Probably not.
The reporting of high profile pregnancies is one area where the PCC has devoted significant care and attention in the last few years. It had received a number of complaints about high profile cases where the pregnancy of a celebrity had been reported before the 12-week scan and without their consent.
In Joanna Riding vs The Independent (2006) the newspaper argued that it had no reason not to believe that the pregnancy was not public information. However, in its upheld adjudication, the PCC made a landmark ruling:
“As a matter of common sense newspapers and magazines should not reveal news of an individual’s pregnancy without consent before the 12 week scan, unless the information is known to such an extent that it would be perverse not to refer to it.
The primary factor under consideration was the possibility of complications in the pregnancy (and presumably later privacy intrusions), followed by the right of the individual to share the news with family and friends.
Subsequently, in Charlotte Church v The Sun (2007) the PCC criticised the newspaper for reporting “baby rumours” and ruled that an apparent change in alcohol consumption by Ms Church was not sufficient justification for circumventing the privacy rights asserted in Riding v The Independent.
In its reporting of the Abbey Clancy story, the Sun made its justification clear. The headline reported that she was 12 weeks pregnant and the article made clear that the news came from someone in a restaurant (usually deemed a public place for the purposes of the PCC’s privacy considerations) overhearing the news spoken “loudly” by Ms Clancy to someone who was apparently a member of the public – further justification on the part of the Sun.
The PCC would not normally intervene unless it received a complaint directly from Mr Crouch (or his representatives). The Media Standards Trust would disagree. The existing complaint from Mr Crouch ought to be sufficient. Without further intrusion, the PCC should be able to check from the journalist the circumstances surrounding the news and that they followed proper processes. They could also check the age of the pregnancy with Crouch or Clancy, should they be willing to participate. Mr Crouch’s assertion that the newspaper acted improperly – particularly that it “recorded her private conversation” should not be left unchecked.
By ruling in this case the PCC would reassure the public that it was safeguarding the code, that it was effective at protecting privacy during early pregnancy and (if it found no wrong-doing) provide independent endorsement of the Sun. A ruling may also help journalists better understand the balance between respecting the individual’s right to inform family and friends and the point at which the PCC would judge the news to be so well known that it would perverse not to report it.
The PCC can be proud for how it has privately brokered a consensus in the industry around the reporting of pregnancy and protected individual privacy. But it must continue to ensure that its role is understood and communicated clearly if its role is to be appreciated in public.
Other respected media commentators and journalists have reinforced PCC Watch’s suggestion that the PCC should not be the focus of criticism over phone hacking. However, if the PCC wishes to be better understood, it needs to be much clearer about what it can and cannot do.
At its best, the PCC provides an excellent service to many members of the public who otherwise couldn’t seek redress. It’s a low-cost, efficient ombudsman negotiating satisfactory apologies and corrections and discouraging intrusion into private grief.
However, there are other issues which are beyond its remit, budget and expertise. When phone hacking first emerged, its then chairman Sir Christopher Meyer promised a full inquiry and tough action against newspapers which had broken the code. What followed was a report in 2007 which found that Clive Goodman was the only reporter at the News of the World who knew about phone tapping; that there was no evidence of anyone beyond Goodman and Mulcaire subverting the law or the PCC code.
Following the Guardian’s allegations of summer 2009 the PCC established another inquiry. This, too, found no new evidence of phone hacking. It took the media select committee’s inquiry to ask the Guardian for its famous transcript for Neville Thurlbeck from the nephew of former NOTW editor, Ross Hall. In fact, the PCC was so confident of its position that it chose to criticise the Guardian for the way that it had presented its allegations and suggested that there may have been a breach of the code from the Guardian.
Presumably the PCC did this because it was keen to assert its role as an “independent self-regulator”. The terminology provides the appearance of a strong, powerful body, independent of the industry. This removes the need for an alternative model of regulation despite self-regulation being out of fashion almost everywhere else.
Except when that description was no longer useful for the PCC, it abandoned it. Under scrutiny, its then director, Tim Toulmin, told the select committee:
“We are a complaints body; we are not statutory; we are like an ombudsman, really. People want us to be more like a general regulator with statutory powers and so on. That is a separate argument; the fact is we are not that body.
Toulmin was right, to an etent. If the PCC wants to be more like an independent self-regulator, or practice “independent press regulation” as its new chair would prefer, it requires reform. But there isn’t a binary choice between the status quo on the one hand and a statutory regulator on the other.
Following the first two rounds in the phone hacking revelations, Buscombe took to the airwaves to reassure the public:
“If there was a whiff of any continuing activity in this regard – anything like it – we would be on it like a tonne of bricks on my watch and I can absolutely assure you that if we did get that whiff we would be immediately in touch with the right kind of bodies, if I can call them that – the police, the Office of the Information Commissioner and others – to actually take if further.”
When the latest stories of phone hacking emerged, we also discovered that a News of the World reporter had been suspended following an incident of phone hacking and the case reported to the Press Complaints Commission.
So where is the tonne of bricks? Where is the press statement from the PCC acknowledging that it has this information? These are not the activities of an independent regulator.
The PCC is not equipped to deal with phone hacking and not constituted to act as a regulator. If it continues to make claims to the contrary, it will undermine the many good things that it does. And then if evidence is found of industry-wide wrong-doing, then the PCC will be weaker to act as a bulwark against calls for press regulation to involve politicians or judges. That would threaten the interests of the whole industry, and the general public.
Snooker player John Higgins has been fined £75,000 and banned from the game for 6 months following allegations of match fixing which were brought to light by the News of the World. Surely a perfect example of good investigative journalism and (another) sports body which should be grateful to the paper for its public service?
Perhaps. But the tribunal, headed by a QC, did not find John Higgins guilty of the allegations made in the News of the World. Rather, he was criticised for failing to report the sting operation by the newspaper; for bringing the game into disrepute rather than agreeing to fix the match. Whilst his manager (also subject to the sting) was banned for life, the tribunal cleared him of agreeing to accept a bribe and agreeing to take part in corrupt activity.
Moreover, the investigative journalists contributing to Sporting Intelligence revealed significant flaws with the evidence assembled by the News of the World. Rather than being praised for its investigation, the paper stands accused of doctoring the audio footage to suit its preferred story and refusing to make public all its evidence. The News of the World doesn’t see it that way. It has welcomed the judgement as a victory for investigative journalism.
It’s time for the Press Complaints Commission to investigate. It wouldn’t have been useful for the PCC to have acted earlier – the tribunal was clearly better placed (and better resourced) to judge the substance of the allegation. But given its findings, and the allegations made by Sporting Intelligence (which is not thought to be signed up to the PCC), the commission needs to investigate. Being able to clear the News of the World’s investigative methods – and the integrity of the article must be vital so that the public has confidence in the paper.
Normally the PCC would not take action. There has been no complaint from John Higgins and the PCC is loath to investigate where another body has also done so (partly because it risks coming up with contrary findings). But in this instance, with the tribunal completed and without a defamation claim in front of a court, there’s a strong case for the PCC to act in the public interest. Were the allegations and the reporting of them sufficiently accurate to meet the standards of the press code of practice?
The PCC may well argue that an investigation that went against the wishes of John Higgins would be an unwanted intrusion into his privacy. But what evidence could it require that hasn’t already been revealed elsewhere? And would not the News of the World benefit now more than ever from a clean bill of health from an independent regulator?
This wider role for the PCC formed a central theme of the MST’s recommendations to its governance review. One of the central distinctions between a complaints body (which the PCC is constituted to be) and a self-regulator (which the PCC claims to be) is that it acts in the public interest in order to provide public confidence in the industry. This is a good oppportunity for the PCC to demonstrate what it means by independent self-regulation.
The Press Complaints Commission has confirmed that it was told of a fresh incident of phone hacking following allegations which were printed in the New York Times earlier this week. The PCC is now under pressure to launch a fresh inquiry. The allegations undermine its earlier claims that phone hacking was no longer taking place and its effectiveness at enforcing the code which prevents newspapers from engaging in such subterfuge.
But phone hacking is a hugely difficult issue for the PCC to deal with. Previous judgements on phone hacking led to it criticising the Guardian newspaper and facing a legal challenge for defamation from a solicitor involved in a case.
It is a body with the resources to deal with complaints from private individuals (and occasionally public figures) about inaccuracy or intrusion. With 14 staff and a budget of less than £2m dealing with around 10,000 calls and 5,000 complaints a year, it does not have the resources to conduct extraordinary investigations. It does not have a mechanism by which it can raise funds at short notice and the skills set required for dealing with a complaint from a family about a journalist’s behaviour after a suicide is very different from the
The PCC has no powers which it can use to address adequately allegations of phone hacking. It would not normally launch any investigation unless it had received a complaint from someone who believed their phone had been hacked (it usually only takes third party complaints about inaccurate articles). It cannot seize email records, take evidence from journalists (except by consent), investigate contractors to a newspaper or appoint a third party agency (such as IT experts or forensic auditors) to investigate claims. If it were to come across a story which may have emerged as a result of phone hacking it would not be able to ask a journalist or newspaper to reveal its sources – for good reason.
The commission is also reluctant to launch any sort of investigation when there may be overlap with a legal process. Given the involvement of the Metropolitan Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and a parliamentary select committee, it would not be surprising if the commission were to refuse to investigate until such proceedings had been complete. But the PCC also appears to lack a mechanism by which it can take action after legal judgement has been issued (search the PCC’s website for “McCann”) – stronger on words than enforcement.
Phone hacking also highlights some of the challenges of process facing the PCC. That the News of the World had reported an incident of phone hacking to the PCC earlier this year only came to light this week. It is not clear what, if any, action the PCC took as a result. This ‘secrecy by default’ is in contrast to the ‘disclosure by default’ adopted by other regulatory bodies. Doubtless these issues which will be addressed by the PCC in its response to its governance review.
Finally, the whole issue of phone hacking highlights a much wider tension in self-regulation. The system of press self-regulation is based on editors being held to account for what appears in their newspapers. But latterly compliance with the PCC code has become a contractual obligation for journalists. But there is no mechanism by which journalists can step forward as ‘whistle-blowers’, or refuse a request made by an editor. The National Union of Journalists has long campaigned for a conscience clause, by which journalists can refuse to conduct tasks which run contrary to the code. The proposal deserves further consideration.
In the case of phone hacking then, the PCC is neither a useful lightning rod for the industry which distracts from criticism of particular newspapers nor a powerful investigative body which can punish wrong-doing. Surely better than for the PCC to be clearer about what it can do well – a complaints body which operates on the basis of consent – rather than to make wider claims of independent regulation which it has neither the powers nor the budget to fulfil.