Archive for October, 2010
The Press Complaints Commission prides itself on its ability to give a voice to the member of the public who believes that have suffered as a result of press behaviour. If you spend time with a member of the PCC’s secretariat it is very clear that it gives the commission its driving force and greatest satisfaction. The PCC’s website says that 95% of its cases are from “ordinary members of the public” (as of 2009).
This is important because many parts of the code are balanced between the rights of the individual, and a public interest judgement. The newspapers that fund the PCC are also driven by a desire to remain accountable to their readers and their political legitimacy comes, at least in part, from their role in articulating popular opinion.
It was strange, therefore, to see a string of cases on the PCC’s website about celebrities and public figures. Recent cases include Clare Balding, Heather Mills, Kym Marsh and the European Commission.
The PCC cannot just represent the “ordinary member of the public”. A significant proportion of national newspaper articles are about public figures – particularly celebrities and politicians. And if the PCC resolves cases without a call on lawyers it saves newspapers money and protects freedom of speech.
Nevertheless, with a reasonably small budget the PCC needs to show that it is working on behalf of the public rather than the wealthy – and with times tight at newspaper groups, this is ever more important. So the PCC’s figure of 95% of cases from ordinary members of the public seems a sensible guide.
However, an analysis by PCC Watch suggests that the PCC has been dealing with complaints from the general public in just 70% of cases in recent months. Of the 29 adjudicated cases in 2010, nine complaints were brought by public figures. And of the 42 resolved cases in October 2010, 12 were brought by public figures – about 30% of all cases. It is not always clear who is a public figure, so we’ve published our classification online.
Perhaps over the course of the year, the PCC will once again get close to its 95% guide. But it highlights, once again, the need for the PCC to have a clear mission statement and a set of key performance indicators which are applied consistently and reported on in the same format each year.
The Press Complaints Commission yesterday failed in a bid to censure the Daily Star and Daily Express newspapers (both owned by Richard Desmond’s Northern and Shell group) for paying a witness in a criminal trial. It may appear that’s an embarrassing position for the commission – but the reality is quite the reverse.
The case is outlined in full on the PCC’s website but in essence, a woman who said she was assaulted by a police officer during the G20 protests was paid by the Express and Star for her story. The commission found that although the payment had been made, it did not compromise the judicial process (her evidence had already been presented in front of a judge) and she did not appear as a witness in the court so the code was not breached.
The case is unusual because the PCC tends only to act when it has received a complaint from someone directly involved in the story. This is the first time that the PCC has brought cases in its own name since January 2009. July 2009.
But the PCC was right to consider the case. The clause on witness payments is one where the ‘first party’ is unlikely to complain (given they received the payment) but there’s an important public interest in the clause being upheld rigorously.
In the absence of a complaint, the PCC often contacts people to bring a case forward. This seems unnecessarily bureaucratic if the case does not involve a ‘he said, she said’ judgement, although the PCC is concerned about not causing a further intrusion into personal privacy. But the more cases the PCC considers, the better. It leads to a better understanding of the code, a richer body of case law to draw upon and a higher profile for self-regulation.
In this case, given the track record of the Daily Star in falling foul of the code in the last year, it was particularly important that the newspaper was investigated. Good regulatory practice should see newspapers which have a sound trackrecord treated with a lighter touch than newspapers which persistently encounter problems.
In its recommendations to the PCC, the Media Standards Trust recommended that the PCC brought forward complaints as a matter of routine when there appeared to be a breach of the code. There are other clauses where a complainant may be less likely to come forward and where the absence of the ‘first party’s’ complaint should not prohibit an investigation of the facts. In particular, large parts of the code, particular clauses 6 (children) 7 (children in sex cases) 8 (hospitals) and 11 (victims of sexual assault)* may be unlikely to provoke a complaint but must be upheld rigorously. If the PCC does not act, then in the infrequent cases when it receives a complaint, it will have little precedent to draw on when coming to its decision.
However, it does highlight one of the difficulties for the general public in understanding the PCC. All of the cases are listed as X vs Y which means that this case is listed as Press Complaints Commission vs Express Newspapers. Except that it is also the Press Complaints Commission which found against the newspaper. But it wasn’t that the PCC wasn’t able to convince itself but that the commission’s secretariat (the full time staff) produced a case which was ruled on by the Commission, comprised of editors and lay members. Greater clarity of the names of the different parts of self-regulation, greater transparency over the agenda and cases under discussion would help the public. But that’s a minor point.
The commission should be congratulated for bringing forward an important public interest case and be encouraged to do more of it whenever there is a prima facie breach of the code which deserves investigation.
Uupdate: The PCC kindly has drawn our attention to a case that it brought Feb-July 2007 regarding payments in the Alfie Patten case. We missed this because this does not appear in the list of resolved cases or adjudications on its website.
* The PCC points out that clauses 13, 15 and 16 are the ‘victimless’ clauses.
Every organisation needs a clear idea of who it works for. It’s easy to take the mick out of mission statements – and the press often does. But they do (or should) help articulate why it exists.
The Press Complaints Commission describes what it does very well, but who it does it for, less well. This isn’t merely an academic issue. Much of what the PCC does, particularly its ‘behind the scenes’ operation s to protect the privacy of individuals. This involves difficult judgements about safeguarding the freedom of the press, deciding what is in the public interest and where public lives should be private.
The PCC has worked on behalf of celebrities, behind the scenes, to protect their privacy. The PCC has often spoken about how much work it does behind the scenes to protect people’s privacy – particularly that of public figures and celebrities. A few years back the Commission managed to get newspapers to agree, for example, that they would not reveal celebrity pregnancies until at least 12 weeks. Therefore in the recent case of The Sun’s story about Abbey Clancy’s pregnancy, the paper held off publishing until 12 weeks exactly. The PCC also, as we know from its public statements, offers background assistance to people in the eye of a press storm. People like Vanessa Perroncel, the woman at the centre of the John Terry story, although – as we know from her Guardian interview – she chose not to and much later secured apologies through her work with Max Clifford.
Both of these stories attracted significant criticism of the press. Abbey Clancy’s partner, Peter Crouch, criticised the Sun for breaking the story Ms Perroncel gave an interview to the Guardian in which she revealed her experience, put her side of the story (that many of the allegations were untrue) and criticised newspapers. Ms Perroncel has subsequently received apologies from some of the newspapers which reported the stories.
The celebrities benefit from the PCC’s silence – or at least are not harmed. Clancy benefitted from the PCC’s constraints on newspapers, whilst her partner could make public criticisms of the press without reply. Perroncel was offered the use of the PCC’s service and opted out, but could still make un-addressed criticism of the newspapers – and by association the PCC. So they have their cake and eat it – free of charge.
Newspapers themselves are not helped by the allegations from Crouch and Perroncel not being investigated. The PCC might not win significant public plaudits for defending newspapers when they have not breached the code, but it is an important part of their role in protecting press freedom.
But it was the general public that really lost out in both cases from the PCC’s public silence. Newspapers were accused of failing to comply with the code and that allegation was not investigated or commented upon. So the public does not know whether the PCC asleep on the job, the code was breached, or newspapers wronged by a celebrity protecting their personal interest.
Cases involving privacy are often a difficult balance for the PCC – acting on behalf of the complainant, balancing it against the competing principles of freedom of expression and personal privacy whilst protecting the public interest. But in tricky cases, the PCC has to come down on one side. In these cases, the PCC did not speak out in support of celebrity or newspaper because to have done so might have invaded their personal privacy, increased the media storm around them and acted as a deterrent for other celebrities in using the PCC’s services. Clearly if every phone call from the PCC is going to appear on its website, celebrities (or their agents) would stop answering the phone.
But if the PCC had a clear mission to act on behalf of the public, in the public interest, it would have made a different decision. The cost might have been fewer celebrities using the PCC (although that might not be of concern to the public). The benefit would have been the public being better informed about newspaper coverage and a commission which was safeguarding self-regulation, reassuring its key stakeholders that it was taking a public lead in judging the code. Which would you rather?
The Daily Star has had to pay out to the makers of Grand Theft Auto for an inaccurate story: that the video game company were planning a Raoul Moat tribute version of the game. The news comes after a string of complaints which have been brought to the Press Complaints Commission this year.
The Press Complaints Commission plays no part in legal cases. When a newspaper loses a legal case, the PCC makes no judgement. Its annual report carries statistics on the number of complaints made to it and the number of transgressions of the code. It even highlights significant cases. But it does not refer to judgments – for or against the press – in legal cases.
Yet, by not referring to legal cases, isn’t the PCC shooting itself in the foot? If a big part of its role is to raise standards in the press, doesn’t it look myopic if it doesn’t mention court rulings against newspapers? In the year when Mr and Mrs McCann received one of the biggest payouts for libel, for example, the case did not appear in the PCC’s annual report.
To some extent, the PCC’s position is sensible. It is not a quasi-judicial body, it does not have the resources necessary to come to judgements in such cases and it lacks the authority to come to alternative judgements to the courts. It leaves claimants free to pursue a legal route regardless of whether they have previously complained to the PCC.
However, the Press Complaints Commission exists to adjudicate on cases which have breached the editors’ code in order to maintain press standards and, ultimately, to defend the freedom of the press. Because the code covers accuracy, libel cases also come to a judgement as to whether the editors code has been breached. And because a judgement against a newspaper costs money and sets a precedent for others to follow, it also has implications for the freedom of the press. By not referring to legal cases at all, the PCC appears – to the public – to be ignoring significant breaches of the code.
There is little value in the PCC taking remedial action after the courts. But it is important that the PCC records breaches of the code. Without that it can make no proper judgement about the performance of newspapers – either individually or collectively – or on its own effectiveness at protecting the freedom of the press. Knowing which newspaper broke the code the most and least, and why, is of public interest and (should be) of commercial value.
If newspapers do not agree with libel judgements, the PCC’s position becomes more problematic. But in those instances it should become a voice in the debate about press freedom (which is consistent with its mission).
The PCC is the only independent body which can do anything about the continued problems that the Daily Star has with prominent and inaccurate articles. The commission has a track record of intervening to assist newspapers through training and courses for journalists. There is a clear case for intervention with the Daily Star and for the PCC demonstrating what it is doing.
As discussed previously, if the Daily Star continues to breach the code the PCC should be able to consider more stringent measures, with the option of ostracising it from the self-regulatory system a backstop to protect the reputation of the whole system. But in the meantime, the PCC’s rulings against the Daily Star should require ever-increasing prominence, length and condemnation.
The Press Complaints Commission has launched a new advertising campaign to raise awareness of its services. This is a positive move by the commission which is often criticised for being too low profile – it receives significantly fewer annual complaints than the ASA, Ofcom or the BBC Trust. So PCC Watch has decided to help audit the effectiveness of the campaign
It’s a tribute to the PCC’s quiet diplomacy that it has got the agreement of editors to run the campaign. Giving away commercial space is also a bold move by editors in these economically tough times for newspapers. It will be important for the PCC to demonstrate that they work; the creative costs probably represent a decent slug from its annual budget. So in a constructive spirit we’d like to help crowdsource how the advert is used.
PCC Watch is not in a position to pass judgement on the creative merits of the adverts. But the messaging does appear to be interesting. There are three options for newspapers to choose from and the messaging seems to be graded – perhaps depending on the willingness of the editor?
- “We will listen to your concerns” suggests little action
- “We will look into your concerns” may be accurate but it doesn’t imply toughness
- “We will ensure your voice is heard” is much more promising – suggesting an organisation fighiting on behalf of complainants (true in from anecdotal feedback the MST has received)
You can view the adverts on a pdf here.
The PCC and the MST both have limited resources, so we’ve thrown open a Google Doc. If you spot a PCC ad in a newspaper or online please let us know so we can track which newspapers run which ads and which versions. We’ll then keep track of the results to see what happens.
If you see an ad, please fill in this form: https://spreadsheets.google.com/viewform?formkey=dDRzNG00dkFMeWVlQUhOY2U5NFRTWHc6MQ