Archive for the ‘Criticism of the PCC’ Category
The PCC has hit back at claims made by politicians that it lacks public confidence (‘PCC hits back at claims that public has lost confidence’, Press Gazette, 4th May 2011). Director Stephen Abell has defended the PCC, telling Press Gazette that the organisation:
- has never been more active or proactive
- has high satisfaction rates from the people that use its services
- is helping more people than ever before
It is important that the PCC robustly defends the system of press self-regulation. However, in its defence the PCC has used a number of statistics that are both unclear and difficult to substantiate. Without substantiation they risk further reducing public confidence in the PCC.
Number of complaints – Abell said that the PCC had issued 1700 rulings and resolved more than 550 complaints. It is hard to understand how the PCC reached that figure. The 2009 annual report did not use the term ruling and the 2010 report is yet to be published. In the 550 resolved complaints the PCC does not come to a ruling – and Abell’s language suggests that the numbers are distinct. The PCC only actually adjudicated 44 complaints in 2010, of which 24 were not upheld. The PCC’s website records complaints about just 527 different articles.
The PCC may be working hard, and it may have done something 1700 times. But by not telling people what the words mean or providing the data in a form that can be checked, it shakes confidence that the organisation is transparent and fair.
PCC’s powers – Abell said that the PCC had prevented intrusive information being published more than 100 times. That’s an odd choice of language. The PCC has no powers to prevent anything. Indeed, it resists powers to its pre-publication advice.
Public confidence – the PCC cited a poll from Toluna conducted last month which claimed that ’79 per cent of people have no concerns over confidence in the PCC’. Toluna is not a member of the British Polling Council, the self-regulatory organisation for opinion pollsters. Its services are not used by newspapers to commission opinion polls. Neither the questions asked of respondents nor the full results of the survey have been published.
There’s a valid argument to be had over whether the PCC is sufficiently proactive, or whether the satisfaction of those who uses its services (as opposed to those who don’t) is a useful yardstick for the organisation.
However, when the PCC chooses to provide data inconsistently and release only part of it, there can be no useful debate. In its defence, the Media Standards Trust has always found the PCC willing to answer questions to clarify its meaning. But not every member of the public can be expected to contact the PCC every time it is quoted in the press.
Abell closed by saying:
“We are also, of course, subject to comments from those with little knowledge – or little interest in knowledge – of what we actually do, and how we act to help people. It would be regrettable if such comments are allowed to distort the positive aspects of our work.”
If the PCC is going to attack the integrity of its critics, it should take care to make its defence more transparent and accountable.
The PCC released a statement this week saying that it was concerned about the new allegations of phone hacking and announcing the formation of a phone hacking working group ‘to consider the new information that becomes available, and make recommendations to the Commission’.
But even if the Commission is concerned about the practice, what could it actually do and, if it can’t do anything, why is phone hacking (and other forms of subterfuge) in its code of practice?The editors code of practice clearly states that the press must not engage in phone hacking:
Clause 10 * Clandestine devices and subterfuge
The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents, or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held private information without consent.
Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.
The code is clear and consistent with the law of the land. But, as the PCC frequently states, it is the Press Complaints Commission’s job to uphold the code of practice not the law of the land (that is for the police).
However, in practice, the PCC cannot uphold the code in relation to phone hacking. It does not have the power or resources to conduct an investigation, it lacks the authority to conduct work which overlaps with that of the police, and it has no effective powers of sanction. When it has sought to uphold the code, it has caused the PCC greater problems.
The major instance of phone hacking relates to the prosecution of Clive Goodman, the News of the World reporter who listened to the voicemail of the Princes. The PCC did not have a role in this until after the court case, when it said it had put in place measures to ensure that other newspapers did not engage in phone hacking.
Since 2004, the PCC’s published statistics about breaches of its clause on phone hacking reveal just one complaint that has been considered (a further three have insufficient explanation to know what happened*). In that case, Merlyn Brown v Ballymoney Chronicle, the Commission found that:
“there was a sharp conflict of evidence in relation to the circumstances in which the newspaper had obtained the leaflet in question. In light of this – and taking into account the fact that the Commission does not have legal powers of sub poena or cross examination – the Commission could not make a finding under Clause 10.”
The PCC did, however, say that it had conducted an investigation after Nick Davies’ articles in the Guardian alleged new evidence of phone hacking at the News of the World. During that investigation it was told by the editor of the News of the World that after a thorough search of its computer systems, the News of the World could find no evidence that any News of the World staff (other than Goodman and Mulcaire) knew of phone hacking. The commission concluded:
“the Guardian’s stories did not quite live up to the dramatic billing they were initially given . . . there did not seem to be anything concrete to support the implication that there had been a hitherto concealed criminal conspiracy . . . there is no evidence that the practice of phone message tapping is ongoing. The Commission is satisfied that – so far as it is possible to tell – its work aimed at improving the integrity of undercover journalism has played its part in raising standards in this area.”
In this investigation it also had no legal power of sub poena or cross examination but said it was sufficiently satisfied by the evidence it was given that The Guardian was at fault. The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger resigned from the editors code committee following publication of the PCC’s report.
However, chairman Baroness Buscombe reassured the public that:
“If there was a whiff of any continuing activity in this regard, or anything like it, then we would be on it like a ton of bricks”
Buscombe later told the industry conference, the Society of Editors, that allegations that the number of people that had been hacked numbered in the thousands were misleading, criticising lawyer Mark Lewis who made the allegation. The PCC later had to make a libel payment to Lewis for her remarks.
The following year, it emerged that the News of the World informed the PCC that it suspended a reporter (understood to be Dan Evans) after a new instance of phone hacking. The PCC did nothing because the case was subject to a police investigation.
In the last fortnight, we discovered that Ian Edmondson, news editor of the News of the World has been sacked over his role in phone hacking. The PCC does not appear to have played any role in this case either; not in revealing the phone hacking or the disciplinary action or even just recording the breach of the code.
It is illegal for newspapers to engage in phone hacking. If someone believes their phone has been hacked they should go to the police (whether the police take action is a different question).
If they went to the PCC, the Commission would tell them to report it to the police. If the police found no evidence, then the case would not be pursued. If it found evidence then they would take action (and / or the individual concerned would take the offender to court).
So why is the clause included in the editors code? Including it gives the impression that the PCC has responsibility for it and can do something about it should it find has happened. Since they do not and cannot then it seems misleading to include it.
This is the second of a two part review of the PCC’s response to the governance review. You can read the first part here.
Most of what the PCC does goes unreported in newspapers. But surely if they considered that the governance review had led to a stronger PCC, more able to represent its readers (or constrain its newspapers) they might have informed their readers? Instead, no newspaper carried a single word on the PCC’s final document.
The press’ disinterest in the governance review just might be because the governance review will lead to little significant change. For the following reasons, the governance review was a missed opportunity.
1. Clarity of purpose
The clarity of purpose section is well-worded and largely clear. However, it is fundamentally weakened by misleading language. For example, it asserts that “the PCC can enforce a range of sanctions”. This is simply untrue. Misleading prospective complainants in this way is deeply unfortunate.
The way in which the PCC will demonstrate its effectiveness will basically remain unchanged. Its complaints survey produces basically the same results each year – on a very small number of responses – with the vast majority satisfied by the PCC – although the wider system does not form part of the survey.
The complication over the PCC’s statistics may improve – but the response to the governance review is not a good starting point. It says that it will publish all cases where there is a breach of the code. So presumably all those (or only some?) which are not, will not be recorded. So the public will not be able to judge people who bring vexatious, repetitive complaints or whether some newspapers are unfairly targeted by campaigners.
The PCC also asserts that its sanctions must be better understood despite it only having one real sanction – requesting an adjudication – and no legal mechanism to enforce it. If it does admonish editors and publish this, it is to be welcome. But surely it is odd that the PCC is only committed to providing ‘examples’ of this rather than a complete list.
The PCC also rejects that any claimant should be able to make an oral case to the commission. On this point, it may be that the PCC is right – that most members of the public are better represented (and more cost effectively) in written form, with the assistance of the commission secretariat. However, the PCC finds:
“The current system allows for complainants and papers to set down their positions before being examined by the Commission. There is no need for lawyers to advocate on a complainant’s behalf”
And this statement clearly side-steps the fact that newspapers have their submissions written by lawyers – so the process is even harder for members of the public.
This is the strongest section of the document. Essentially, the PCC is operationally independent of the industry. However, the governance review did not find a case for barring working editors from the commission, or involving senior journalists on the PCC. As long as complainants dislike the PCC’s decisions, the role of working editors will continue to provoke suggestions that the PCC lacks independence.
In contrast, this is probably the weakest section of the document. It doesn’t even codify the PCC’s existing commitments, let alone push it towards reaching the standards that the press expect of others.
The PCC chairman has previously committed the PCC to act in the spirit of the freedom of information legislation. Given that it has failed to do this when asked, the only conclusion from the document can be that the PCC has no wish to make information freely available except on its own terms. Even the protocol which it says it has developed is not obviously publicly available.
The biggest problem with the changes to the PCC’s accountability is the continued unwillingness of the PCC to allow a right of appeal to its decisions. It believes this on the basis that a smaller number of people should not be allowed to overturn the decision of a larger number. This is an odd principle which is not applied elsewhere (appeal court judges can overturn a jury, judges can kick out an MP elected by 80,000). But the intransigence means that when the PCC is inaccurate, the law is the only course of action for a complainant – which weakens self-regulation.
By side-stepping big issues on sanctions, freedom of information and appeals the governance review outcomes ensure that the PCC will not be a significantly different place – and the newspapers that it covers presumably believe this to be the case. So on the big issues – whether high profile defamation cases or serious breaches of personal privacy – the experience for the public and the complainant will be little different.
The PCC recently rejected a complaint that Richard Littlejohn had been inaccurate when he wrote that:
“any Afghan climbing off the back of a lorry in Dover goes automatically to the top of the housing list” (‘Why doing the right thing is a mug’s game‘).
The rejection left the complainant scratching his head – given that the statement was clearly untrue, how could the complaint be rejected? Supporters characterised the PCC’s position as guaranteeing Littlejohn membership of an unofficial register of “regular bullshitters”.
The case throws up two important issues: whether the PCC was correct and whether the code is right. The PCC made its judgement with reference to the editors’ code which makes clear that newspapers must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact – as part of its accuracy clause.
In this context, the PCC gives columnists more leeway. So just as it considers the headline of an article in the context of the whole article, it also considers the particular statements made by columnists the context of readers’ reasonable expectations.
For example, Jan Moir wrote after Stephen Gately’ death that “healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again”. Complainants considered this to be inaccurate because:
“the tragic fact was that adults did die prematurely, though thankfully rarely, from previously undetected heart problems as well as SADS (Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome).”
The commission ruled that;
“[Moir’s] was a general and rhetorical point, based on the view of the prevailing health of young men. It admittedly did not take into account the possibility of SADS or similar, but the Commission did not consider that it could be read to be an authoritative and exhaustive statement of medical fact.”
So on that basis, it’s logical to suggest that just as Moir’s article had to be judged as a comment piece rather than a statement of fact, so Littlejohn’s statement should not be seen as a statement of government policy.
However, when Rod Liddle wrote;
“the overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community”
The commission ruled that;
“the magazine had not been able to demonstrate that the “overwhelming majority” of crime in all of the stated categories had been carried out by members of the African-Caribbean community. It was difficult to argue that the sentence in question represented purely the columnist’s opinion, which might be challenged. Instead, it was a statement of fact.”
This ruling appears to directly contradict the rulings in the Littlejohn and Moir cases. Liddle’s comment is as much of a statement as fact as Littlejohn’s.
There’s a tricky debate about what columnists should and should not be able to write. Their columns are generally quite clearly labelled as comment rather than as news reports. They represent a significant commercial value to newspapers who are keen that they express forthright, eye-catching opinions. They give British newspapers much of their character and freedom to offend which is so rare in other countries. And the PCC does not have the resources to check every single controversial statement – and many will be made and judged before the facts are clear.
However, if the PCC were to allow columnists to say anything, there would be a significant incentive for editors to move all dubious statements into the work of columnists, knowing that it would free them of censure by the PCC, leaving the court to judge (think, for example, of the Daily Express’ allegations about the McCanns).
So the PCC is surely right to respond to complaints when a reader has concerns. And it is also sensible to take the piece in its entirety. But perhaps it needs to make clearer to the public that the sub-clause about distinguishing between comment and fact provides greater leeway to columnists. It also needs to be consistent in its judgements, or else it risks undermining the apparent clarity of the code.
Open data is all the rage across government and in IT circles. If data is published in a format that people can use, understand and manipulate (in a good way) it leads to greater transparency.
Critics of the Press Complaints Commission often use data to support their arguments. The most frequent criticisms are that:
- it doesn’t receive enough complaints;
- it resolves too many cases at the expense of adjudications,
- it rarely finds against newspapers
- those infrequent adjudications lack sufficient prominence
The PCC rightly defends itself against criticism which it deems unfair, and has previously criticised Nick Davies, the culture media and sport select committee and the Media Standards Trust for misunderstanding its data.
Now, thanks to PCC Watch, we have greater transparency of the PCC’s data. Rather than having to calculate totals manually and read through individual cases, the site does it for us. But it doesn’t produce transparency because the PCC’s data is too complex.
The table below shows the key data for January – December 2009. It is taken from the three main sources: the list of adjudicated and resolved complaints on pcc.org.uk (which form the data for PCC Watch’s site) the 2009 annual report and an amalgamation of the biannual summaries of 2009 (excluding Jan-March).
None of them agree on how many complaints were investigated, how many were resolved, adjudicated, upheld or how many did not breach the code.
|PCC website||2009 annual report||Apr-Dec summary *|
|Complaints investigated||Not published||1134||1902|
|Adjudication not upheld||20||Not published||17|
|No breach of the code||Not published||993||516|
* Jan-Mar is not included because this data is only available in a Oct-Mar 2008/09 summary
Perhaps the biggest challenge (and the one most easy to resolve) of analysing the PCC’s data is the inconsistency in its terminology. The website simply divides cases between those which are resolved and those which were taken to adjudication. The annual report then subdivides these into those that were resolved to the satisfaction of the complainant (609) and those that were resolved to the satisfaction of the PCC (111). This useful distinction ought to continue but it should also be possible to identify which cases on the website fall into which category.
The website and biannual summaries make clear how many adjudications were upheld, and how many were not. However, the annual report abandons this terminology, instead favouring to cite instances of ‘public censure’ – which is the same as an adjudication. This might be obvious to those familiar to the PCC, but possibly not to the general public. And the figures are different because a number of cases were published in January 2009, but the PCC actually made the decision the previous year – so it was included in the previous annual report.
The complaints investigated data is also unclear. The annual report declares 1134 complaints investigated. Given that 720 were resolved it implies that of the 993 where there was no breach of the code, the vast majority required no investigation to determine that this was the case. In fact, that’s not the case. The PCC secretariat makes an initial assessment about whether there’s a prima facie breach, and this is checked by the commission. That may be an investigation to some and not to others – but the lack of clarity is unhelpful for everyone.
Not all cases are published on the PCC’s website. If the complainant does not wish it to be, it remains unpublished. That makes perfect sense for the complainant but is less satisfactory for the public (or the journalist if the complaint was rejected). For example, it means there is no certain way of telling how frequently someone complains to the commission.
Effective regulation usually focuses on outcomes above process. To that principle, the PCC’s work might be altogether more clear for the public if it drew the following, simple distinctions:
- Cases which were outside the PCC’s jurisdiction because the complaint was not covered by the code
- Cases where the newspaper did nothing wrong (either because there was no prima facie breach or because it was not upheld at adjudication)
- Cases where the newspaper did something wrong but corrected it sufficiently to avoid censure
- Cases where the newspaper did something wrong to such an extent that it required public censure
A spokesperson for the PCC told us that:
“The PCC already publishes a lot of data about its complaints and is always happy to explain this in more detail to anyone with a specific query. We recognise that there is more to do to make our complaints data easier to understand, however, and are actively engaged in improving the ways that we present our statistics.
“The PCC has recently embarked on a major overhaul of its database and website to help us with this. As an organisation, we are committed to openness and accountability, and of course it is important that our data reflects this.
This is welcome. It is unclear that anyone benefits from the lack of clarity – not least the PCC which cannot place a reliable number on how many cases it deals with each year.
The Press Complaints Commission has generated a fair amount of social media chatter for criticising Tony Blair’s memories of his dealings with the commission. Its letter to Press Gazette was flagged up by media commentators and others who thought it amusing that Tony Blair’s book may not have been wholly accurate.
The PCC pointed out that two claims in Blair’s memoirs were not true:
- That he had not used the PCC since a complaint about coverage of his role in plans for the funeral of the Queen Mother
- That the PCC is not comprised wholly of editors (who are not even in a majority) and that they do not take part in decisions which affect their own titles
It’s broadly positive that the PCC has sought to defend itself publicly. PCC Watch previously criticised the PCC for failing to defend itself against the attack from Peter Crouch. When it doesn’t, the role of press self-regulation can quickly be misunderstood and myths around the role of editors and the independence of the commission take root.
The PCC’s work in protecting the privacy of the Blairs – and particularly their children – is well known within the industry. That their children were able to grow up largely outside the public eye (except for the odd clear public interest story) is a good thing. But the deal wasn’t always observed. The Blairs complained to the PCC on 5 occasions – always in issues concerning their children. Of these, 3 of the complaints went to adjudication (significantly higher than average) of which all were upheld (significantly higher than average). So perhaps they were entitled to think that the PCC’s effectiveness at controlling newspaper editors was limited.
Perhaps the PCC’s position would be stronger if its data was more transparent. If you search “Tony Blair” on the PCC site there are 0 search results. A search for Blair throws up 29 results, of which only six are complaints from the Blairs. Moreover, any combination of search terms that we could think of did not reveal the matter at hand – the complaint about the reporting of Blair’s role at the Queen Mother’s funeral.
Of those complaints which were made by the Blairs, none have a clear date – and instead require you to research the reporting dates of the PCC’s own period. And of course that only deals with the formal complaints. The PCC does not record all of the dealings it says it has had with the office of Tony Blair.
So in short, the PCC does not provide enough evidence on its own website that it is right and Tony Blair is wrong.
Thanks to PCC Watch, we’ve tagged all of the complaints so you can navigate through their complaints – although not the complaints the PCC has not made public. The PCC is reviewing its website, and we’re sure such matters will be taken on board.
Blair was wrong on the independence of the PCC – but only to an extent. ‘The PCC rightly says that the Commission is made up of lay members and editors. Although, the rules to which the editors adhere are made by the Editorial Code Committee, which is composed entirely of editors. Moreover, though we are told that the editor of a title which is being complained about does leave the room, the PCC has not published minutes to demonstrate this as a matter of routine.
Tony Blair could have appealed if he believed that the PCC did not follow its own process properly. And who had the job of reviewing the case? The last office holder was Sir Michael Wilcocks, whose previous dealings with the PCC were in his role as Black Rod. An unfortunate coincidence.
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.
Paul Dacre’s chairman’s report of the editors committee in charge of the code of practice adopts a familiar tone – that of a government minister complaining that he is not sufficiently understood, or appreciated by a public that too often gives the wrong answers when it is asked what it thinks. It would appear that his committee has asked the public what it thinks and doesn’t like the results.
To his credit, Mr Dacre says that his committee ‘learns a lot from the public’ in its submissions to the committee’s annual review of the code of practice. Unfortunately, he chooses not to reveal them. He also says that the “the press lives by disclosure” and welcomes public scrutiny. But he chooses not to disclose important information about the administration of his committee (or the wider system of self-regulation) and his statement only singles out scrutiny which he found to be unwelcome.
Dacre rails at the ‘myths’ and ‘occasional prejudice’ which surrounds self-regulation. He criticises a doctor who appears to have made inaccurate statements in his submission, though Dacre’s committee is not so welcoming of public scrutiny that the submission to the consultation is publicly available. And Mr Dacre himself does little to inform the public of the activities of the Press Complaints Commission. The Daily Mail hasn’t reported anything from the commission since February, and has only reported it twice in 2010.
Dacre also moans that a “myth persists” that editors sit in on hearings about their own newspaper. However, the PCC has kept its proceedings secret until 2010 and even now there is nowhere on its website where it is clear what the rules are in relation to when an editor can and cannot be in the room.
Mr Dacre is also annoyed by the misunderstanding of the role of the code committee in the administration of the PCC (it is not involved). With seven different committees and bodies, press self-regulation is a system designed to be independent though this has made it understandably complicated to understand.
The body which Mr Dacre chairs has become increasingly transparent in the last couple of years, establishing its own website and press handling arrangments to ensure that its independence from the Press Complaints Commission (which rules on breaches of the code) is better understood. It has even taken to consulting the public on any possible changes to the code, even if Mr Dacre dislikes the results.
But for all the independence of both bodies, Mr Dacre could do more to make clear where his role starts and stops. Criticising the Doctor’s views on the administration of the PCC’s meetings is not a matter for Mr Dacre so perhaps he would be better not passing judgement in his (unconnected) role as chairman of a different committee.
Mr Dacre’s committee is also astonishingly secretive. It publishes no minutes. The method by which Mr Dacre was appointed chairman is as transparent as a Masonic Lodge. We are not allowed to know how much Paul Dacre’s newspaper contributes financially to the administration of self-regulation.
The editor of the Daily Mail believes in self-regulation deeply. He gives up his own time to serve on its committees and has been on at least one of them for each of the past 10 years. When he tells parliamentarians that he can imagine no greater shame than the criticism of his colleagues, there can be no doubting that he means it. That must be why his newspaper has worked so hard to ensure that it avoids negative adjudication – which it has done so successfully for more than 10 years. So it is a great pity that rather than reflecting how hard the PCC has worked to improve self-regulation and address the concerns of its critics he takes a swipe at anyone who has had the audacity to make a suggestion for reform.
Alas, Mr Dacre has found that “many mindsets remain firmly locked” and would rather “critics spent as much zeal trying to help reverse” the financial challenges facing the industry. He ends optimistically though, with the hope that “today’s often-corrosive debate could become instead tomorrow’s constructive way forward. Close your eyes, and you could be listening to a government minister talk about the Daily Mail.