Archive for the ‘Case for PCC reform’ Category
There are rumours that the Daily Star is considering withdrawing from the Press Complaints Commission. This has provoked a strong reaction from respected media commentators, such as Roy Greenslade (‘Press freedom danger if Desmond withdraws the Star from PCC scrutiny‘). But in fact, the real question should be: Why weren’t they pushed out earlier?
Professor Greenslade worries that:
“Any breach in the system of self-regulation would inevitably lead to renewed calls for statutory regulation, which have become something of a distant memory. Press freedom would be the loser.
In the last three years, the system of self-regulation has continued whilst the Royal Family had their phone hacked and a reporter jailed and three newspapers paid upwards of £1m compensation for repeatedly defaming Kate and Gerry McCann. In that context, the withdrawal of a single newspaper may not have such consequences. Politicians are still remarkably reluctant to impose any stronger form of self-regulation.
Rather than weakening self-regulation, the absence of the Daily Star could strengthen it considerably. The newspaper has not just frequently got things wrong and shown scant regard for getting them right. It does so in sensationalist terms with apologies always less prominent than the original article. It does not make clear how to complain about articles in its newspaper and in our experience, does not respond to complaints from readers.
For example, in the last year, the Daily Star has had to apologise for the following inaccurate stories:
- Claiming that a bus driver refused entry to a passenger for wearing an England football shirt
- Claiming that Heather Mills paid her nanny £6.20 an hour – rather than £25,000 per annum
- Misleading readers into thinking that Rochdale Council was installing Muslim-only toilets at a shopping centre
- Suggesting a plane exploded on hitting an ash cloud during the recent airspace closures by using an image reconstruction from 1982
- Putting words into Cheryl Cole’s mouth that she did not use
- Reporting Katie Price was pregnant when she was not
The news agenda of the Daily Star is frequently at odds with all other newspapers and its stories rarely followed up by others. On that basis, it is not a newspaper which appears to command the respect of its peers.
Effective self-regulation should not just be ‘the least worst option’ but a statement of standards that its members aspire to, as the Media Standards Trust argued in its submission to the PCC’s governance review. That the Financial Times is regulated by the same system as the Daily Star surely makes little sense for either.
On a technical point, that it is unclear to a commentator with as much experience and knowledge of self-regulation whether or how a newspaper can leave the PCC, suggests a system that could still do a lot to be more transparent. Indeed when Richard Desmond’s group stopped its contributions to the PCC the first the public knew about it was during evidence to a select committee. The first the public knew that the dispute was over, was in an incidental line during an interview with the PCC chairman in the Guardian.
The real questions that this reveal are:
‘At what point do serious breaches of the code amount to a wider case of bringing self-regulation into disrepute?’
‘How can the PCC have sufficient powers that it can threaten, and deliver, an expulsion for repeated failure to comply with self-regulation?’
One of the most challenging criticisms for the PCC is that it lacks power. Legally speaking, this is correct. It can ask a newspaper or magazine to publish an adjudication but if it refuses, the PCC has no power to compel the newspaper to comply.
In the vast majority of cases this is not a problem. It is right that the PCC operates on the basis of consent and its rulings must have respect if they are to mean anything. And the PCC and editors are keen to ensure the public understands just how seriously they view an adjudication against their title. However, there are occasions when the PCC lacks the subtelty to grade cases according to the seriousness of the breach.
The outcome of most cases is a resolution. There have been 406 cases resolved so far in 2010 but these cover a very broad range of mistakes by newspapers. For example, Mahendra Djou complained about a report in the Evening Standard that he had won a £17,000 compensation claim following a health and safety breach by his employer. In fact, the employer had been fined for the breach but his compensation claim is still outstanding. The newspaper published the correction 10 weeks later.
Contrast this with the resolved case brought by West London Mental Health Trust which runs Broadmoor Hospital. The Trust complained that the hospital inaccurately had been referred to as a jail by the News of the World. The newspaper removed the reference from the article on its website and apologised for the error. On the face of it a sensible outcome. If the PCC were to adjudicate on every complaint of that level of seriousness, it would not be able to work efficiently.
However, this isn’t the first time that Broadmoor Hospital has been referred to as a penal establishment. The following is a list of all the complaints the Trust has made after Broadmoor Hospital was reported inaccurately, 11 of which were made this year:
- 1. West London Mental Health Trust v News of the World 23 November
- 2. West London Mental Health Trust v Daily Mirror 20 August
- 3. West London Mental Health Trust v Construction Enquirer 22 July
- 4. West London Mental Health Trust v Daily Mail 22 July
- 5. West London Mental Health Trust v News of the World 29 June
- 6. West London Mental Health Trust v The Sun 3 June
- 7. West London Mental Health Trust v The Citizen 25 May
- 8. West London Mental Health Trust v Daily Star on Sunday 13 April
- 9. West London Mental Health Trust v Daily Sport 9 March
- 10. West London Mental Health Trust v Daily Mail 8 March
- 11. West London Mental Health Trust v News of the World 19 February
The News of the World alone has now corrected three articles this year with what amounts to the same mistake. This suggests three challenges for the PCC:
- · If a newspaper pays attention to resolved complaints, how does it continue to make the same error?
- · How many times do newspapers have to make the same mistake before the PCC considers further action?
But a challenge for the governance of the PCC – which was not part of last year’s governance review – is how it has a series of ever-stiffer penalties which ensure that newspapers comply with the code that they write?
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 PCC knows that it needs to raise its profile, and largely depends on newspapers and their journalists to do that. The chairman frequently uses public appearances to call on newspapers to do more to raise awareness of the commission and the work that it does. Indeed, the PCC’s advertising campaign – launched last month – can be seen as the most concerted effort to do that since the PCC’s inception.
One of the major structural challenges facing the PCC is the reluctance of the industry to report on itself. Outside Media Guardian, there is very little industry news in the national press. And whilst high profile cases such as the Stephen Gately complaint can generate coverage, allegations of phone hacking do not. Social media provides one means by which the PCC can circumvent this – and has begun to do so through its Twitter account @ukpcc.
However, the PCC also points to its work behind the scenes which means that there should be awareness of it where its services are most required. For example, it provides information to police forces for people who are thrust into the spotlight through a difficult incident – such as death or suicide. It tries to contact people directly who are already in the spotlight, as it did when it sent a message to the McCanns via the British consulate. And as any regulatory body should, it provides practical training and advice directly to journalists to enable them to better understand the code of practice.
One of the revelations of the media select committee hearings into the PCC was that newspapers had introduced compliance with the code as a condition of employment for journalists. So if they break the code, they are in danger of losing their jobs – and editors say that this has happened.
In that context, it would be reasonable to expect journalists to have a strong understanding of the code (if not the detail) and a clear understanding of the basics of the Press Complaints Commission – even if they aren’t going to report it. But as this Twitter exchange between the Daily Express’ chief political commentator (@oflynnexpress) and the PCC’s communications director (@JonCollett), that isn’t necessarily the case:
oflynnexpress Polly Toynbee’s piece was obv ridiculous and OTT but should a quango be censuring her for her choice of words? I don’t think so. 4.25pm 17/11/10
JonCollett @oflynnexpress PCC not a quango. PCC has not censured Polly Toynbee. In fact found no breach of the code. 4.31pm
oflynnexpress according to @JonCollett no censure for Toynbee but I note PCC does appear to have criticised her use of language. 4.32pm
oflynnexpress @JonCollett why do you say PCC not a quango? Cos taxpayer doesn’t pay for it? But doesn’t DCMS have oversight of it? 4.34pm
JonCollett @oflynnexpress PCC noted that was the complainant’s view but found no breach (to protect free speech). We will release decision shortly. 4.36pm
JonCollett @oflynnexpress No no DCMS oversight. Independent regulator overseeing self-regulatory system and funded by industry. 4.38pm
Oflynnexpress @JonCollett I withdraw the quango description then, esp to head off any complaint from you about my accuracy…to the PCC! 4.49pm
JonCollett @oflynnexpress Thanks Patrick! 4.54pm
This lack of knowledge should be of real concern to both parties. Given the political prominence of quangos at the moment, you might imagine that O’Flynn would know what was and wasn’t a quango. Given the frequency of complaints against the newspapers in the Express stable this year (11 against Daily Express), you might expect its journalists to have an increasing awareness of the PCC.
But one of the most odd things is this: can you imagine a broadcaster who wasn’t aware of the legal structure around Ofcom? A teacher who wasn’t aware that Ofsted was a government quango? A banker who wasn’t aware of the legal basis of the FSA?
Editors say they are scared of the PCC adjudicating against their newspapers. Editors sit on the PCC (in a minority). Editors alone make the code. Editors do not generally lose their jobs when the code is breached. Perhaps it’s time for working journalists to play a bigger role in self-regulation.
Two very different cases in the last week have seen newspapers correct inaccurate stories. The Sun retracted a claim that Bob Crow had a company car (he doesn’t) and the Daily Mirror retracted a claim that a child had been prevented from boarding a bus because he was wearing an England shirt. Neither case will appear in the PCC’s statistics as breaches of the code of practice. That’s a problem for anyone interested in press accountability.
The Press Complaints Commission exists to “consider, adjudicate, conciliate and resolve, or settle by reference to code of practice” complaints from members of the public. In other words, its constitution does not place any greater emphasis on its role of resolving complaints compared with its role of issuing adjudications.
But in practice, the PCC aims to resolve most complaints. In the year to date, 375 cases were resolved and 32 cases were adjudicated upon. This is sensible. Calling for a newspaper to print an adjudication is the only power the PCC has, so it is best spared for the most serious breaches of the code. Moreover, resolved cases can be dealt with more efficiently. If a newspaper knows that it is not going to face public censure there is an incentive to resolve a case if there are no great principles at stake.
The problem with resolved complaints is that the PCC makes no public judgement about whether the newspaper has breached the code. This is problematic. It provides no indication of which newspapers regularly comply with the code and which breach it. For example, the Daily Mail has resolved 48 cases so far in 2010 but only had one complaint reach adjudication and that was not upheld. Is that because under the leadership of Paul Dacre, chairman of the body that writes the code of practice, the Mail is scrupulous at upholding it, or just that it resolves any case that it considers may be upheld at adjudication?
This is particularly important in relation to Paul Dacre because of the exchange he had with the culture media and sport select committee in which he rejected allegations that the Daily Mail had more findings against it from the PCC than other newspapers. Dacre said that if a complaint had been resolved it was not fair to suggest that the newspaper had been in breach of the code.
The PCC’s actions are usually supported by the complainant. The wishes of the complainant are central for the PCC’s considerations of whether to take the case to adjudication. The PCC always scores highly when it asks people whether they were satisfied with its service. But the interests of the complainant may not reflect those of the reader – as in the case of the Daily Mirror correction. Whilst a complainant may be happy to receive a private apology and the correction to an article online, the reader may be dissatisfied that his newspaper told him something that was untrue.
By not recording whether the code was breached as a matter of routine, it is hard for the PCC and the public to come to firm judgements about its effectiveness. The commission, editors – and even the PCC’s governance review panel – are keen to assert the standards have risen since the creation of the PCC. This may be true but with just 18 complaints last year being formally recorded as a breach of the code, how can we possibly know?
The PCC is always quick to defend itself against claims that there is an increase of complainants seeking resolution through solicitors rather than the PCC but again, it does not publish statistics to prove or disprove this. The Bob Crow correction was issued without the involvement of the PCC and was corrected inside 30 working days – the average for a PCC case. This neither proves nor disproves the PCC’s assertion that it is faster than ‘the legal route’ or just contacting a newspaper directly.
If the PCC were to record breaches of the code as a matter of routine it would be able to state authoritatively which newspapers were best at complying with the code, which aspects of the code were observed best and worst and whether standards of compliance were improving or not. It would also reduce criticism that the PCC does not adjudicate often enough.
The PCC would also be able to explain to the public why the PCC was a better route than alternative forms of resolution. That’s what most regulators do and formed a key part of the MST’s recommendations to the governance review. We hope that the PCC will take this into account as it considers its response to the governance review.
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 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?
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.