Archive for the ‘Hardlines – The PCC’s not at fault’ Category
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?
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.
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.