Archive for the ‘Praise for the PCC’ Category
The Press Complaints Commission has published guidance to newspapers and magazines on how to handle corrections in their digital format. It follows the recommendations of a working group established by the commission to look at the issue.
The PCC has previously worked hard to ensure that newspapers publish corrections, apologies and adjudications on the same page or further forward within the newspaper. However, newspapers have taken different approaches online and occasionally this has led to the offending part of an article being repeated or remaining online despite the existence of a correction elsewhere.
The key parts of the guidance are:
- editors should give consideration to appropriate placement on the relevant section where the original article appeared (such as the “news” or “showbusiness” section, for example)
- Care must be taken that the URL of an article does not contain information that has been the subject of successful complaint.
- Online corrections and apologies should be tagged when published to ensure that they are searchable.
This will avoid cases such as Gamsu and Stirling v Sheffield Star where the newspaper corrected an inaccurate headline but the URL remained. It will also act as guidance to newspapers which act quickly to change newspaper headlines in response to complainant demands (as the Daily Mail did on the day the Gately / Moir storm broke).
The issuing of the guidance should not be the end of the matter. In the short term, the PCC needs to devise a way to measure the prominence of corrections online as part of its annual report. There’s a bigger challenge for the secretariat: how to explain the precedent to complainants. The guidance states that:
“discussion between complainant, editor and PCC will be necessary in the placement of online” and;
“consideration should be given to the publication making explicit reference to the existence of the alteration. How quickly the text has been amended will be a factor in this consideration.”
Both of these areas appear open to interpretation which may be meat and drink for the lawyers that represent newspapers to the PCC (and those that represent complainants) but not to the member of the public who benefits the most from the free system the PCC guarantees.
In the longer term, the PCC will need to consider how it treats tweets and Facebook status updates from journalists where measuring online prominence is far harder. Equally, timely corrections of content that has appeared on apps will need to be addressed sooner rather than later.
UPDATE: Guy Black, chairman of Press BoF has also replied to the MST’s questions. He confirmed:
“The PressBof press release made clear that Northern and Shell’s decision will have no impact whatever on the PCC’s 2011 budget. Its excellent standards of service to the public will therefore be maintained.
On the other issues you raise, relating to the question of contributions, the PressBof Board is currently studying the recommendations of the independent Governance Review.”
UPDATE: The PCC has responded to the Media Standards Trust’s questions about the implications of the withdrawl of Northern and Shell from the commission. The most important and significant point is that the PCC’s service will not be affected by the loss of income.
1. What impact will Northern & Shell’s withdrawal have on the PCC’s overall funding? Given that the amount contributed by national newspapers is kept secret it is currently not possible for those outside the industry to work out what effect the exit will have.
The budget for 2011 has been fixed, and Northern and Shell’s departure won’t affect that at all.
2. Will the PCC be able to maintain the same level of service on a lower budget?
The budget will not be lower.
3. In the PCC statement – and for the first time – you revealed some of the publications not covered by the PCC (i.e. Northern & Shell publications). Will the PCC now publish a list of all those that subscribe?
Details of subscribers are a matter for PressBof, and the Governance Review made recommendations in that area to PressBof.
4. Was Northern & Shell clear as to what motivated its withdrawal? And, if so, is it clear under what terms it might return to the system?
All we have been informed is that the decision was taken for monetary reasons. We hope that N and S will rejoin the system.
Thank you to the PCC for its swift and informative response.
This is the first of a two part review of the PCC’s response to the governance review
The Press Complaints Commission published its response to the governance review that it established in August 2009. The overriding sense from the document is that the reforms will do much to tidy up the process for those concerned about small-scale inaccuracies but little to make a step-change to a PCC that could protect, for example, the McCann’s from libellous articles.
Naturally there are things that we both agree with (either because they reflect the MST’s submission to the governance review or because they’re just eminently sensible) and disagree with. So to be as fair as possible, we wanted to respond to the review in two parts – those that are positive things and those that are not.
The PCC is used to having a low profile in the newspapers that created it. Nevertheless, it’s surprising to PCC Watch that the PCC’s recommendations have not received a single line in a national newspaper. But the PCC’s document is detailed, thoughtful and clearly addresses each point raised by the review team – and so deserves a considered response.
1. The review was a positive process, and the response well considered
The governance review process was reasonably transparent, with a separate website and the written submissions published online. The governance review document clearly set out the big issues that it had considered during its evidence-gathering and did not appear to feel unduly constrained by the tight brief that it was given.
The PCC’s response is a similarly professional document, with a paragraph by paragraph response to the governance review panel’s recommendations
The PCC’s response to the governance review sets out many things that it is already committed to doing in order to ensure that it is effective. The PCC has committed to a more efficient handling of most complaints (20 days instead of 30) and seeks to provide as much information as possible in the summaries of the complaints published on the website.
The commission has also begun the process of redeveloping its website in order to ensure that the data is presented more clearly and year-on-year comparisons are available in its annual report. This is welcome and will better enable people to hold the press and PCC more accountable (as we have sought to do with our Press Complaints site).
The PCC has also committed to being clearer about its use of sanctions. Whilst the MST found this to be one of the weaker parts of the response, it should also be noted that the establishment of a working group with Press BoF to consider sanctions at least provides a mechanism for further consideration to be given to this vital area.
Most of the recommendations on independence have been accepted by the commission. Minutes of the meetings are already published on the website and an enhanced register of interests will better enable the public to see when an editor does and does not have to recuse themselves from discussions about complaints against publications with which they have a relationship.
However, the most significant part of this section concerns the funding of the PCC. Whilst Press BoF has been willing to reveal the formula which determines what regional newspapers and magazines contribute towards the PCC, they have kept secret the contributions from national newspapers. The only argument that we have heard in favour of doing this is that it protects the PCC from inadvertently favouring the largest contributors.
It’s significant, therefore, that the PCC “endorses the idea that there should be greater transparency about the funding structure”. Not because it will lead to an immediate change, but because Press BoF is rapidly running out of credible arguments in favour of its secret approach.
Lastly, the PCC has also created a mechanism by which PCC board members who have failed to fulfil their duties and responsibilities may be discharged from the commission, by a two-thirds majority vote. If implemented correctly, this would have enabled a proper procedure to be followed to strip the editor of the Daily Express of his PCC post after his newspaper paid out a significant sum for libelling the McCanns.
The PCC has committed to a protocol which has now been agreed and put in place. However, this section of the response was largely disappointing and so will be dealt with in the second of the two blogposts.
The PCC has simplified the names of the charter commissioner and the charter compliance panel, although in other respects the roles appear largely unchanged. There are a number of smaller sensible, small-scale recommendations which will further improve the PCC’s accountability, including an internal review mechanism for each commissioner. Within the limits of the recommendations of the governance review, the PCC’s response is largely constructive.
The PCC’s response to the governance review will help nudge the commission to being a more rigorous, professionally-run organisation. However, as we will see in the second section, none of the recommendations represent a step-change in the way that the PCC operates so are unlikely to mean a PCC which receives less criticism from those who want a tougher body with a wider remit.
Newspapers are now required to agree with the PCC the prominence of corrections before they are printed – after changes introduced by the editors code committee. This could be a small change to alleviate complainants concerns when a correction lacks due prominence. Implemented a different way, it could be a significant step for the PCC to demonstrate the strength of self-regulation.
Editors’ code committee secretary, Ian Beales, said of the change:
“This amendment is designed to help kill the myth that newspapers and magazines routinely bury corrections. Research conducted by the PCC has shown this to be untrue – nearly 85% of PCC-negotiated corrections and apologies appear no further back than the original transgression, or in a designated corrections column.”
There are a number of ways the PCC could use this to ensure a more effective regulatory regime. The PCC could routinely record on which page the original story appeared (or where the headline and hyperlink appeared) and then where the correction appeared (or where the headline and hyperlink appeared). It could put this data in a consistent format to enable the public to compare the data. The PCC could even measure the column inches of both, to provide further explanation of what it means by “due prominence”. ‘Any ways in which the PCC can record where an apology/correction appeared and with how much prominence would help substantiate the Commission’s claim that 85% appear no further back than the original transgression.
An apology in the Sun reveals one of the challenges around the ‘due prominence’ debate. The apology appears on page 2, correcting a frontpage story that was basically entirely untrue. This is a similar approach to a Daily Star correction of a false frontpage story. So in the end of year statistics, these will both look like acceptably prominent corrections. A more constructive debate would enable the PCC to defend a page 3 apology for a frontpage correction, on the basis that page 3 is more read than page 2 – for example.
The PCC could also use the data of apologies in order to produce a league table of which newspapers have broken the code most frequently – and on what issues. This would enable the public to compare the performance of newspapers and lead to a more informed debate whenthe next frontpage story appears about an Al Qaeda threat , for example, And in the interests of fairness, the PCC could also log those stories where there was no breach of the code, in defence of the freedom of expression.
Currently, despite playing the leading role in negotiating corrections in the Sun and Heat magazine, the PCC has not ruled whether either newspaper breached the code. So there appears to be no sanction against the newspaper.
Self-regulation needs to remain flexible and responsive – as the governance review process highlighted. And this very approach enables the PCC to institute an effective regulatory regime – but only if it interprets its role in the wider public interest rather than the narrow interpretation of the satisfaction of each complainant.
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.
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
Peter Crouch has criticised the Sun for breaking the news of the pregnancy of his fiancé Abbey Clancy before he had time to tell members of his family. He said that the newspaper had been wrong to reveal private information and had done so before the pregnancy was 12 weeks old. A good example of the weakness of the PCC? Probably not.
The reporting of high profile pregnancies is one area where the PCC has devoted significant care and attention in the last few years. It had received a number of complaints about high profile cases where the pregnancy of a celebrity had been reported before the 12-week scan and without their consent.
In Joanna Riding vs The Independent (2006) the newspaper argued that it had no reason not to believe that the pregnancy was not public information. However, in its upheld adjudication, the PCC made a landmark ruling:
“As a matter of common sense newspapers and magazines should not reveal news of an individual’s pregnancy without consent before the 12 week scan, unless the information is known to such an extent that it would be perverse not to refer to it.
The primary factor under consideration was the possibility of complications in the pregnancy (and presumably later privacy intrusions), followed by the right of the individual to share the news with family and friends.
Subsequently, in Charlotte Church v The Sun (2007) the PCC criticised the newspaper for reporting “baby rumours” and ruled that an apparent change in alcohol consumption by Ms Church was not sufficient justification for circumventing the privacy rights asserted in Riding v The Independent.
In its reporting of the Abbey Clancy story, the Sun made its justification clear. The headline reported that she was 12 weeks pregnant and the article made clear that the news came from someone in a restaurant (usually deemed a public place for the purposes of the PCC’s privacy considerations) overhearing the news spoken “loudly” by Ms Clancy to someone who was apparently a member of the public – further justification on the part of the Sun.
The PCC would not normally intervene unless it received a complaint directly from Mr Crouch (or his representatives). The Media Standards Trust would disagree. The existing complaint from Mr Crouch ought to be sufficient. Without further intrusion, the PCC should be able to check from the journalist the circumstances surrounding the news and that they followed proper processes. They could also check the age of the pregnancy with Crouch or Clancy, should they be willing to participate. Mr Crouch’s assertion that the newspaper acted improperly – particularly that it “recorded her private conversation” should not be left unchecked.
By ruling in this case the PCC would reassure the public that it was safeguarding the code, that it was effective at protecting privacy during early pregnancy and (if it found no wrong-doing) provide independent endorsement of the Sun. A ruling may also help journalists better understand the balance between respecting the individual’s right to inform family and friends and the point at which the PCC would judge the news to be so well known that it would perverse not to report it.
The PCC can be proud for how it has privately brokered a consensus in the industry around the reporting of pregnancy and protected individual privacy. But it must continue to ensure that its role is understood and communicated clearly if its role is to be appreciated in public.
Think back to Spring, when restrictions on flights were being lifted after a period when they had been grounded due to the volcano eruption in Iceland. The Daily Star published a frontpage with the headline ‘Terror as plane hits ash cloud’ with a picture of a jet engines in flames. The report was not of a recent event – as you might reasonably expect of a newspaper – but a simulation of an event over 10 years ago which was to be re-shown on Channel Five.
The newspaper was withdrawn from sale at most UK airports, the Media Guardian reported the case and the PCC intervened. The newspaper later apologised and corrected the story, on page 2.
So what can we learn from the case, and what it means for the role of the Press Complaints Commission?
1. The apology was prominent and fulsome
The newspaper did apologise, the apology was near the front of the newspaper and it did not equivocate in its response. This was a success for the Press Complaints Commission.
2. The process was free
The complainants did not have to pay to extract an apology from the Daily Star. The newspaper probably did have to pay (in terms of staff time) to deal with the complaint and is now contributing financially to the system of self-regulation (there was a period of unknown length during 2009 when all Northern and Shell titles were not contributing financially to self-regulation.
3. The apology could have been slower
The apology appeared three months after the original story. This is quicker than some complicated legal actions take to resolve, although within modern expectations of a 24-hour news cycle this is still a long time.
I understand this was not the fault of the PCC – that the initial complainants were slow to respond to their enquiries. So what could the PCC have done differently? If the Media Standards Trust’s vision of self-regulation was adopted, it could have been different in the following ways (though this is hypothetical, there are lots of areas where the MST’s submission needs further thought).
A. The PCC could have appeared more responsive
I called the PCC after seeing the Daily Star frontpage and reading the Media Guardian article. At that point, the PCC could have made clear that it had already made enquiries about the article. That would have made the PCC look proactive in the Guardian article, and meant that I wouldn’t have troubled the PCC with a formal complaint – as I would have known that it was under investigation. If it published a register of complaints received over a regular period, it would be very apparent just how busy the commission is and the work that it does to uphold the code.
B. The Daily Star could have suffered financially
The only real inconvenience for the Daily Star was the withdrawal of copies from the airport. The space it gave up for the apology was on page 2, and smaller than the weather map – commercially insignificant. And if its annual PCC bill reflected the number of times the Daily Star had been investigated, its owners might have more of an interest in its compliance with the industry standard.
C. The process could have been quicker
The PCC insists on acting on behalf of the complainant. This is legitimate, and it does so with a real sense of conviction for the member of the public – but the MST disagrees. If the PCC acted on behalf of the public it would not necessarily need a complaint to proceed. So in this example, the delays experienced whilst the PCC liaised with the complainant would not have occurred. The complaint could have been resolved, or adjudicated within the PCC’s preferred timeframe.
D. The Daily Star would have to think twice
As Roy Greenslade has demonstrated, the Daily Star has consistently run into trouble in 2010 – often for clear breaches of the PCC code. However, the PCC does not have any mechanism by which it publicly warns editors or their bosses when it finds frequency transgressions. The punishment for the Daily Star in this case was no more stringent because of its frequent abuses than it would have been for any newspaper which had published an inaccurate frontpage.
E. Self-regulation starts with newspapers
When I saw the Daily Star story, my first step was to contact the newspaper. The paper itself does not advertise a phone number for enquiries, feedback or complaints. I called the number for ‘selling a story’ – the only one available. I was instructed to send an email by the busy journalist who answered. I never heard back from the editor’s office. If self-regulation means anything, it is surely that the newspaper feels a greater responsibility for its own actions than if regulation was imposed from an external source? But the Daily Star cannot even reply to a complaint.
The PCC can only do what it has the power, resources and legitimacy to do. That the Daily Star was able to deliberately mislead readers on its frontpage and publish any apology four month later, near a weather map (and occupying less space) shows why this may change.