MST FOI request to PCC: correspondence between Sir David Bell and Baroness Buscombe

without comments

On September 7th 2010 the chair of the Media Standards Trust made a freedom of information request to the Press Complaints Commission [Disclosure: the Media Standards Trust runs the PCC Watch blog]. In the interests of transparency PCC Watch publishes the full correspondence below:

Correspondence between Sir David Bell & Baroness Buscombe 7-9-10 to 26-10-10

Tuesday 7th September, Sir David Bell to Baroness Buscombe

Dear Peta,

I hope you’re well. I am writing as Chairman of the Media Standards Trust with a request.

In your letter introducing this year’s Press Complaints Commission annual report you admirably committed the Commission to abide by the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act. In that spirit we would ask that you make available, within the standard FOI timeframe, the correspondence between the Press Complaints Commission and the News of the World since the start of the PCC’s second investigation into phone hacking in 2009, which you and I talked about in December last year.

In January you urged us “to reserve judgement until clear facts emerge” which we were – and are – happy to do. But since then a great deal more about this issue has emerged and we believe it is now imperative to arrive at a definitive view of what may, or may not, have happened.

Our ‘Freedom of Information’ request includes:

  • Correspondence (letter and email) between News International employees (including those at News Group Newspapers and the News of the World) and the PCC related to allegations of phone hacking, and any evidence given to the PCC by News International (including News Group Newspapers and the News of the World) related to allegations of phone hacking, from July 2009 to September 2009
  • Correspondence (letter and email) between News International employees (including those at News Group Newspapers and the News of the World) and the PCC related to allegations of phone hacking and regarding the new case of phone hacking discovered in 2010, from April 2010 to September 2010

The allegations in the New York Times and The Guardian suggest there may have been a culture of systematic invasion of privacy and law breaking in one of the most powerful newspapers in Britain, which is in turn owned by probably the most powerful commercial media organisation in the country. If, as the News of the World claims, these new allegations have no basis then it is in their interest that the exchange between you and they should be in the public domain. We believe that it is of great importance for the future of responsible journalism and press freedom, of which you and the PCC are a great protector, that as much light as possible is shed on the events that are alleged to have taken place so that the air can be cleared in public once and for all. I am sure you must feel exactly the same.

This is why we last week supported calls for a judicial inquiry and why, quite separate from this request, we shall also be working to open up the files held by the police that may contain the evidence of alleged phone hacking – again to clear the air.

I am very grateful to you for your help in this. I will, also in the spirit of transparency, be making our ‘Freedom of Information’ request public.

With best wishes,

David

———-

Wednesday 6th October 2010, Baroness Buscombe to Sir David Bell

Dear Sir David,

Thank you for your letter of 7th September.

My commitment in the Annual Review was to the spirit of openness about the work of the PCC, especially in the area of considering complaints. We have started publishing minutes, are looking to publish more decisions, and create a more accessible online public database of our cases. I am sure you will welcome this action on our part.

In regard to the News of the World and phone message hacking, you are correct – of course – that further allegations have been revealed in recent weeks. As the PCC has said on the record, they raise important issues of concern, which require investigation by the appropriate law enforcement agencies. The police have indicated that they are re-examining the matter, and it is right that they do so. It is not for the PCC to examine issues that are the subject of police inquiry, or to comment publicly on them.

In our November report, we made public the information provided  to us by the News of the World on which our own comments were based. Subsequent allegations are now being examined by the police, and others, and it would not be appropriate for us to comment further.

In June 2010, the PCC was informed by the Managing Editor and Editor of the News of the World of the existence of the one recent allegation. We were not in a position to manage the matter then, due to the ongoing legal claim which the paper is defending. We have publicly committed to look at the case, once those proceedings are concluded.

As soon as the existence of the action was made public, the PCC was open about its involvement. We have engaged in no correspondence with the paper at this point, because the PCC is not in a position yet to consider the issue. When it does, we will be open about the outcome.

I hope you will see that the PCC is seeking to be clear and transparent about its role in this matter. In 2007, the Commission recognised the existence of a problem, and sought to raise standards; in 2010, we remain committed to achieving this aim within our proper remit.

With kind regards.

Peta

————–

Wednesday 13th October, Sir David Bell to Baroness [Peta] Buscombe

Dear Peta,

Thank you for responding to my information request of 7th September 2010. Whilst I am grateful for your response of 6th October I’m afraid it does not appear to answer – or even acknowledge – our request.

You open your letter by saying that your commitment in the Annual Review ‘was to the spirit of openness about the work of the PCC, especially in the area of considering complaints’. In fact your commitment in the Annual Review was not to a ‘spirit of openness’ but to the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act. To quote:

‘While we currently feel it would be inappropriate for the PCC to release personal information and be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (because we deal with cases relating to individual privacy), we can adopt the spirit behind the provisions of the Act’ (Baroness Buscombe, Open Letter, PCC Annual Review 2009).

We welcome – of course – more openness from the PCC, but a commitment to the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act is quite different and should be treated as such.

A commitment to Freedom of Information means that, and I quote the ICO:

“When you receive a request you have two duties under the Freedom of Information Act:

  • The duty to inform the requestor whether or not you hold the requested information And if you do hold the information,
  • The duty to provide the information to the requestor”

You say in your letter that ‘It is not for the PCC to examine issues that are the subject of police inquiry, or to comment publicly on them’.

We are not asking you to examine issues that are the subject of a police inquiry. Nor are we asking you to comment publicly on them. We are simply asking you to release correspondence between the PCC and the News of the World / News International – in the same way that any public authority would, under FOI.

You say that in your November report; ‘we made public the information provided to us by the News of the World’. Yet, if one looks at your November report, it is quite clear that the PCC used excerpts from its correspondence with the News of the World. We have not asked for excerpts but for the correspondence (letters and emails) itself.

You say that: ‘In June 2010, the PCC was informed by the Managing Editor and Editor of the News of the World of the existence of the one recent allegation’, and later that the PCC has ‘engaged in no correspondence with the paper at this point’.

It is not clear what you mean by ‘at this point’. In the second part of our request we asked for correspondence related to allegations of phone hacking and regarding the new case of phone hacking discovered in 2010, from April 2010 to September 2010. Does ‘at this point’ mean that the PCC engaged in no correspondence with News International employees (including those at News Group Newspapers and the News of the World) between April and September 2010? As with any other FOI request, I would be grateful if you could confirm this.

It may be helpful if I reiterate our original FOI request, which was for:

  • Correspondence (letter and email) between News International employees (including those at News Group Newspapers and the News of the World) and the PCC related to allegations of phone hacking, and any evidence given to the PCC by News International (including News Group Newspapers and the News of the World) related to allegations of phone hacking, from July 2009 to September 2009
  • Correspondence (letter and email) between News International employees (including those at News Group Newspapers and the News of the World) and the PCC related to allegations of phone hacking and regarding the new case of phone hacking discovered in 2010, from April 2010 to September 2010

On a broader point, it would be helpful to know whether the PCC is, indeed, committed to the spirit of the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. And, if so, whether the PCC is aware of what those provisions require, and if it has the processes in place and the resources available to make that commitment realistic. Based on this experience it is difficult to conclude that it does.

Once again I will, in the spirit of FOI, be making the progress of our request public. Yours sincerely,

David

——————

26th October 2010, Baroness Buscombe to Sir David Bell

Dear Sir David,

Thank you for your letter of 13th October.

As you know, I referred in the Annual Report to the “spirit” behind the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.  This was in conjunction with our intention (which you endorse) to be more open about our work.  The Commission has not undertaken to implement specific provisions of the Act, as you appear to claim, and I have previously explained why such a course would be inappropriate.  My comments also referred to the future work of the PCC, and could not reasonably be construed to relate to all of our previous activity.

You have made clear that you intend to make public our correspondence.  The view of the Commission (following legal advice, in respect of which privilege is not waived) is that we should not be engaged in further public comment on this issue while there are ongoing investigations by the police and extant legal proceedings.  This includes releasing documents into the public domain.

I am happy to clarify that we have not yet engaged in any correspondence with the News of the World on the subject of the new allegation of phone hacking in 2010.  As we have made clear, we are awaiting the outcome of the relevant legal action before examining the matter.

I hope this makes our position comprehensible to you, and you recognise the sound procedural reasons for my response.  I feel I am being clear on the subject.

Yours sincerely,

Peta

———-

Correspondence ends

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November 8th, 2010 at 12:51 pm

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