The PCC holds open days each year to allow members of the public to come along and meet their representatives and discuss queries regarding press standards or more specific issues about a newspaper or magazine article. The London-based commission has spread its open days geographically across the country to give the UK public a greater chance to attend in or near to their local area, with the last one held in Nottingham in June 2009, and prior events in Ipswich, Leeds, Oxford, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle, Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Manchester.
The format of the day was: open surgery time with the opportunity to meet PCC representatives and discuss more specific issues, an introduction from the panel – made up of the chair of the PCC, the director of the PCC, a PCC commission board member and the editor of the local paper The Southern Daily Echo – followed by a Q&A with the audience.
There was a small NUJ protest of Southern Daily Echo journalists outside the City Art Gallery where the event was being held, giving a stark reminder of the financial constraints now faced by journalists working in local news. Inside there were about fifty people, from local civic organisations, authorities, and a good number of students alongside older people, gathering in time for the Q&A panel discussion, with about two-thirds of them staying for most of the two hour session. Chairs were already laid out for the Q&A, there were banners with helpful bullet points on the PCC’s aims, a sign-linguist working throughout the discussion, and a table with useful literature and colour-coded businesscard-sized leaflets covering how the PCC can help in cases of harassment, schools and children, hospitals, court and inquest hearings.
The Chair of the PCC, Baroness Buscombe, introduced the open day by stating the PCC “is effectively the regulator for the press across the country.” She said there are a total of fifteen people employed by the PCC. She was keen from the start to get across to the public audience that “we do actually work on your side” as an entirely free service.
The director of the PCC, Stephen Abell, spoke next. Abell joined the PCC in 2001, working up from complaints officer to Director. He told the audience that the PCC deals with 6-7,000 complaints per year. But he also said this was a misleading figure given how many complaints often lie outside the Editors’ Code of Practice. He gave the example of how someone complaining they “just don’t like the Daily Mail” is, understandably, not a proper complaint – though a number of the complaints are of this type.
Ian Murray, editor of the Southern Daily Echo and also member of the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee, told the audience that he had seen a transition from a time of extreme press intrusion with a grave risk of government regulation, to one where an effective PCC was helping to drive higher standards, and was putting a stop to press harassment. “If we break that code, we will lose our jobs”. The PCC Chair then opened discussion to take questions from the floor.
The audience questions were varied, relating to cases in the local paper to national concerns of press regulation and power, and the panel answered them all clearly and constructively. One person asked why there was not more transparency about journalists and editors themselves. Ian Murray responded that it would be too intrusive to insist that journalists and editors provide personal details or information about their own views. Anyway, Murray said, the public are more interested in reading about Cheryl Cole than him. Baroness Buscombe added that where broadcast journalists often need to remain impartial, the press should be free to express opinions – to help provoke wider debate for the benefit of democracy.
Another person asked about whether the Code will now be applied to the Twitter feeds of news organisations and other online forms of news publication. Stephen Abell clarified that the PCC is currently looking into how best to apply the Code to Twitter, and that there must be a distinction made between personal journalist feeds and news organisations. But yes, Abell said, there is a strong argument for the PCC to cover new technologies.
A person from the local council asked why there was not greater prominence given to a retraction and correction – i.e. put on the same page and given the same space in any paper where an offending article appeared originally. Baroness Buscombe said she feels this strongly too, but that the PCC had to be careful not to give in too much to a complainant’s demands or bias. Their job is to bring the editor and complainant together to agree to resolve any issue. She also added it was a shame that a lot of complaints are dealt with by the PCC but that the PCC logo often does not appear alongside printed corrections.
One person stood up and heatedly described the PCC as being like a ‘PR machine’, asking how the Commission, with just a handful of employers, was planning to stop millionaires like Murdoch from having too much power. Being a millionaire makes no difference, the panel responded, all editors know that self-regulation is the only way, or else they risk state regulation. Accusing papers of being right-wing or closing them down is not the way forward. Ultimately, the panel agreed, the reputation of newspaper owners are exposed to public judgment. Calling the PCC a ‘PR machine’ along with other comments was, Simon Sapper said, an insult to his own integrity.
The Q&A rounded off with further discussion of:
· How to take misleading headlines into account in the context of whole articles
· Improvements to Article 7 of the Code (children in sex cases)
· Concern over article sourcing (particularly in linking back to medical research)
· The age and background of PCC employees themselves
Throughout the discussion panelists emphasised the importance of what a PCC adjudication means to an editor. Buscombe said that although she had never been a journalist she is struck by “how hurt” an editor is when s/he receives a PCC letter. “Journalists lose their jobs” after upheld adjudications, Buscombe said. She highlighted how for editors it is an issue of reputation, “the worst thing is being shown up in front of peers.” Murray agreed, mentioning one time his paper had “made a mistake innocently but stupidly,” and highlighted once again how a breach of the Code means “I will lose my job. It’s underscored”. According to the PCC website, one adjudication was upheld against the Southern Daily Echo in 2004 – then edited by Murray.
The event was friendly, very open, well run, and a good opportunity for any member of the public to come and learn more about the PCC. It would have been good to see more people attending, given the genuine interest amongst the audience members present who posed questions regarding local news in their area as well as some broader national concerns. However, given the event was held mid-afternoon on a working day in a city, and that the outlook of the discussion was more generic and less focused on local news within the area, perhaps explains why there was not a bigger crowd.
The Southern Daily Echo reportage of the open day: