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.