Every organisation needs a clear idea of who it works for. It’s easy to take the mick out of mission statements – and the press often does. But they do (or should) help articulate why it exists.
The Press Complaints Commission describes what it does very well, but who it does it for, less well. This isn’t merely an academic issue. Much of what the PCC does, particularly its ‘behind the scenes’ operation s to protect the privacy of individuals. This involves difficult judgements about safeguarding the freedom of the press, deciding what is in the public interest and where public lives should be private.
The PCC has worked on behalf of celebrities, behind the scenes, to protect their privacy. The PCC has often spoken about how much work it does behind the scenes to protect people’s privacy – particularly that of public figures and celebrities. A few years back the Commission managed to get newspapers to agree, for example, that they would not reveal celebrity pregnancies until at least 12 weeks. Therefore in the recent case of The Sun’s story about Abbey Clancy’s pregnancy, the paper held off publishing until 12 weeks exactly. The PCC also, as we know from its public statements, offers background assistance to people in the eye of a press storm. People like Vanessa Perroncel, the woman at the centre of the John Terry story, although – as we know from her Guardian interview – she chose not to and much later secured apologies through her work with Max Clifford.
Both of these stories attracted significant criticism of the press. Abbey Clancy’s partner, Peter Crouch, criticised the Sun for breaking the story Ms Perroncel gave an interview to the Guardian in which she revealed her experience, put her side of the story (that many of the allegations were untrue) and criticised newspapers. Ms Perroncel has subsequently received apologies from some of the newspapers which reported the stories.
The celebrities benefit from the PCC’s silence – or at least are not harmed. Clancy benefitted from the PCC’s constraints on newspapers, whilst her partner could make public criticisms of the press without reply. Perroncel was offered the use of the PCC’s service and opted out, but could still make un-addressed criticism of the newspapers – and by association the PCC. So they have their cake and eat it – free of charge.
Newspapers themselves are not helped by the allegations from Crouch and Perroncel not being investigated. The PCC might not win significant public plaudits for defending newspapers when they have not breached the code, but it is an important part of their role in protecting press freedom.
But it was the general public that really lost out in both cases from the PCC’s public silence. Newspapers were accused of failing to comply with the code and that allegation was not investigated or commented upon. So the public does not know whether the PCC asleep on the job, the code was breached, or newspapers wronged by a celebrity protecting their personal interest.
Cases involving privacy are often a difficult balance for the PCC – acting on behalf of the complainant, balancing it against the competing principles of freedom of expression and personal privacy whilst protecting the public interest. But in tricky cases, the PCC has to come down on one side. In these cases, the PCC did not speak out in support of celebrity or newspaper because to have done so might have invaded their personal privacy, increased the media storm around them and acted as a deterrent for other celebrities in using the PCC’s services. Clearly if every phone call from the PCC is going to appear on its website, celebrities (or their agents) would stop answering the phone.
But if the PCC had a clear mission to act on behalf of the public, in the public interest, it would have made a different decision. The cost might have been fewer celebrities using the PCC (although that might not be of concern to the public). The benefit would have been the public being better informed about newspaper coverage and a commission which was safeguarding self-regulation, reassuring its key stakeholders that it was taking a public lead in judging the code. Which would you rather?