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.