Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Press Complaints Commission


  Executive Summary



  1.  The PCC's role as conciliator, and its benefits to the public

  2.  Who complains and what about?

  3.  Putting things right: making the complaints process easy and transparent

  4.  Complaints handling: speed and effectiveness in resolving complaints

  5.  Complainants' Charter and customer satisfaction


  1.  The importance of the Code

  2.  Strengthening the Code: its development since 1991

  3.  How the Code has raised standards

  4.  The Code and editors' contracts of employment

  5.  The partnership approach: working with Government and others to improve the Code


  1.  Who complains about intrusion—and what do they complain about?

  2.  How the PCC has developed its privacy jurisprudence

  3.  Privacy and public figures

  4.  The public interest

  5.  Privacy and the Human Rights Act 1998

  6.  Children


  1.  Our proactive public information strategy

  2.  Raising the profile: targeting particularly vulnerable groups of people—and enabling them to complain

  3.  Taking the PCC out to the countries and regions of the UK

  4.  Training tomorrow's journalists

  5.  Making information available easily and quickly


  1.  An independent Commission and appointments process

  2.  Code Committee and Pressbof

  3.  Sanctions

  4.  "Own volition" and third party complaints

  5.  Media monitoring

  6.  Accountability and scrutiny


  1.  The PCC and self-regulation in a European context

  2.  How the Commission helps other countries to develop self-regulation

  3.  The Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe

  4.  Our work in the Commonwealth Concluding remarks


  1.  Press freedom and Press responsibility: The power of self-regulation in practice[1]

  2.  Analysis of 1993 Select Committee Report and improvements to the PCC since then

  3.  Discrimination

  4.  Why a privacy law would be of no use to ordinary people

  5.  PCC Annual Review 2003 (Not Reproduced)


  The Press Complaints Commission welcomes this inquiry and the scrutiny by the Select Committee of its procedures and policies. In particular, we are keen to show how we serve the public—and how the Code protects the rights of ordinary people.

  The ability of newspapers and magazines to regulate themselves is a fundamental aspect of press freedom. This is widely recognised across the globe—and at home, where the principles of press self-regulation have enjoyed consistent cross party support. (Intro)

  But freedoms such as this bring responsibilities with them, and this Report is designed to show how the PCC—an independent body, dominated by lay or public members, which administers the press Code and deals with complaints from members of the public about possible breaches of it—has discharged its own duties as part of the system of self-regulation. (Intro)

  The PCC's central aim is to resolve disputes—a mission, in fact, given to it in the first Calcutt Report. Since the mid-1990s, the Commission has succeeded in fostering a culture of conciliation among newspapers, to the benefit of ordinary complainants. In 2002, editors resolved or offered to resolve 96% of all complaints that raised a possible breach of the Code. (A1)

  Complaint levels have increased since the PCC was established to an average over the last four years of just under 2,600 each year—a 40% increase on the first four years of the Commission's existence. This is a sign of wider public knowledge about, and trust in, our work. (A2)

  Over the last 12 years there has been a marked decline in the proportion of complaints about inaccuracy, from a peak of 75% to 56% in 2002—one of the signs that standards of accuracy continue to improve. There has been a concomitant rise in complaints about privacy and discrimination. (A2)

  The vast majority of complainants, over 90%, are ordinary people. They come from every country of the UK, and every region. (A2)

  The complaints process—thanks to a Helpline, website and initiatives to make the Code accessible in languages other than English—is easy and transparent. (A3)

  Speed is vital to the work of the PCC. In 2001 and 2002, the average time it took to deal with a complaint was just 32 working days—although complaints through lawyers took up to 40% longer. (A4)

  The PCC works under the terms of a tough Complainants' Charter which has helped reduce the complaints handling time by 27% (or 12 working days) since 1997. A customer satisfaction survey among complainants in 2002 found very high levels of satisfaction. (A4)

  Key to the work of the PCC is the Code, the authority of which has been enhanced by its incorporation into editors' contracts of employment, by important legislation, by the rulings of the Court of Appeal in crucial cases under the Human Rights Act (HRA) and by its inclusion in the training courses all new journalists undergo. (B1).

  The Code itself has been considerably strengthened over the last 12 years (B2)—and is now, as noted above, part of the contracts of employment of most national and regional editors. (B5)

  While it is impossible empirically to measure the success of the Code, the way in which it has raised standards in key areas on the back of PCC adjudications—particularly on privacy, children, subterfuge, victims and others—is clearly demonstrable. (B3)

  The Code is a flexible document, and the industry has worked in partnership with Government and others to tackle issues of importance to press and public—such as Human Rights, Data Protection and others. (B5)

  There are many myths about privacy. In fact the vast majority of people who complain about intrusion are ordinary people; only five per cent are in the national public eye. More privacy complaints are received by the PCC about regional newspapers than national ones. (C1)

  Over the years the PCC has built up vitally important privacy jurisprudence across the range of privacy issues. All these demonstrate that there are no absolutes; every case is part of a balancing act. The Courts have recognised that such an operation is best undertaken by a specialist body such as the PCC, and have themselves drawn on PCC case law in ruling on privacy matters (C2).

  The PCC recognises that public figures are as entitled to privacy as any other—and are given equal protection under the Code, as well as the same service by the PCC when they complain. The families of public figures have also received the full protection of the Code. (C3)

  The PCC has also developed the concept of public interest in a cogent, authoritative manner. It does not believe that public interest equates to what interests the public. In adjudicating it will apply rigorous tests to any public interest defence put forward by an editor. (C4)

  Far from proving to be a back-door privacy law for famous people, important decisions under the HRA have actually strengthened the position of self-regulation, and the authority of the Code. (C5)

  The PCC is aware that one of its main tasks is to ensure people are aware of their rights and know how to complain. It has therefore put in place a comprehensive programme of public information. (D1)

  While there is always more to do, independent research shows that PCC name recognition—at 80% in a very recent poll—is already high. Furthermore, members of the public support a system with speedy dispute resolution, free to complainants and funded by the newspaper industry, at its heart. (D1)

  In particular, we have undertaken a substantial amount of work which aims to empower the most vulnerable—asylum seekers, the mentally ill, ethnic minorities, among others—to be able to complain. (D2)

  The Commission is keen to ensure an active presence throughout the countries of the United Kingdom and the regions of England. A programme of exhibitions and road shows has been to every part of the country. Special initiatives have been taken in Scotland. (D3)

  Training tomorrow's journalists is vital to the long-term future of self-regulation—and the PCC plays an important role in training courses. Knowledge of the Code is now an essential component of the exams trainee journalists take. (D4)

  The PCC is also committed to making information available easily and quickly to those who want it through its website and through speaking engagements. This is backed up by a generous donation of advertising space by publishers themselves to highlight the existence of the Commission. (D5)

  A number of the procedural problems highlighted by the 1993 Select Committee report have been rectified. In particular the PCC has a clear majority of lay or public members, themselves appointed by an independent Appointments Commission. (E1)

  Lay members are drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds—and regional editors ensure that the voices of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions are heard on the PCC. (E1)

  The power to issue a critical adjudication is a very strong sanction—one strengthened by the ability of the Commission to refer the terms of serious or calculated breaches of the Code to an editor's employer. This has been deployed twice, with powerful effect. (E3)

  Fines and compensation would destroy the conciliatory nature of the self-regulatory system—and, by turning it into a quasi-legal system, make it inaccessible to the vast majority of individuals. (E3)

  While the Commission will take up third party complaints in exceptional circumstances, it will not normally consider them—a principle it shares in common with the statutory regulators in the UK and most other Press Councils in Europe. (E4)

  Third party and "own volition" complaints—which share the same characteristics—would create a two-tier system of redress, disadvantaging ordinary people and unacceptably politicising the PCC. (E4)

  Comprehensive media monitoring is—for many of the same reasons—philosophically undesirable and practically impossible. However, the PCC does from time to time monitor standards in key areas to inform its public information work and to highlight certain issues among editors. This has shown very high levels of Code compliance. (E5)

  By providing a great deal of information about its complaints procedures and the outcome of complaints, the PCC seeks to ensure it is accountable to the public and to the industry. The scrutiny of the Courts (through judicial review) and the Select Committee add another important layer of accountability. (E6)

  The PCC fits well into a European tradition of press self-regulation dating back over 70 years. Among EU States there are statutory press controls in only two countries. In most emerging democracies self-regulation is the chosen path for industry and Government. The Commission is committed to a programme—often funded by the British Government—to assist in that process. (F1, F2, F4)

  The PCC is in the vanguard in Europe in promoting greater co-operation among European Press Councils. The Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe, and its new website, help the PCC ensure it is providing the best service for ordinary people. (F3)

  The PCC recognises that it is not perfect and that is can always seek to improve its service. We believe our service to ordinary people is a very good one—and also that standards of reporting with regard to the rights of ordinary individuals have been substantially raised in recent years. (Conclusion)

  We welcome constructive and practical proposals for reform. Most of the Select Committee's recommendations from 1993 have now been implemented. (Annex 2)

  The alternatives to the PCC are impractical and undesirable. Statutory controls would be impossible to implement under the HRA, and privacy laws would be inaccessible to ordinary people. Strong, independent self-regulation works for everyone—and we are committed to ensuring it continues to do so. (Conclusion/Annex 4)



  1.  Two fundamental truths about the media are beyond political controversy. The first is that a free press is the essential foundation of a democratic society; the second that, concomitantly, state controls on the press are the first act, and indeed underpinning, of any authoritarian regime.

  2.  It is no coincidence that when Churchill and Roosevelt met for the first time in the Second World War at Reykjavik to agree the terms of the Atlantic Charter, its first, crucial principle was freedom of expression and speech[2]. Such freedoms—of which freedom of the press is the essential component—have been the cornerstone of all the most important international treaties designed to buttress and extend democracy since then[3].

  3.  But freedom of the press is about more than the freedom to express views and publish news free from the censor's pen. It is also about the ability of newspapers and magazines to choose a form of regulation for themselves: without such a choice, the press itself cannot truly be free. This was a point recognised by the former Home Secretary, Jack Straw, during the passage of the Human Rights Act 1998, when he made clear that self-regulation is an aspect of freedom of expression:

    "The Government have always made clear our support for effective self-regulation as administered by the Press Complaints Commission under its Code of Practice. We have also said we have no plans to introduce legislation creating a general law of privacy . . . On self-regulation, the new Clause provides an important safeguard by emphasising the right to freedom of expression. Our intention is that that should underline the consequent need to preserve self-regulation" (Hansard, 2 July 1998, col 541).

  4.  Yet with these freedoms comes great responsibility. Newspapers and magazines wield great power—and in most mature civil societies, they choose to make clear that they wish to wield it responsibly, and within a framework of high ethical standards.

  5.  That is exactly what the British newspaper and magazine industry did in 1991 when it established the Press Complaints Commission. For the first time in its three hundred year history, it agreed to submit to a set of tough self-regulatory rules—binding all publications equally through an industry-wide Code—and the authority of an independent body to oversee them. The degree of that sea-change cannot be overstated.


  6.  Governments of both political parties since then have supported the right of the industry to regulate itself in this manner—and the work of the Press Complaints Commission. (Indeed no government of any political persuasion has sought to impose special controls on the press since the abolition of the Licensing Act in 1689).

  7.  That is why during the passage of the Human Rights Act, which the Select Committee is examining, the Government moved to safeguard the position of self-regulation[4].

  8.  More recently, the Secretaries of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and for Trade and Industry reconfirmed the Government's commitment to self-regulation in a letter to The Times:

    "The Government remains committed to the self-regulation of the press through the Press Complaints Commission and the (Communications) Bill does not affect this in any way" (The Times, 11 December 2002).

  9.  This cross-party support for newspaper self-regulation echoed the Conservative Government's 1995 White Paper on Privacy and Media Intrusion, which concluded that:

    "A free press is vital to a free country. Many would think the imposition of statutory controls on newspapers invidious because it might open the way for regulating content, thereby laying Government open to charges of press censorship . . . The Government does not find the case for statutory measures in this area compelling. It believes that, in principle, industry self-regulation is much to be preferred" (Privacy and Media Intrusion, Cmd. 2918, July 1995., pp 4-5).

  10.  More recently, the Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale MP, spoke during a debate on the Communications Bill about the importance of a:

    "belief in press freedom, which we would all echo. In the UK statutory regulation of the publishing industry has always been viewed as unnecessary and dangerous, with any benefits being far outweighed by the loss of freedom that it might entail. The Government have on many occasions made clear their support for the current system of press self-regulation as administered by the Press Complaints Commission... That reflects the belief, as guaranteed by the Human Rights Act 1998, that freedom of expression and opinion are rights that must be strictly protected in a free and democratic society" (Hansard, 3 December 2002, col 800)

  11.  Furthermore, a number of crucial rulings under the Human Rights Act—discussed later in this submission—along with the result of actions for judicial review of the PCC, have strengthened its authority and that of the Code. The Courts, as Mr Justice Silber said in the case of Anna Ford, recognise "the Commission is a body whose membership and expertise makes it much better equipped than the courts to resolve the difficult exercise of balancing the conflicting rights . . . (of) privacy and of the newspapers to publish." [5]


  12.  Despite this clear support across parties for the work of the Commission, it is of course absolutely right that it is, from time to time, independently scrutinised. This occurs occasionally in the Courts; and each time the PCC had been taken to judicial review its procedures and policies have been given a clean bill of health by the Administrative Court, and in one case the Court of Appeal. The PCC welcomes this wide-ranging inquiry by the Select Committee, particularly with its emphasis on the rights of ordinary people.

  13.  Last time the predecessor to this Select Committee scrutinised the work of the PCC in 1993, self-regulation and the Code were barely two years old—and were still suffering from disagreeable birth pains.

  14.  There was understandable concern about the independence of the PCC. Its service to the public was arguably too slow and lacked transparency. The Code was still a novelty to most editors who were only gradually getting used to its strictures—and, indeed, the Code itself was too weak in some areas. And the Commission was finding it difficult to cope with some of the more high profile cases of media intrusion presented by the break-up of two Royal marriages. But even then, the essence of the Commission's work—a dispute resolution procedure tailored to the needs of ordinary people—was starting to shine through, and we have continued to build on this.

  15.  A lot has changed since the 1993 inquiry—both radically to improve the Commission's service, and to continue to the process of raising standards of reporting. Among the most important developments are these:

    —  The PCC's appointments procedures have been reformed to ensure the clear independence of the Commission from the industry it is regulating.

    —  The Code has been toughened in many key aspects—and is now, at 12 years old, genuinely part of the culture of all newsrooms in the way it could never have been in its early years. It is also—as a result of the way the PCC and the industry have worked in partnership with Government—a key part of many pieces of legislation. The PCC's rulings on privacy, in particular, have been given extra weight and authority by crucial judgements under the Human Rights Act, which draws from the Commission's case law in this area.

    —  The PCC's sanctions have been sharpened. It has powers to refer cases of serious breaches of the Code to publishers—who now almost without exception include Code compliance in editors' contracts of employment—and to raise its own complaints when there are clear public interest reasons for doing so.

    —  The Commission has transformed its standards of service on the back of a tough Complainants' Charter—making its procedures the quickest and most effective of any regulatory body. The clear winners from this are ordinary people who make complaints.

    —  The PCC has fashioned important and far reaching jurisprudence on privacy—for people in the public eye and ordinary people alike—which has been acknowledged by the Courts, and echoed in key Human Rights judgements.

    —  The protection of the vulnerable has been placed at the heart of our work—both in terms of decisions under the Code, and in terms of key initiatives designed to ensure our service is as widely known as possible.

    —  Important work has been undertaken to ensure that the Commission is as open and accessible as possible to people across the country.

  16.  In its core roles—dispute resolution and the protection of the vulnerable—the Commission is now regarded as a model for countries seeking to set up similar bodies. Indeed, the British Government itself has recently sponsored two projects—in the Commonwealth and among some former Soviet Republics—to help establish self-regulation in countries where none existed before. A similar initiative a few years ago in Bosnia-Herzegovina, under the auspices of the International Community, led to the setting up of a self regulatory Press Council under the international chairmanship of the Chairman of the PCC.

  17.  This submission—alongside an accompanying volume of supporting evidence—does not seek to make the philosophical case for self-regulation or to promote the freedom of the press. Nor does it tell the whole story of self-regulation—which is about day to day behaviour in thousands of publications up and down the country, and of which the PCC is only a tiny, if very visible, part.

  18.  The threefold raisons d'être of the PCC are to administer a Code, to deal effectively with the complaints (the vast majority of which are from ordinary people), and to ensure that its services are well known. This submission therefore seeks to:

    (a)  set out our service to the public—including an examination of who makes complaints, how they are resolved, and how satisfied those individuals are;

    (b)  examine how the Code has worked in action—including an analysis of the way it has developed, evidence of how it has raised newspaper standards, and examples of how we have worked in partnership with Government;

    (c)  outline how the Commission deals with issues of personal privacy—including the development of the PCC's jurisprudence, an analysis of who is affected by media intrusion, the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998, privacy and public figures and public interest;

    (d)  set out the way in which the PCC seeks to publicise its services—concentrating in particular on the way we seek to protect the vulnerable and ensure we are known and represented across the United Kingdom;

    (e)  examine the PCC's procedures—in particular its appointments procedures, the independence of the PCC, the work of the Code Committee, the transparency of its own complaints procedures, and a number of other issues including own volition/third party complaints, and media monitoring; and

    (f)  establish the PCC in a European and international context—outlining our work to help promote self-regulation in countries not as blessed as ours with a history of press freedom, and establishing that the international trend in media policy is toward self-regulation and away from state controls.

  19.  There is an annex in this volume which contains other relevant documentation, including an analysis of how some of the concerns of the 1993 Select Committee report have been met. An Appendix to this submission—in a further volume—contains supporting material.



The philosophy of dispute resolution

  1.  It was never the intention of those who established the PCC that it should simply be a toned down, free version of the legal system with complaints investigations pitting opposing sides against one another in large, set-piece confrontations. Even if such a system could be kept free it would still be lengthy, adversarial and cumbersome, prone to exploitation by lawyers to the detriment of the ordinary complainant[6].

  2.  For these reasons, the PCC's main aim in dealing with complaints is to offer members of the public a more useful and user-friendly mechanism for obtaining redress for their grievances—with speed at its heart: the Commission has always recognised that justice delayed is justice denied—and accordingly always seeks to resolve breaches of the Code to the satisfaction of the complainant, without the need for lengthy formal adjudication. This mission was actually given to the Commission by Calcutt in his First Report: "We recommend that the PCC should have clear conciliation and adjudication procedures designed to ensure that complaints are handled with the minimum of delay. Wherever practical it should first seek conciliation"[7]. It has fulfilled that mission in abundance.

  3.  The PCC is, therefore, at heart an alternative dispute resolution mechanism, although any newspapers that refuse to remedy a breach of the Code are at risk of a critical adjudication. It is deliberately not like the state-appointed "watchdogs" that have supervisory powers over whole industries and are designed to protect public health and safety and the consumer in general. Rather, the PCC is a conciliation service for those people who have personally experienced a breach of the press Code of Practice. It is also particularly designed to be of assistance to specific groups of often vulnerable people who previously had no effective redress against newspapers towards whom they had a grievance.

Fostering a new culture

  4.  Before 1991 there was not a great culture of conciliation in the British newspaper industry. Complaining about a newspaper was intimidating and likely to be counter-productive. Some newspaper editors simply ignored the old Press Council and, in its last years, ridiculed complainants. Indeed, it is widely accepted that many editors did not at first recognise the creation of the PCC as representing a great sea-change in their relationships with their readers and in particular with those who complained about them. The PCC in its early years struggled to imbue its adjudications with great authority and as a result found it difficult to promote a culture of conciliation, because editors were simply not fearful of the consequences if they refused to resolve a complaint.

  5.  Other Sections in this submission detail how the authority of the PCC has grown over the years. As it did so, and as publishers, politicians and the public began to take more notice of its findings, the process of encouraging editors to resolve complaints has become easier. Gradually, a new culture has been instilled.

  6.  Part of the reason for this has been the increasing authority of the Commission's adjudications. In the early years, these often lacked consistency and failed to give full reasoning for a decision. Since the mid 1990s, adjudications have always been clearly based on precedents, reference to which is now included in all rulings and published with them on the website. Full reasoning is also given for every Commission decision—on adjudicated complaint as well as on those where no breach of the Code is established.

  7.  Furthermore, editors have learned that the PCC takes into account whether they are prepared to resolve any complaint if the Commission is called to make a formal decision. An early admission that something has gone wrong, and proposals to put it right, will be recognised in any adjudication. In common with other conciliation bodies, the Commission accepts that there can be cases where a complainant rejects an offer that is actually an adequate remedy to the complaint. In these circumstances the Commission will decline to pursue the matter any further, explaining to the complainant why the offer was suitable. The offer will often remain open to the complainant as a sign of a newspaper's good will.

  8.  The logical outcome of this policy is that editors offer to resolve far more complaints than previously, and at a much earlier stage—as the graph below sets out.

  9.  The real beneficiaries are, of course, complainants. Nowadays they do not have to wait very long for an offer of remedial action. Furthermore, knowing that editors are making genuine and constructive efforts to resolve complaints both cools their understandable anger about the original breach of the Code and also gives peace of mind about the outcome. Real dialogue between the parties, channelled through the PCC, promotes harmony and swift settlements to complaints, where a more adversarial—or adjudication-only—system would provoke hostility and inevitable delay.

  10.  In 2002, the PCC had to adjudicate on just 17 breaches of the Code. In ALL of the other cases where there had been a breach of the Code—381 complaints—an editor made a suitable and proportional offer to resolve the matter. In other words, such is the willingness now to resolve complaints that editors offer to resolve 96 per cent of cases that raise a breach of the Code. Details of these cases for 2002, which show the range of cases that the PCC deals with, are in Appendix I.

Resolving complaints in practice

  11.  Against this background, PCC complaints officers are trained to examine ways complaints might be resolved, taking into account the feelings of the complainant. As an independent party, the officer casts an objective eye over the matter and works towards what might be a fair and reasonable outcome to the complaint—bearing in mind the Commission's case law which might instruct on how certain sorts of complaint can be resolved.

  12.  It is important to emphasise that all complainants are told as soon as they complain that the first task of the Commission is to resolve complaints and that this is what the officer dealing with their complaint will be working towards. However, complainants can of course at any stage ask the Commission itself to take a formal view on their complaint, although in practice most are happy with the conciliation process because it promises the opportunity of a quick and meaningful resolution to their complaint.

  13.  In practice, it is possible to resolve complaints in a number of ways, depending on the gravity of the complaint, whether the complainant wants further publicity, what the editorial policy is on correcting mistakes, or what the personal feelings of the editor are. While editors are ultimately responsible for breaches of the Code, each newspaper usually has a dedicated senior member of staff—for instance the managing editor—dealing with the detail of complaints, ensuring that they are handled quickly and with authority. Outlined below are a number of common ways of resolving a complaint, although the list is by no means exhaustive and resolutions might involve a combination of the measures below or different and specific remedies designed for the special circumstances of the case.

  Clarification. A clarification might be appropriate when something has been omitted from the original article or the piece is ambiguous or arguably misleading. It stops short of an admission by the newspaper that there was anything wrong with its article and will often begin "(the complainant) has asked us to make clear that . . .", or "We would like to make clear that . . .".

  Correction and apologies. Straightforward factual errors are usually dealt with most cleanly and simply by the publication of a correction. Corrections to serious errors should also include an apology—as required by the Code, which states "an apology must be published where appropriate".

  Letter for publication. An offer by an editor to publish a complainant's letter is particularly appropriate when: the complainant has an alternative point of view but no substantive factual objections to the piece; where there are a number of minor inaccuracies; where the newspaper has an anonymous and reliable source but no other corroborative material; or where a complainant might for reasons of privacy wish to make anonymous objections to a piece.

  Follow-up article. A newspaper might offer to publish an interview with, or article written by, a complainant, if there are sufficient points to make in response to a previous story.

  "Tagging" the newspaper's records. This is an increasingly popular way of resolving complaints and is offered in conjunction with all of the above remedies or on its own. It amounts to the newspaper's electronic database and cuttings library being tagged with the complainant's objection to ensure that the mistake is not repeated. It is also a way of carrying warnings about privacy, perhaps informing journalists that a complainant has objected to a particular picture or is concerned to protect their children from intrusion. Most national newspapers now share their electronic databases so corrections are available to all newspapers—including PA News—simultaneously.

  Private letter of apology. In many cases further publicity is not an attractive idea for the complainant. Particularly in privacy cases or intrusion into grief, people are most concerned to receive an acknowledgement that the Code has been breached or to read some words of regret from the editor without having to worry about the trauma of reading their name in the paper again. A private apology, often drafted with the help of a complaints officer, and perhaps tagged to the file as outlined above, provides this remedy for complainants.

  Private undertaking. Similarly, undertakings given by the editor about the future conduct of the newspaper and its journalists might also give the complainant some peace of mind and complaints have been resolved on this basis.

  14.  Often, an editor will offer a combination of the measures outlined above. Sometimes, they go further than the Code requires and offer holidays, goods such as flowers and champagne, gifts of specialist equipment such as wheelchairs, and, on some occasions, money. Such offers are left entirely to the editor and are not solicited by complaints officers, as it is not within the Commission's remit to deliver such resolutions. Nevertheless, they do occur from time to time when editors want to make a special effort to make amends.


  15.  A key advantage of the PCC over any statutory mechanism or one involving fines is that these sorts of quick, common-sense and meaningful resolutions are increasingly achievable, thanks to the culture of conciliation that the PCC has promoted. In a fast-moving news environment people want their point of view published, an inaccuracy corrected or a breach of privacy remedied as quickly as possible—a point Calcutt recognised in his blue-print for the PCC. This is the prime reason that people complain. Only a flexible and conciliatory system like the PCC's—backed up with the powerful threat of a critical adjudication if things are not sorted out—can deliver it. As subsequent Sections set out, fines, compensation or statutory powers would introduce delay, legal fees and confrontation, and severely limit a complainant's options for swift redress.


Total numbers of complaints received

  1.  The number of complaints received by the PCC has been rising steadily in the years since the Commission was established in 1991. In the Commission's view this is the result of:

    —  a consistently higher profile for the PCC and its adjudications;

    —  our proactive programme—set out in Section C—to raise the profile of the PCC and make sure people have the information to complain when necessary;

    —  easier complaints procedures—particularly the ability to complain by email; and

    —  greater authority for the Commission itself in public perception.

  2.  In the first year of its existence, the PCC received 1,520 complaints; that figure rose steadily and the number of complaints averaged out at 1,836 during the first four years. Since then the number of complaints has gone up considerably to an average over the last four years of 2,579—an increase of 40%. The table below illustrates this[8].

  The Commission interprets this general rise not as a sign that standards are falling, but—as set out above—as a result of wider knowledge about, and accessibility to, the Commission's services.

Types of complaint

  3.  There have been a number of trends over the last twelve years in the issues under the Code of Practice that individuals have complained about. As the following paragraphs show, this has been principally:

    —  a marked reduction over time in the number of complaints about accuracy in reporting;

    —  a steady increase in the number of complaints about privacy; and

    —  a similarly steady rise in complaints about discrimination.

  4.  In 1991, 72% of complaints were brought under the three Clauses of the Code relating to accuracy[9]. By 2002, this had fallen by over one fifth to 56%, as the following table shows.

  5.  There has at the same time been a steady rise in the number of complaints brought under the various privacy Clauses of the Code (privacy, children, hospitals, innocent relatives, victims of crime, grief and shock)—from 14% in 1991 to 23% in 2002 (after peaking at 27% in 1999). This table illustrates it:

  6.  Part of the increase in privacy complaints has come about because of a higher profile for the PCC on privacy issues—not least in the wake of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales—but also a substantial toughening of the Code in January 1998. However, the increase in complaints has not been mirrored in a rise in breaches of the Code and upheld complaints—as we discuss in Section B3[10].

  7.  The PCC has, over the years, received a significant number of discrimination complaints. This has, again, risen steadily—as the next Table shows—particularly since 1996. This is the result of:

    —  reporting in 1996 of the Euro 96 football championships;

    —  the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001, and particular concerns about the reporting of issues relating to Islam and the Muslim community; and

    —  continued political and public debate about, and media reporting of, issues concerning refugees and asylum seekers. (Some of these complaints are also multiple ones about the same article that the Commission has received from individuals within lobby groups.)

  However, it is important to note that this had not led to an increase in the number of breaches of the Code relating to discrimination against named individuals (see Annex 3).

The publications complained about

  8.  The type of publication against which individuals have made complaints has remained fairly consistent over the years. As the Table below—which sets out the average numbers for the last five years—shows, about half of all complaints are about national newspapers and about a third concern the regional press in England and Wales.

Who are the complainants?

  9.  The PCC has undertaken a careful analysis of the complaints it received in 2002 to assess who complainants are, and where they come from. Part of this is to identify if there are areas of the country the Commission needs to target in its ongoing programme of regional public information (see Section D3).

  10.  That analysis showed that in 2002 (which was on every indicator typical of previous years) more than nine in 10 of the people who complained to us were ordinary individuals who had been temporarily caught up in some problem with the media. Just under 3% of complainants—half of them MPs—were national public figures, as the Table below shows.

  11.  Complainants are relatively well spread around the country as well: complaining is not just a metropolitan London activity. The Table overleaf demonstrates this.

  12.  The only area that gives the Commission some concern is the relatively low number of complaints emanating from Wales. The PCC will therefore prioritise Wales as an area for proactive public information work in 2003-04—including giving extra publicity to its Welsh language literature.

  13.  In view of the Select Committee's terms of reference, a further analysis specifically relating to privacy complaints is included in Section C1.


  1.  The initial—and in many ways most important—part of the complaints process is the framing of the complaint by the concerned party. The PCC strives to ensure that ordinary people, without any previous experience in dealing with the media or the need for expensive legal advice, are able easily to register their concerns about newspaper behaviour and gain quick redress for matters that may have had a major effect upon them.

  2.  The first step is to make sure that information about how the PCC works is generally accessible. Along with its widely-distributed literature, the Commission offers two other services to ensure that all people are aware of, and able to use, the complaints process.

  Helpline. During office hours a member of staff will be on hand to give prompt (90% of all calls are answered within four rings) and general advice. There is a separate line for people from Scotland, who are able to contact the PCC at the cost of a local call. The PCC's phone number is listed in all telephone directories.

  Website. Our website——is updated regularly and constitutes a full, and practical, resource of information about the complaints process, including specific advice on how to deal with press harassment. Recently, it has been expanded to offer a service for students—and any interested party—that answers frequently-asked questions about the PCC and the philosophy of self-regulation[11]. In addition, complaints can now be made on-line.

  3.  The PCC has a range of literature to help people make a complaint. In 2002, 3,354 copies of our "How to Complain" leaflet (a copy of which is at Appendix II) (not reproduced) were distributed, together with 3,872 copies of the Code of Practice. As this documentation covers all aspects of the complaints process, every person who notified the PCC of an intention to raise a complaint was provided immediately with the means to do so.

  4.  The Commission recognises that there may be a number of people for whom our literature may not be immediately accessible. It therefore has take steps to ensure that:

    —  the Code of Practice and "How to Complain" booklets have been translated into Bengali, Urdu, Welsh and Gaelic, with further literature in Chinese, Arabic and Somali;

    —  there are large print and audio copies of literature available on request; and

    —  we provide a Textphone for deaf and hard of hearing persons.

  5.  The Commission also provides a range of literature targeted at specific groups of people—such as patients or school children—outlining to them which sections of the Code would be relevant to their circumstances. Appendix III (not reproduced) contains an example of such information.

  6.  Having received the relevant literature, a complainant is able to specify in what way the publication has acted in breach of the industry's Code of Practice and give a full indication of the circumstances that have necessitated the complaint. If the complainant has any difficulties—of literacy or language, for example—then the PCC is able to help them to formulate the complaint. A complaints officer will always be able to make suggestions or take dictation so that such difficulties do not prohibit the complaint.

  7.  The PCC merely requires the complainant to send a letter, fax or email containing this information, together with a copy of the article, for a complaint formally to be registered. It will then be assessed as to whether it raises issues that require further investigation.

  8.  It may well be, at this stage, that the PCC is unable to help the complainant further as the issue that has been raised does not fall within the bounds of the Code or the PCC's jurisdiction This might be for a number of reasons—principally because it turns out that the complaint concerns:

    —  the broadcast media;

    —  advertisements or promotions in newspapers;

    —  a contractual dispute with the newspaper or contains material in regard to which there is ongoing or impending legal action. (The Commission is, however, able to place complaints on hold until the relevant proceedings have been concluded and start an investigation at that point);

    —  a matter of taste, such as the inclusion of provocative photographs, or editorial selection of material. The PCC is not an arbiter about good taste nor would it seek to impose restrictions on what an editor may include in his or her newspaper, provided that its content does not breach any of the Clauses of the Code of Practice; or

    —  an article published over one month before the complaint or more than one month since the cessation of any correspondence between complainant and newspaper. (This time-limit does not act as a bar to the investigation of complaints that have been unavoidably delayed. The Commission is prepared to consider each case on its merits and will assess any exceptional circumstances that the complainant wishes to put forward to explain the delay. All complaints, in which the reason for the delay has been legitimate, are taken up by the Commission.)

  9.  In the above circumstances, the PCC will respond to the complainant's letter within three working days of its receipt, making clear the reasons why it will not be investigating the matter. Where appropriate, it is able to refer to complaints to other organisations—such as the Advertising Standards Authority, Broadcasting Standards Commission or relevant Trading Standards body—under whose remit the matter more appropriately falls. At this stage, as in all stages of the process, the complainant is able to query the decision or ask for a reconsideration by the Commission.

  10.  If the complaint falls within the ambit of the Code but does not appear to raise a prima facie breach, then it will be presented to the Commission for a formal decision. The Commission will then take a view based on the evidence submitted. If it decides that no breach of the Code has been established, the complainant will be informed promptly about the terms of the judgement and the reasoning behind it.

  11.  Any significant complaint, which requires further investigation, is assigned to a specified Complaints Officer, who will be in charge of the case until it is either resolved to the satisfaction of the complainant or presented to the Commission for a decision under the Code. The officer is able to offer ongoing advice during the processing of the complaint and is accessible by telephone, letter and email. This guarantees that the complainant can remain up-to-date with the complaint's progress and has a specific person with whom to liaise at all times.

  12.  A weekly meeting is always held under the Chairmanship of a lay Commissioner to assess the progress of complaints. This ensures a clear lay input throughout the process of a complaint.

  13.  In its handling of complaints, the PCC guarantees total transparency at all times—and in line with procedures laid down by the Administrative Court[12]. At the conclusion of an investigation, the Commission will only consider material upon which the complainant has had a full opportunity to comment. The complainant—again in line with the procedure of the Administrative Court—will always be given the "last word" before a decision is reached to ensure that his or her overview on the entire complaint is retained. In practice, this means that the Commission's assessment pays full regard to what the complainant has had to say in regard to the investigation. It is also important to note that where a newspaper or magazine whose editor sits on the Commission is being investigated, he or she takes no part in any decision. If there is an adjudication, the editor concerned sees no papers and leaves the Commission meeting for the duration of the discussion.

  14.  This transparency is retained even after the Commission has come to a decision. Obviously, while the Commission strives to be balanced and fair, its verdicts cannot always meet with the approval of all complainants. The Complaints Officers remain available to discuss the Commission's decision with the complainant and help to explain its reasoning. Often, complainants are satisfied with the outcome after further discussion about it.

  15.  However, complainants are also able to question the factual basis underlying the decision. The Commission has always made clear that it is happy to reconsider a complaint in its entirety should any significant misunderstanding be suggested or any new evidence come to light. The Commission's decision, therefore, is not—nor seeks to be—necessarily the final word on the subject. As with the entire complaints process, the complainant is aware of, and able to comment on, how the matter has been handled.

  16.  The Commission has also created the position of Charter Officer to monitor the complaints service in the context of its "Complainants' Charter", which makes explicit the standards by which complaints should be investigated (see Section A5). This offers yet another layer of accountability within the system and guarantees that all opinions about PCC performance will be heard and noted.

  17.  Outside its primary role of investigating specific complaints, the Commission also provides informal advice and assistance for all those that require it. In 2002, over seven thousand enquiries from members of the public—by telephone, fax and email—were answered. The Commission is more accessible than ever and offers a variety of services that place it within the direct contact of ordinary people.

Dealing with emergencies

  18.  One important example of our accessibility is the way in which the Commission is able to respond directly to emergencies, as sometimes—often in the most serious cases—there are occasions in which people may require urgent advice outside office hours. To accommodate this, the Commission provides on its answerphone a pager number, which will be answered at any time of the day or night. This service is particularly designed to help people who may feel harassed by the press and require immediate help to alleviate the problem. By telephoning the PCC, they can be put through to a message service that will place them immediately in contact with a designated Complaints Officer. In this way, the public can be reassured that help will always be at hand from the PCC[13].


  1.  As set out in Section A1, the benefits to the complainant of quick investigations, providing flexible and proportionate resolutions to their complaints, are considerable. To that end, the Commission undertakes constant internal monitoring of all complaints to ensure that the service that is provided to the complainant is up to the high standards set out in the Complainants' Charter (see Section A5). Chief among the Commission's responsibilities is a commitment to deal with complaints as quickly as possible, because it recognises that the swifter the resolution the more effective it is. In addition, since the beginning of 2002 all complainants who receive a decision by the Commission are surveyed after the conclusion of their complaint for their views about how they felt the complaint was handled (see Section A5).

Swift handling of all complaints

  2.  Some years ago the PCC reformed its internal procedures to make its handling of complaints more effective. It pledged to reduce the average number of working days taken to deal with complaints to 40. In the past two years, this figure has been cut to just 32 working days, making the PCC by far the quickest media complaints body[14]. Not only is the PCC the swiftest[15] but it is also the smallest and most efficient, with just 12 full time members of staff.

  3.  The PCC has underlined its commitment to swift redress by upholding complaints on the basis that offers to resolve them have not been made quickly enough[16].

  4.  With so much emphasis on resolving complaints to the satisfaction of the complainant, handling times for resolving complaints inevitably take a little longer: often, a resolution can come only after an investigation has established a breach of the Code. After that, negotiations aimed at reaching a settlement can obviously take some time depending on the nature and complexity of the case. Nevertheless, the average time taken to deal with all resolved complaints is 62 working days—just two months. This includes a number of very complicated and technical complaints that do take some months to unravel. Just under two thirds of cases involving breaches of the Code (63%) are investigated and resolved in under two months. Compared with legal proceedings or statutory complaints mechanisms, these figures are impressive, and there is evidence too that complainants are satisfied with the length of time taken to handle their complaints (see paragraph B, below).

  5.  The Broadcasting Standards Commission, commendably, is the only other media regulator which publishes its complaints handling times. Because of its split remit there are different times for complaints about fairness and those about standards. The complaints into fairness are the most directly equivalent to the sort of issue that the PCC investigates, and it is notable that the BSC last year took an average of 25 weeks to adjudicate such complaints and 19 weeks to investigate those complaints that were not adjudicated. The full table is reproduced in the Appendix IV.

  6.  Regrettably, it seems that neither the ITC nor the Radio Authority, although statutory bodies, publish such information.

Delays that arise from complaints through lawyers

  7.  Complainants do not need to use a representative to complain about a breach of the Code. Indeed, to do so can be counterproductive. Lawyers or representatives make no difference as to whether or not a complaint is resolved—because a resolution is based on whether or not the Code has been breached and not on the manner in which the complaint is presented. They also charge money for a service that would otherwise be free. But more importantly, they can dilute the effectiveness of the PCC by delaying the time that it takes for their clients—ordinary members of the public in most cases—to obtain redress.

  8.  In complaints that raised a breach of the Code and were satisfactorily resolved, complainants who used a lawyer or other representative had to wait 40% longer than those who complained on their own behalf. Such complaints took an average of 84 working days. The PCC has always maintained that any complaints system that was not based on conciliation would only succeed in delaying justice for complainants, because such a system would inevitably involve more lawyers: here is some proof for that assertion.

Satisfaction with resolved complaints

  9.  The PCC believes that the system of conciliation delivers effective and efficient redress for members of the public—and those people whose complaints are resolved seem to agree. According to our survey of all complainants whose complaint was resolved, 92% thought that their complaint had, overall, been handled satisfactorily or very satisfactorily. Moreover, 99% thought that the PCC's staff were helpful or very helpful, whereas 90% considered their complaint to have been handled thoroughly or very thoroughly. (See Section A5 and Appendix V).

  10.  There was also satisfaction about the amount of time that the Commission took to resolve complaints: 87% thought that it was about right, and just 9% thought it was too slow. Two per cent thought it was too quick.

Handling emergencies: resolving problems quickly at times of crisis

  11.  When major tragedies happen that affect a large number of people and attract national and international media attention, the sheer number of journalists can overwhelm the grieving or the ill. Individual journalists in these circumstances may not be harassing people but repeated requests from different journalists for information can have the same effect as far as those who are approached are concerned.

  12.  In these circumstances, the Commission has taken steps to minimise the distress caused to people who are caught up in terrible events. In recent years, the Commission has therefore issued private guidance to editors—before receiving any complaints—about the behaviour of journalists making enquiries into the tragedies at Dunblane, Omagh and the Paddington rail disaster.

  13.  For instance, shortly after the Dunblane shootings the then Chairman of the PCC circulated a letter to all national newspaper editors and to the Press Association, which transmitted the information to the rest of the media. The letter underlined the numerous different Clauses that journalists must obey at such times, relating to privacy, harassment, and children, but in particular relating to intruding into grief and shock. A few days later the Chairman issued a general press release making clear that media organisations should, following the Queen's visit, reduce the scale of their presence in the town to allow the residents space to grieve and bury their children.

  14.  Similar reminders about best practice at such difficult times were circulated after Paddington and Omagh. In each case we liaised with the relevant authorities, including, in the latter case, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In the case of the Paddington rail disaster, the PCC initiated a special helpline that referred grieving relatives, or those affected, straight to a senior member of staff for specific advice. In the event of any future emergency, those affected will be able to use the PCC's 24-hour emergency advice service, which is staffed by an experienced complaints officer.

  15.  Following the terrorist attack on the twin towers on 11 September 2001, representatives of British families whose relatives were missing contacted the Commission. Many of the families welcomed the opportunity to speak to the media and pay tribute to their relatives as part of the grieving process. But one or two, understandably, did not want any media attention at all. The Commission swiftly informed editors of the identity of these families, and editors respected their privacy and withdrew their reporters. The PCC effectively acted as a conduit through which messages to reporters to desist from approaching relatives were conveyed. Formal complaints were not necessary and not made, because swift and effective action was taken to address the problem of cumulative approaches.

  16.  There are, sadly, from time to time national crises on such a scale that warrant a pro-active stance from the Commission. Its role at these times is to issue practical and common-sense advice to editors in order to minimise the distress caused by the inevitable presence of reporters at the scenes of such tragedies.

  17.  The PCC also has a representative on the Home Office Media Emergency Forum which brings together those agencies that might be affected by a national emergency or major incident to plan how responses might be co-ordinated.

  18.  It is notable that, following widespread adherence to the PCC's advice, none of the families directly involved in the disasters outlined here has ever needed to make a formal complaint.


  19.  Fast, free and fair, the PCC's recipe for obtaining practical and proportional resolutions to complaints is appreciated by complainants—as set out in paragraphs eight and nine—and has been absorbed by editors who increasingly apply the principles developed by the PCC when dealing directly with their readers who have complained. Its flexibility delivers resolutions tailored to the particular circumstances of a complaint, and anticipating public needs at times of tragedy has protected the most vulnerable members of the public from overzealous or indiscreet enquiries.


  1.  A fast and effective service is at the core of the Commission's work. To ensure that we deliver that service, to provide us with benchmarks against which we can improve it, and to be able to report back to the public in an accountable manner on how we handle complaints, we established a Complainants' Charter in 1996.

The terms of the Charter and its development

  2.  The commitments in the Charter cover five key areas:

    —  responding swiftly to enquiries—both on the telephone and in writing;

    —  dealing with the complaint as quickly as possible;

    —  processing the complaint without cost;

    —  being as accessible as possible to anyone who needs to complain; and

    —  being as open as possible in our procedures.

  This Charter—a full copy of which is in Appendix VI (not reproduced here)—also commits the PCC to publishing statistics about the implementation of these service targets each year in its Annual Review.

  3.  As soon as we have finished dealing with a complaint, all complainants whose complaint has resulted in a formal decision from the PCC are informed that they are able to complain to an internal Charter Officer if they believe we have not lived up to the standards contained in it. The Charter Officer's job is then to investigate the manner in which the complaint was processed and make recommendations for change accordingly. In 2002, the Charter Officer only received six complaints—which the Commission believes is an encouraging sign that, although there is of course always scope for improvement, we are living up as best as possible to the spirit and letter of the Charter.

  4.  As set out above, the original Charter was launched in 1996. It was updated in March 2001, when a number of the service targets were significantly strengthened. These included:

    —  the setting for the first time of a target complaints handling time—40 working days;

    —  a reduction of the time in which original letters of complaint are acknowledged from five days to three days; and

    —  an increase in the range of languages other than English in which our literature is available—which now also includes Arabic, Chinese, Somali and Gaelic.

  5.  The Commission will continue to monitor these targets and to toughen them when it is appropriate to do so.

How we measure up

  6.  Set out here are the Charter results for 2002, which show how we measured up to our five targets. Further detail on much of this information is also available in Sections A2 and 3, and Section D.

A.   Responding to enquiries

  The PCC receives a huge number of enquiries every year from members of the public about a whole range of issues. Some of them want more information about our service; some need advice about dealing with a newspaper; others want details about our work for their studies.

  Last year we received 7,250 such requests. Some 28% were received on our dedicated Helplines—including our Textphone. Just over 24% were made via e-mail and through our website. The remainder—just under half—were to the PCC's main switchboard (the number of which is listed in all main phone books).

  Our Charter aim is to answer all telephone calls within four rings—and we achieved that target in 90% of cases. All e-mails were immediately acknowledged—although some specific requests for detailed information inevitably took longer to deal with.

B.   Dealing quickly with complaints

  While advice on the telephone and via e-mail is a large proportion of our work, the main burden of it is of course to process formal complaints. In 2002, all complaints—whether made in writing or submitted by e-mail—were acknowledged within three working days of receipt. Throughout the complaints process, complainants were informed of the progress of the complaint at intervals of every 15 working days.

  Our Charter aim is to deal with all complaints in an average of just 40 working days, far quicker than any other similar regulatory body (see Section A4). In 2002, the average time it took to deal with complaints was 32 working days, exactly the same as last year's record.

  Eighty-five per cent of all complaints were completed within that target period—compared to a record proportion of 87% in 2001.

C.   Providing a service without cost

  For the vast majority of ordinary people, legal actions—whether against newspapers as indeed against any other organisation—are prohibitively costly. One of the keys to a successful system of regulation with concern about ordinary people at its heart is therefore that it should be free[17].

  As a result of the funding provided by the newspaper and magazine industry, the PCC continues to deal with complaints at no cost either to complainants or taxpayers.

  Some individuals, of course, seek to make complaints through lawyers, as they are fully entitled to do. Such representation, however, with the costs it entails is not essential. Indeed, if anything, complaints made through lawyers tend to take longer to deal with than complaints made directly by the individuals concerned. In 2002, while the average time to deal with all complaints was 32 working days, complaints made through lawyers took an average of 71 working days—122% longer[18].

D.   Being as accessible as possible

  Our Charter aim is to ensure our service is easy to use, and well known to those who might need it—in particular the most vulnerable in society for whom complaining might well be an ordeal.

  As set out above, help on the phone or via e-mail is easily available—including in cases where individuals may be subject to harassment (see Section A3, para. 16). All callers are told about the Code and, where appropriate, are sent a copy along with a leaflet on How to Complain. (The text of the Code is also on the PCC website, and is available directly from most newspaper offices.)

  Other information about how we seek to be accessible—including the website and assistance for those in particularly vulnerable positions—is set out in Section A3.

E.   Being as open as possible

  Transparency is an important part of accountability—and we continue to ensure that our procedures and decisions are as open and clear as possible.

  The complaints procedure itself is open and straightforward. All correspondence takes place in writing, and both sides to a dispute have the chance to comment on the evidence of the other party.

  Decisions of the Commission are published regularly—both via email to editors and all those who have expressed an interest in the work of the PCC (over 800 people currently subscribe to the PCC's news service) and in the form of regular quarterly bulletins which are mailed out to editors, MPs, libraries and other organisations.

  Where a complainant feels that we have not lived up to any of the commitments in the Charter, they can complain to a Charter Officer (see para 3 above).

Improving standards year on year

  7.  Part of the aim of the Charter is to ensure that we continue to seek higher standards, where these are possible. Our Charter results from previous years are set out in our Annual Reviews—starting with the Review of 1997. They show in particular that:

    —  the average time taken to deal with a complaint has fallen from 44 working days in 1997 to 32 working days in 2002 (an improvement of 27%), as this Table shows:

    —  the number of complaints settled within 40 working days has increased from 77% in 1997 to 85% in 2002 (having touched 87% in 2001), as the Table on the next page shows:

    —  the PCC dealt with an increasing number of enquiries—up from 4,800 in 1998 (the first year detailed records were kept) to 7,250 in 2002 (again having touched 8,000 in 2001), as the final Table illustrates:

  8.  As set out above, the Commission continues to monitor these targets and results under them. Each year's results are, where appropriate, taken as a benchmark for the future and, if possible, action identified to improve on them.

Measuring our success

  9.  The PCC decided in 2001 that it would be useful to have an external measure of our standards of service, and conducted a pilot customer survey to assess what complainants thought about our service to them. That pilot was a success and a full customer survey was established from 1 January 2002.

  10.  The survey covers complainants' views about:

    —  clarity of our written information;

    —  helpfulness of our staff;

    —  thoroughness of investigation;

    —  speed with which the complaint was dealt with; and

    —  overall satisfaction with the handling of the complaint.

  11.  A survey form—which can be returned anonymously to us—was sent to all those whose complaints we had adjudicated, those which were resolved, those where there was no breach of the Code, and those where the Commission judged the editor's offer of remedial action sufficient enough under the Code to take no further action. The Commission received 347 responses, which was a representative cross-section of different types of complainant.

  12.  The survey—the full results of which, broken down by type of complainant, are set out in Appendix V—showed that:

    —  94% found the PCC's printed information either "very clear" or "clear"—while only 4% found it unclear;

    —  85% found the PCC's staff either "very helpful" or "helpful";

    —  61% thought their complaint was dealt with either "very thoroughly" or "thoroughly";

    —  73% believed the time it took to deal with their complaint was "about right"—while only 10% thought it was too slow; and

    —  59% said that their complaint had been handled either "very satisfactorily" or "satisfactorily".

  13.  The Commission notes the results of this first ever survey, which has now become a regular part of the complaints process. The results from 2002 will also become a benchmark for the future. The results are especially interesting when it is remembered that 68% of those who returned a survey form were individuals where it was decided either that their complaints raised no breach of the Code, or that no further action was necessary after an offer of remedial action by the publication concerned following the intervention of the PCC. The results of the survey among those whose complaints had been successfully resolved were even higher—at 98%, 99%, 90%, 87% and 92% respectively for each of the above indicators.

Comparison with other regulators

  14.  The benefit of self-regulation is that it is flexible and quick. Statutory regulation hampers the job of dispute resolution, and imports delays into the system. A comparison of the PCC's complaints handling time with other regulators is instructive. See Section A4 for details.


  15.  The Commission is satisfied that the Complainants' Charter continues to deliver a quick and accessible service. It will keep its targets under review and strengthen them when appropriate. And it will use the results of its first Customer Satisfaction survey as a benchmark for future surveys and improvements.



  1.  The editors' Code of Practice is the iron frame of the newspaper and magazine industry's moral architecture. In setting out the responsibilities incumbent on editors, it simultaneously sets out a comprehensive set of rights for the public who have a clear understanding of what they should expect from the press. As such it is an invaluable tool for those who have regular dealings with the media, as well as those who have cause for complaint. At the same time, it provides the Commission with a framework in which to adjudicate on complaints in a fair and consistent fashion. The Code, in short, is the centrepiece of self-regulation.

  2.  The Code covers many issues, but it has at its heart always covered four key areas:

    —  accuracy, comment and fact, opportunity to reply, and swift corrections;

    —  privacy—including the use of pictures of people taken in private places;

    —  rules on the manner in which news is gathered—listening devices, subterfuge, harassment, payments to criminals and witnesses, and financial journalism; and

    —  special protection for particularly vulnerable groups of people—children, those in hospital, people suffering from grief and shock, innocent relatives of those convicted of crimes, victims of sexual assault and people who might be victims of discrimination.

  3.  While much of the coverage of the PCC and of self-regulation has revolved around accuracy and privacy, the importance in particular of the rules on the vulnerable should be underlined. This has always been, in many ways, where the Code has been at its strongest—and where, as Section B3 sets out—it can objectively be shown that standards have most clearly been raised.

  4.  The editors' Code Committee will doubtless make its own submission to the Select Committee. This Section sets out how the Code has developed, demonstrates how it has raised standards of reporting and a number of other issues.

Background to the establishment of the Code

  5.  Perhaps the most important point about the Code is that it exists at all. From the time when the last licensing laws on newspapers were abolished in 1695, up until 1991, the press rejected all moves to adopt a universal set of ethical standards. In recent times, for instance, the 1977 Royal Commission on the Press called for the old Press Council to adopt a Code which would produce clarity and consistency in its decisions. The Council and the press rejected the idea out of hand at that time[19].

  6.  It was the Calcutt Committee which returned to the idea in 1990 and insisted that the PCC should administer a Code binding all publications—a point the industry and the PCC's first Chairman, who insisted that editors themselves should write it, accepted[20]. The history of the formulation of the Code is well chronicled and does not need repetition here. What does need underlining, however, is the extraordinary change that it required of all publications. Up until this point, they had never had a universal set of rules to guide them. From the start of 1991, all editors agreed to abide by a Code covering a substantial number of ethical areas—as well as to the jurisdiction of a body, which would soon have a majority of lay people on it, to make judgements on it.

  7.  As such the importance of the Code's establishment—alongside an acknowledgement of the fact that it would inevitably take time to change the culture of news rooms which for three centuries had been free from any ethical rule book—cannot be overstated.

  8.  It should also be underlined that the Code applies equally to all publications—national newspapers, regional and local newspapers and magazines. That a standard set of rules to which all publications can subscribe should be established is also of great significance.

The Code 12 years on

  9.  Against that background, it should be of little surprise that the early years of the PCC, and the application of the Code in its initial stages of development, were difficult ones. The culture change required by this system of self-regulation cannot be overstated.

  10.  Nor, indeed, should the scale of that culture change in the decade since then. Whatever failings a free press might have, there is little doubt that the Code—as we examine later—has raised standards, and has imbued among editors a degree of accountability to readers and complainants which simply never existed before. Furthermore, an entire generation of journalists—among them many who are now senior editors—has grown up with the reality of the Code: rather than learning it anew, it has always been part of their training. The extent of this culture change stems from the fact that the rules—put another way, the self-censorship—is self-imposed. Editors live up to the standards because they establish them. That simply would not happen in any system of legal regulation. Newspapers fight legal muzzles.

  11.  It is important to emphasise, too, that editors consistently deal with complaints by reference to the Code itself. The PCC has never had an instance of where an editor sought to defend him or herself by reference to anything other than the Code of Practice. This is also a demonstration of the culture change that has taken place across the industry.

  12.  A number of key developments have underlined the authority of the Code still further:

    —  it is now an important part of the contract between most publishers and their editors—giving the PCC a powerful ultimate sanction (see Sections B4 and E3)—and in the contracts of many journalists too;

    —  it is a cornerstone of journalist training, and knowledge of it is a part of the NCTJ exams that trainees undergo (see Section D4);

    —  compliance with it is written into important pieces of legislation that affect both the rights of the public and the responsibilities of the press (see Section B5); and

    —  the Code's terms—and the Commission's interpretation of them—have formed a key part in judgements by the Court of Appeal and others under the Human Rights Act.

  13.  Furthermore, the Code is of growing importance in a new area which presents challenges for all regulators—that of on-line publications. Following consultation between the Commission and the industry in 1997, it was agreed that the Commission's jurisdiction, and that of the Code, would apply to all on-line versions of newspapers and magazines which were already subject to the terms of the Code.

  14.  This important development underlines the commitment of editors to high standards in their on-line publications—and of the PCC to policing a difficult area that certainly does not lend itself to any form of legal control. It also cuts off the possibility that some newspapers might use their own websites to publish material which they could not publish in their off-line versions because it breached the Code. The Code is therefore already playing an important part in establishing a culture of ethics and responsibility on the Internet—an area where is recognised that statutory controls would be useless.

The Code and accountability

  15.  Section E6 deals with the way in which the Commission, and self-regulation, are accountable to the public, as well as the scrutiny to which the system is rightly subjected. But it should be underlined here that the Code also is one of the crucial ways in which the industry holds itself accountable.

  16.  First of all it provides—as set out above—an objective set of standards which the public can expect newspapers to meet. But it also allows the public an opportunity to help frame the rules to which editors subject themselves. The Code Committee will consider representations from any member of the public, or any organisation, about possible changes and consider them carefully. That interaction between press, PCC and public is an important part of making self-regulation—which in the circumstance might perhaps be described as civil regulation—work effectively.

1   A summary of the issues with a personal viewpoint from Professor Robert Pinker. Back

2   Churchill, "The Grand Alliance" (1950), Ch. 24 especially. Back

3   Indeed, the point has recently been acknowledged by the United Nations-see Section F1, p 203. Back

4   See para. 3 above, and Section C5. Back

5   This is dealt with more fully in Sections C5 and E6. Back

6   See Section E3. Back

7   Committee on Privacy and Related Matters, Cmnd 1102, May 1990 (p70). Back

8   The figure for 1996 was-at that point-an historical high as the result of the substantial number of complaints the PCC received about coverage of the Euro `96 football championships. Back

9   Since 1998, these three Clauses have been joined together in the first two Clauses of the Code. Back

10   See in particular B3 Ev 177. Back

11   For more information on the website, see Section D5. Back

12   The PCC's procedures have been reviewed twice by the Administrative Court, and on each occasion given a clean bill of health. See Section E6 for further details. Back

13   See also Section A4, paras 11-17. Back

14   For comparisons with other regulators, where this is possible, see Section A4. Back

15   Something of great importance to members of the public-see Section D1. Back

16   For example de Silva/Wijeyesinghe v Sunday Times, Report 56. The Commission considered that the time taken to correct acknowledged inaccuracies was too long and found that "while the record had been set straight, the Commission did not believe this had been carried out with the speed required under the Code and therefore found a breach of Clause 1". Back

17   A view confirmed in a recent MORI survey-see Section D1. Back

18   For details on time delays involved in the resolution of complaints, see Section A4. Back

19   Professor Richard Shannon, "A Press Free and Responsible" (2001), p.16. Back

20   Indeed, the Newspaper Publishers Association had committed the national press to a short Code in November 1989. Back

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