Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Strengthening the sanction

  8.  The critical adjudication is, therefore, a powerful sanction—but, partly in response to the proposals contained in the Second Calcutt Report and the 1993 Select Committee Report, the industry took steps to strengthen it even further in the mid 1990s.

  9.  First, publishers moved to ensure that compliance with the Code became a part of their editors' contracts of employment—a point dealt with in more detail in Section B4.

  10.  Second, and building on that important initiative, the Commission itself announced in January 1994 that "it would in future bring instances of severe or calculated breaches of the Code of Practice (whose terms are incorporated into the conditions of employment of members of staff of many newspapers) to the attention of the publishers. [88]"

  11.  The Commission has made use of that facility—which obviously should only be used in the most serious cases—on two occasions:

    —  in the first case, the PCC referred a serious breach of the Code relating to pictures of Countess Spencer in a bulimia clinic, published in the News of the World in April 1995, to the publisher. The PCC's adjudication, and the response of the publisher to the Commission, is set out in Appendix XXIII (not reproduced here);

    —  in the second case, the Commission referred the multiple and serious breaches of the financial journalism provisions of the Code in the "City Slicker" complaints to the publisher of The Mirror. The publisher accepted the Commission's findings and implemented root and branch changes to the way matters relating to financial journalism, and the provisions of the Code in this area, were policed on the newspaper.

  12.  In one other case, the Commission heavily censured The Evening Standard for breaking the rules concerning the interviewing of children at school and the identification of children in sex cases. The Commission took the unusual step of asking the editor to review the application of the Code across his newspaper—and the editor wrote back to confirm that this had taken place. A copy of that adjudication is at Appendix XXIV (not reproduced here).

  13.  The Commission has always found that—against the background of its principle role as a dispute resolution mechanism—these sanctions are (a) adequate and (b) powerful.

Compensation and fines

  14.  Indeed, there is a danger that any further sanctions—for instance compensation or fines—would both be impractical and would undermine the Commission's vital conciliation work.

  15.  The clear and overwhelming case against privacy laws and a statutory ombudsman is set out in Annex 4—and many of these points apply to any analysis of the case against fines and compensation, but it might be useful to summarise them here.

  16.  To begin with, the PCC could not establish a system in which it awarded compensation and imposed fines without some form of legal powers—as it would be powerless if a newspaper or magazine refused to pay. That would mean turning the PCC's common-sense system of conciliation into a legal system, with all its failings. Any system which involved the law and newspapers would mean:

    —  costs for the complainants—which would seriously limit the accessibility of the PCC to ordinary members of the public;

    —  delay (a point dealt with below);

    —  the need for a range of legal powers to investigate complaints—including oral hearings on oath, powers to subpoena documents and so on—as well as a cumbersome appeals process; and

    —  legal representation for complainants.

  17.  Even a brief survey of the difference in time it takes to deal with a complaint through lawyers, and complaints direct from ordinary people, under the PCC now underlines the point. 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[89]. Furthermore, it took an average of 84 working days for a complaint through a lawyer or other representative to be resolved—nearly half as long again as complaints resolved directly with the complainant, without any difference to the success rate. This is merely a flavour of what any form of statutory control, or system involving fines and compensation, would entail. The PCC has always believed that justice delayed is justice denied—and any legal system would certainly do that.

  18.  Even more importantly, a system of fines and compensation would fatally undermine the PCC's role as a conciliator. Newspapers and magazines would be unlikely to agree a resolution to a complaint if they thought it was the first rung in a legal process that could lead to damages against them. That would constitute a great disservice to most of the people who complain to us who seek more than anything else a correction and apology for breaches of the Code[90].

  19.  The "legalisation" of the system—with incumbent appeals processes that would be required under the Human Rights Act—would inevitably mean the majority of complaints being dealt with by newspaper or magazine lawyers. That in turn would either put ordinary people off complaining or mean that they themselves had to employ lawyers. The costs involved with that would make the system inaccessible.

  20.  As set out in more detail in Annex 4, there is actually no evidence that substantial fines would be a deterrent to successful newspapers—who may be happy simply to pay the fine for carrying intrusive material that gave them a short term circulation boost. However, there is a possibility that fines could put some smaller, less commercially successful local newspapers out of business, with all the implications for press freedom and diversity of news inherent in that.

  21.  These, and other issues, are explored in more detail in Annex 4.


  1.  One of the issues that marks the PCC out from its predecessor, the Press Council, is the question of third party complaints. These are, of course, a form of "own volition" complaint in that all major stories which the PCC might investigate of its own accord inevitably attract third party complaints—and the difference between the two is largely one of semantics. They are dealt with accordingly here.

  2.  The Press Complaints Commission itself addressed this matter in 1998, when the issue received a certain amount of public attention in the wake of one or two high profile privacy cases. The arguments set out in this Section were endorsed by the Commission accordingly, and reproduced here.


  3.  Before addressing the practical problems raised by the use of own volition complaints, there are a number of background points that it is worth noting.

  First, it is wrong to say that the PCC "does not have the power" to raise its own complaints. The Commission does—and has done since 1994, when our Memorandum and Article of Association were changed to allow us to do so[91]. Since then, we have acted on our own volition on a number of occasions when a newspaper article has raised wide issues of public interest—and there was good reason why no complaint was going to be made to us. This happened, for instance, over:

    (i)  the identification of the winner of the first rollover jackpot on the lottery[92];

    (ii)  various cases of payments to criminals[93];

    (iii)  allegations of inappropriate share dealing—the case of the "City Slickers"[94];

    (iv)  cases involving witness payments[95].

  In each case the Commission was happy to act of its own volition on the back of third party complaints—but only once it had satisfied itself that (a) that there were broad matters of public interest at stake and (b) nobody directly involved could complain. (In the case of payments to criminals and witnesses, and of financial journalism, this will always remain the case—as those directly involved are likely to be people who have actually benefited from any breach of the Code.)

  4.  Second, the reason that the Commission has always been extremely wary of own volition or third party complaints is that it was their unfettered use which was one of the causes of the demise of the Press Council. It should also be remembered that the practical result of the Press Council's procedures was that the system of investigating complaints, and calling witnesses on them, became extremely slow: it could often take two years to adjudicate on a complaint because the Council was busy with complaints that no one directly involved had raised. The loser from that were ordinary members of the public who did bother to complain, but had to wait a long time for a result. Now, the PCC can deal with complaints in an average of 32 working days: swift justice is the flip side of the third party complaint coin.

  5.  Third, the volume of complaints received by the PCC—over 2,500 each year and nearly 30,000 since the Commission was established—does not suggest that there is any unwillingness on behalf of members of the public to complain, or that the Commission is inaccessible. In fact, the PCC receives more complaints each year than every other Press Council or Commission in the rest of Europe put together[96].

  6.  Fourth, virtually every other similar regulatory body adopts the same procedure as the PCC—acting only on the back of a complaint from somebody directly involved. The Broadcasting Standards Commission, for instance, which draws its powers from statute can only act on the basis of a complaint from those directly involved in an intrusion into privacy.

  7.  Fifth, it is worth noting that the only other Press Council or Press Commission in Europe which regularly raises its own complaints is that of Turkey. There, the Press Council utilises own volition complaints as a means of "encouraging" pro-Government reporting. It is, in other words, state control by the back door. Two other Press Councils—Cyprus and Norway—sometimes raise their own complaints. Every other European Press Council rejects the use of own volition complaints—most of them for the reasons set out in this paper—except (as with the PCC) in exceptional circumstances[97].

The problems involved

  8.  Against that background, there are a significant number of practical problems involved in "pro-activity" and the taking up of third party complaints, as well as one overwhelming philosophical problem—that it would turn the Commission into a two-tier complaints service. This Sections deals with the practical problems at the end—but it is worth looking at the broader philosophical issue first.

Do we want a two-tier system of regulation?

  9.  The PCC has always invested a huge amount of resources and energy in ensuring that people know about the Commission and about how to make a complaint. This is set out in detail in Section D of this submission. Judging by the number of complaints we receive, the service is now well known—and members of the public obviously have confidence in it: they would not bother complaining in such numbers otherwise.

  10.  Furthermore, we get complaints from every type of person and every region of the country, as we set out in detail in Sections A and C.

  11.  An argument is often made that celebrities and public figures (as well as people in the public eye as a result of their infamy) are wary of complaining, because it produces yet more publicity. Yet there is no evidence for this either. In the last year or so we have received complaints from Members of the Royal Family, a number of Government Ministers, from MPs, from celebrities (including well-known soap stars and singers), from criminals, from high-ranking police officers, from Bishops and from High Court Judges. All these people took the decision to complain in order either to set down a marker about their privacy or to protect their family or to have the record set straight on a point of accuracy.

  12.  The Commission has also always recognised that it takes courage for people to complain and take on a newspaper or magazine. That is why our procedures are simple and private—and also why we crack down hard on any newspaper that attacks a complainant for making a complaint, something which happens only extremely rarely.

  13.  Against that background, the insuperable problem with "pro-activity" and the use of own volition complaints is that it would inevitably turn this service—free and accessible to everybody—into a two-tier system. In other words, ordinary people would still have to summon up the courage to make a complaint—because it is unlikely that their concerns would ever be the subject of a third party complaint; yet public figures embroiled in a high profile dispute with a newspaper could "expect" the PCC to take action for them on the back of a third party complaint. But such complainants are those with more means than most—including solicitors or press offices—of making a complaint. If some public figures don't mind complaining, why should others expect a different service?

  14.  The other result of such a system, of course, may well be to discourage those who do make complaints at the moment from doing so. In order to protect their family, the Prime Minister and Mrs Blair have made a number of complaints to us, as have other public figures. If the PCC was taking complaints up on its own behalf, or responding to third parties, shouldn't they have been able to "expect" the Commission to do it for them? Why should they have to complain themselves?

Politicising the PCC

  15.  The pressure on the PCC to raise complaints on its own behalf, or on the back of a third party, inevitably occurs when a public figure—and often a politician—has been embroiled in a dispute with a newspaper or magazine. This highlights one enormous danger of such a system—that it would end up politicising the Commission.

  16.  On one scenario, imagine a story in a newspaper about the private life of a member of a Cabinet. The PCC decides to raise its own complaint and investigate. At the very least that might be construed as a political decision—and one that puts any system of regulation on a very slippery slope. Next week there is a story about a member of a Shadow Cabinet. In order to maintain some form of political neutrality, the Commission then takes up that complaint. The net result of that is a Commission which—in order to maintain its impartiality—starts investigating any story which appears about a politician, because it cannot stop once it has started.

  17.  The result of that is something the PCC has always fought strenuously to avoid—that the PCC becomes a Politicians Complaints Commission, or indeed a Press Control Commission which is there to avoid politicians and other public figures having to take on newspapers themselves.

From complaints—to control

  18.  In order to avoid charges that it was running a service simply for high profile public figures, the PCC would have to make much wider use of own volition complaints—taking up cases where ordinary members of the public find themselves under newspaper scrutiny.

  19.  This would inevitably mean having to establish a wide ranging monitoring exercise, in which we were looking for stories about the private lives of ordinary people.

  20.  This leads to another problem. The figures set out in Sections A and C show that the majority of cases of intrusion into privacy raised by ordinary members of the public are not about national newspapers—but about the regional press. This is, in many ways, inevitable: local and regional newspapers quite frequently include a good deal of material about local figures, about those appearing in Court cases, about Councillors and so on. Yet how could the Commission ever put itself into the position of monitoring over 1,300 regional titles, and hundreds of magazines as well?

  21.  The answer is that it could not—without putting in place an Orwellian system of press "monitoring" and then seeking information from ordinary people to assess whether there was a prima facie case of intrusion into privacy. It would therefore inevitably have to stand by its usual procedures—and expect people with a grievance about a local newspaper to complain directly. The Commission would then remain open to the charge that it operated one system for the rich and famous and one for everybody else—precisely the argument that is consistently and rightly made about a privacy law.

The right not to complain

  22.  The Commission has always recognised that some people have very good reasons for not complaining—and must therefore have the right not to complain.

  23.  Part of the reason for this is that there are two sides to most stories about prominent individuals—particularly celebrities, many of whom court publicity, even if the end result appears to us to be intrusive. In fact, because of the success of the Code, there are very few cases which arise where there is an intrusion into privacy without some potential defence by the newspaper—either of consent or public interest. The unfettered use of third party or own volition complaints would air that defence in public—even if it was unwelcome to the individual involved.

  24.  If the PCC was raising its own complaints about high profile public figures, the Commission would have to recognise that in some cases its actions would be extremely embarrassing. Take two examples.

  A story about the private life of a Government Minister appears in a Sunday newspaper—planted there by somebody else within Government. The Minister knows that and therefore does not want to complain. Does the Commission over-rule him and insist that the background be made known? Does it intrude further into his private life? It receives a third party complaint. Does it investigate it—and then reject it, causing the individual in question extreme embarrassment? However, if the Commission was making wide use of own volition complaints and decided NOT to raise its own complaint in this instance, wouldn't others infer something from this? Wouldn't the industry, too, think that the Commission was only raising complaints where it had already made its mind up in advance that the newspaper was guilty of a breach of the Code—but didn't do so on the majority of occasions when there was a legitimate defence? The Commission could also be open to the charge from the competitors of that newspaper that it was showing undue lenience on a particular title, placing the PCC in a position it has always firmly avoided—in the middle of the competitive battle between newspapers.

  A picture of a well known celebrity, sobbing as she arrives to attend the funeral of a relative. It looks at first sight as if it is a paparazzi picture and publication is intrusive. The Commission receives a third party complaint and decides to investigate, but finds out that the picture was posed and the celebrity well paid for it. Does it make the circumstances clear—and embarrass the person who was after all acting legitimately (if cynically) to pose for a picture—or does it "hush up its findings"? If it did the latter that would be to the detriment of the newspaper, who would have had to endure the opprobrium of the PCC launching its own investigation—with attendant publicity from the newspaper's competitors—without the reasons for its acquittal ever being made clear.

  25.  A further point arises from the possibility that the PCC could be caught by the terms of the Human Rights Act. By raising a complaint about an article on someone's private life without their consent, the Commission might well end up being accused of intruding into their privacy—in breach of the legislation, and facing legal action as a result.

  26.  All these points underline the fact that people have a right not to complain—a right we would be taking away from them if we were regularly to take up third party complaints, or raise them of our own volition.

The right not to co-operate

  27.  There is an allied issue to this. The Press Complaints Commission cannot investigate a complaint without the co-operation of those involved: only with such co-operation can we ascertain all the facts relating to a particular article and then adjudicate. That is how we can make a voluntary and non-legalistic system—without powers to subpoena evidence, call witnesses and take statements on oath—work. When we get a complaint we are assured of co-operation.

  28.  What happens if we decide to raise a complaint about something—and those involved are not prepared to co-operate with us? We cannot compel them to do so, and without evidence cannot investigate. The Commission is then left unable to adjudicate.

  29.  Exactly this set of circumstances arose over the issue of the alleged harassment of Mary Bell's daughter following publication of "Cries Unheard"[98]. In the clamour that surrounded this, nobody—including the police and social services—was able to present the Commission with any facts which it could investigate. Calls to each of the major newspapers received the reply that they were all abiding by the Code—something we had no reason to doubt. Where could the Commission take the complaint from there—without compelling social services to co-operate, something we could only do with statutory powers?


  30.  The problems associated with the use of "own volition" complaints are many and varied. There are some who argue that it is something the Commission should do "from time to time". But as set out in paragraphs 9-21 above, it would be impossible occasionally to raise only one or two specific complains, without sliding into a more general system of monitoring and ultimately "control."

  31.  It was never intended that the PCC should seek to "control" the media by deciding what it would investigate of its own volition—nor should it in a free society. It was intended, however, that the PCC should not repeat the mistakes of the old Press Council—whose investigations into complaints without complainants meant that those members of the public with a genuine grievance often obtained only limited and much delayed redress.

  32.  Although the Commission does, of course, have a very powerful role in raising standards of journalism—through our adjudications, through guidance notes and so on—on a day-to-day level the PCC is, at its heart, a dispute resolution procedure which depends on people bringing their disputes to us. It would involve an enormous practical—and philosophical—change for the PCC to go looking for disputes to resolve. That would make it a controlling Commission, protecting people in the public eye, not a complaints Commission working for the public.


  1.  The Press Complaints Commission was established with the aim of dealing with complaints from individuals affected by breaches of the industry's Code—as set out in Section E4 above. It was not set up as a body to raise its own complaints (except in exceptional circumstances)—and so the PCC has never had to put in place a comprehensive programme of media monitoring.

  2.  There would be practical problems in doing so. There are over 20 national daily and Sunday newspapers; over 1,000 regional and local newspapers in England and Wales; 180 titles published in Scotland and Northern Ireland; and at the last count over 8,300 magazine titles. In addition, there are a mushrooming number of newspaper websites over which the PCC has jurisdiction. To monitor all these for potential breaches of the Code would be an impossibility.

  3.  There are philosophical objections as well. There is a perilously thin line between "monitoring" a free press and seeking to control it, as judgements about the issues, personalities and stories to monitor would be extremely subjective. That is not the job of the PCC which is why we have never sought to establish a media monitoring system.

Raising standards

  4.  However, the Commission also recognises that it is its job to administer the industry's Code and to do what it can consistently to raise standards of newspaper reporting. In 1998, the Commission decided that there was therefore a case for undertaking an occasional—and private—monitoring project to decide whether the Commission needed to take action on newspaper standards in defined areas. This comprised two areas:

    —  general monitoring exercises; and

    —  exercises on specific areas relating to vulnerable groups of people.

  5.  With the general monitoring exercise, national daily and Sunday newspapers were scanned by a member of the PCC's staff and stories and photographs that looked as if they might raise issues under the Code were considered for informal and private investigation. Some regional newspaper titles, some publications in Scotland, and some magazines were also scanned. When it was clear that none of the individuals directly involved in the stories were going to complain, a private and informal letter was sent to the newspaper or magazine concerned explaining the nature of the exercise and inviting the publication to comment.

  6.  Nearly all the approaches made by the Commission received very helpful responses explaining the background to the story and setting out how the publications had considered the matter under the Code. In virtually every case publication could be justified; but in a handful of cases where no adequate response was offered, the publications concerned without exception agreed to bear the Commission's concerns in mind in preparation of future articles. A note summarising the findings of this exercise is set out in Appendix XXV (not reproduced here).

  7.  This exercise has been repeated at occasional intervals since then. On each occasion the Commission—which has reviewed all the papers—has concluded, from this limited exercise, that there is no identifiable problem of substantial numbers of breaches of the Code going unreported to the PCC. The Commission will continue this private initiative at its discretion in the future.

Specific monitoring exercises

  8.  More importantly, the Commission has deployed this procedure on a number of occasions relating to specific issues—partly to assess general standards of reporting, and again to see whether individuals in particularly vulnerable positions may not be complaining.

  In the first case, the Commission looked at newspaper coverage of the Paddington Rail Disaster in 1999—as there had been some allegations at the time of previous large-scale tragedies that the press was unjustifiably intrusive at times of grief and shock for large numbers of individuals[99]. Again, the Commission reviewed the papers and was content that nearly all the coverage it examined appeared, in the light of responses from editors, to have been carried out in accordance with the Code.

  The Commission has also been concerned over the years to seek to improve reporting standards in matters relating to mental health (see Section D2). Accordingly, it undertook a short monitoring survey over a six-month period in 1999 to assess standards in this area. The Commission noted that reporting appeared to be more balanced since the publication of its guidance note, and the work was useful as background to the meeting with MIND and others involved in the care of those with mental illness. Indeed, MIND itself commented about the trend to more balanced reporting at its 2001 Press Awards:

    "More articles than ever before have been short-listed for the Journalist of the Year Award, and very few articles appear on the Bigot of the Year Award shortlist. This points to a gradual improvement in media reporting of mental health issues. The shortlist includes staff reporters on national broadsheet and tabloid papers, and local papers, consumer magazines, and freelancers."

  Another group of people who are in a particularly vulnerable position, mainly with regard to individual privacy, is the transgendered community. Following a number of complaints in this area, the Commission decided privately to monitor this specific issue for a short time as a precursor to meetings with transgender organisations such as the Beaumont Society. That has proved a useful initiative, and although the Society—like MIND—found there was still some scope for improvements in reporting, the PCC's interest and involvement with these particularly vulnerable groups of people was welcomed by those involved with their care and support.

  The Commission also undertook an exercise on matters relating to refugees and asylum seekers. Again, the information was of use in meetings with the Refugee Council and others, where the complaints process was explained in more detail.

  9.  The Commission will continue to undertake these private monitoring exercises, where it is appropriate to do so and where there is concern that a particularly vulnerable group of people may not be making use of the PCC's services. The information will be used to help us ensure that such groups of individuals are made more aware of the complaints procedure and the benefit of complaining.


  1.  Issues of accountability and openness are inevitably different in a system of self-regulation to a system which is governed by statute and based on legal controls. This arises partly because of the source of funding, and partly because of the nature of the regulation itself. However, this short Section outlines how the Commission seeks to be accountable and transparent, and the scrutiny that it receives.

Accountability to our customers

  2.  One of the main ways in which any complaints handling body should be accountable is to its customers. To that end, we ensure that everyone who complains—no matter who they are—receives a clear understanding at the start of the process of:

    —  what our role is, and what outcome they can expect;

    —  how the process works;

    —  how long it will take; and

    —  the standards of service they can expect.

  3.  Much of this is laid out in a leaflet on How to Complain, which is in Appendix II (not printed), including the service commitments in the Complainants' Charter set out in Section A5.

  4.  When the Commission reaches a decision on a complaint, it also gives clear reasoning for its decision. This is set out in a letter to both the parties. Complainants who take issue with the findings are told that the Commission will happily reconsider any complaint, if the complainant can show either that the Commission has misunderstood something or can produce new evidence.

  5.  We set out elsewhere how we seek to measure our success in these areas, and each year we publish openly (unlike some of the statutory regulators) in our Annual Review:

    —  details of the number of complaints received and their outcome;

    —  the time it took to deal with complaints;

    —  results of a customer satisfaction survey; and

    —  a report on how we measured up to the targets in our Charter.

  6.  Customers with a grievance about the procedure can complain to our Charter Officer, who will seek to see that our procedures have been followed. Ultimately, of course, any complainant can also seek a judicial review of our decision (see para 17 below).

  7.  Members of the public also have an opportunity to make their input into the terms of the Code. Anyone can make a suggestion about possible changes, and the Code Committee will consider them carefully. More detail on this is contained in Section E2.

Accountability to the public

  8.  Each year, the PCC produces an Annual Review which is available to any member of the public on the website or direct from the PCC. In addition copies are mailed to MPs, MSPs, CABx, public libraries and other interested parties to ensure that any individual can access information about the PCC's performance and practice.

  9.  Key to the issue of public accountability is, of course, the lay majority on the PCC who are there, among other reasons, to represent the interests of the public. Lay members dominate the Commission, its Sub Committees, the weekly complaints meetings and the setting of a Budget—as well as the Appointments Commission.

Accountability to the industry

  10.  In a system of self-regulation, it is obviously crucial that the Commission should be accountable to, but not controlled by, the industry. Accountability in this area means that the industry should ensure the PCC is doing the job it was set up to do—and covers such matters as the administration of the Code, finance and an overview of how the PCC is serving complainants.

  11.  Accountability with regard to finance springs from annual budget meetings between the PCC Chairman and Director and the Pressbof Board, as well as quarterly reporting of expenditure figures. The Chairman and Director also attend Pressbof Board meetings, when invited, to report back on the work of the Commission—for instance at the time of the publication of the Annual Review.

  12.  There are other forums of liaison between the industry and the Commission. The Chairman and Director both sit in an ex-officio capacity on the editors' Code Committee; and the Chairman of the Code Committee sits, in turn, as an ex-officio member of the Commission.

  13.  Commissioners and members of staff of the Commission also seek regularly to attend industry events—not least to report on the development of the Code—and answer questions about the Commission's work.

  14.  It needs to be emphasised that none of this entails any incursion into the independence of the PCC. What it does ensure is both that the industry is satisfied the Commission is working to protect the public in the independent and impartial manner in which it was set up and that editors and publishers keep up to date with the way in which we are applying the Code and, consequently, raising standards incrementally.


  15.  The PCC, although not a statutory body, is also subject from time to time to the scrutiny of Parliament and of the Courts.

  16.  This inquiry is a good example of that. The Commission welcomes it as a chance to demonstrate its service to the public and the way in which the Code has raised standards—and will be happy, at this time and any others, to appear before the Select Committee to answer questions.

  17.  Similarly, the PCC works well with the officials in various Government Departments—principally the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, but also the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and at times the FCO—in answering questions they may have, and working in partnership with them to sort out problems (see Section B5).

  18.  Furthermore, while it has never been established whether or not the Commission is subject to the jurisdiction of the Divisional Court, the PCC will always readily answer for its procedures and decisions on an action for judicial review brought by a complainant. The PCC's procedures are therefore subject to the scrutiny of the Courts, and accordingly are framed in accordance with the rules of natural justice.

  19.  It is interesting to note that the PCC has only been taken to judicial review three times in 12 years—and one of these cases was withdrawn before a final decision was reached.

  In the first case, the PCC was taken to review in 1995 by serial killer Ian Brady, after the Commission decided not to censure the editor of The Sun for publishing pictures of Brady in the grounds of Ashworth Hospital[100]. Brady's complaint was rejected by the Courts at each stage of the judicial review process and ended up finally in the Court of Appeal in September 1996. In finding in favour of the PCC, Lord Woolf, then Master of the Rolls, made it clear that the Court endorsed the Commission's common sense approach to decisions under the Code of Practice rather than any alternative narrow technical interpretation.

  The PCC was not taken again to review until March 2001, when the TV presenter Anna Ford sought review of a decision by the Commission that pictures of her taken on a public beach in Majorca were not an intrusion into her privacy. The Court again backed the PCC, and in a strong ruling in July 2001 clearly endorsed the procedures it had deployed in reaching its decision. There is more detail on the findings of Mr Justice Silber in this case in Section C5.

  A third case was brought in the summer of 2000 by complainants whose complaint had been rejected. The single Judge refused leave to go to the Administrative Court and before an appeal against that decision could be heard the complainants withdrew their application.

  20.  The PCC is therefore clearly and willingly subject to the scrutiny of the Administrative Court if aggrieved complainants wish to complain about the procedures we deployed in investigating their complaint.

"Open meetings" and minutes of meetings

  21.  It is sometimes suggested that the PCC should hold meetings in public, or publish minutes of its meetings. There are insuperable problems in doing so, because most of the complaints the Commission deals with at its meetings relate to intrusion into privacy and therefore involve substantial amounts of highly personal detail. The confidentiality of these proceedings is one of the strengths of our system over the very public manner in which legal actions are fought out. It would therefore be quite wrong of the PCC to open its meetings up to third parties. The minutes of the meetings record decisions that are taken. All of these are published in the Commission's quarterly bulletins, so the minutes contain no material—other than the routine matters associated with company law—that is not made public in any case.


  22.  Although a non-statutory body, the PCC can be seen to be open and accountable—and subject, too, to degrees of scrutiny appropriate to a self-regulatory organisation.



  1.  The United Nations Development Report of 2002 highlighted the vital importance of a free and independent press to spreading democracy. It presented self-regulation as the most obvious mechanism by which, simultaneously, restrictive state controls could be avoided and higher standards of professionalism and responsibility could be promoted. This Section looks at self-regulation of the PCC first in a European perspective, and then in a Commonwealth one.

The European tradition of self-regulation

  2.  There is a long history of press self-regulation in Europe. The Press Council of Norway was set up in the 1930s and the Swedish Press Council has been in operation for over 85 years. The PCC, therefore, fits into a well-established European tradition of voluntary regulation.

  3.  Moreover, there can be little doubt that the tide of opinion in Europe is pulling increasingly in favour of self-regulation of the press. In the last five years, independent Press Councils have been established in Slovakia, Bosnia and Belgium, while in Slovenia, Serbia, Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria and Ireland there are ongoing discussions regarding the establishment of self-regulatory institutions.

  4.  Indeed, there are now very few countries around the continent where, if self-regulation does not exist, there is no desire to set up a system of that sort. Recent developments are these:

    —  In the Ukraine, a Journalistic Ethics Commission has recently been set up by the Independent Journalistic Trade Union to act as an independent regulator dealing with complaints and ethical issues.

    —  In Ireland the industry and the government are keen to see the formation of a Press Council. This, however, will not be possible until the country's libel laws are reformed.

    —  The Slovenian Journalistic Society has a press code that is based on the German model but has encountered problems with obtaining the necessary funds to establish a Press Council. Negotiations remain ongoing.

Statutory control the exception, not the rule

  5.  Among EU member states only France and Portugal stand out as exceptions to the self-regulatory rule. Both countries operate stringent press laws. The French laws on privacy are particularly notorious—with the result that much of the press in that country is widely seen to lack robustness and some of it is, in any case, dependent on state subsidies. In Portugal the High Authority for the Mass Media is a government-run body that oversees the conduct of the press.

  6.  Of the 19 Press Councils or similar bodies in continental Europe, only three are founded on statute—Denmark, Lithuania and Turkey—and those in Denmark and Lithuania are effectively self-regulatory because, while the law requires that there is a Press Council, it leaves its administration to the industry. Crucially, there is support for these systems from the press itself. However, Turkey provides a clear demonstration of why such an organisation can be dangerous (especially as it masquerades as independent).

  7.  The Press Council of Turkey is in effect a tool for the government to control the press and suppress opposition. It has also played a key role in the now discredited World Association of Press Councils (see Section F2), where its fellow members are state-run bodies from outside Europe, such as those in Bangladesh and Egypt.

  8.  There is general acceptance throughout Europe, however, that self-regulation is the best way to regulate the press and it is to true Press Councils that countries wishing to establish media self-regulation turn for advice and support.

Common characteristics

  9.  Press Councils do of course vary slightly from country to country to take into account different social, cultural and political considerations. Clearly a self-regulatory body that would suit a small country like Malta would not necessarily suit the UK, or vice versa.

  10.  Nevertheless, despite minor differences, the various independent Press Councils around Europe do share the same basic characteristics.

  11.  In particular Press Councils are independent from government, from other pressure groups and from the media. This is frequently achieved by the inclusion of members of the public on the Council. Indeed, as in the UK, public members make up the majority of the Council in Bosnia, Estonia, the Netherlands, Malta and Spain, while in Sweden there is an equal number of lay and press members.

  12.  Most European Press Councils are funded, at least in some part, by the industry that they are regulating. Some systems—such as in the UK and Norway—receive all of their money from the industry. Others—Germany and Finland for instance—are partly funded by the industry and partly by the taxpayer on a "no strings attached" basis. If there is external funding it is always only on the understanding that those who provide it play no role in the administration of the system or the decision-making process.

  13.  Most European Press Councils, like the PCC, see themselves as dispute resolution bodies—backing up that service with the power to issue critical adjudications.

  14.  Only the smaller Press Councils—with very low numbers of complaints—tend to accept third party complaints. The Councils of Bosnia, Catalunya, Lithuania, Estonia and Switzerland can technically examine complaints from third parties although in practice they seldom do. Other Press Councils, including the PCC, may examine cases from a third party where no individual is directly affected.

  15.  Similarly, "own volition" complaints are rare in Europe, although the Councils usually retain the power to institute them. Most recognise the difficulty inherent in examining a case when those involved do not wish to co-operate with the investigation. Press Councils have neither the desire nor the resources to begin "monitoring" the press through the use of own volition complaints.

  16.  It is significant that those countries with the longest tradition of press self-regulation, including Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, all now have Press Councils that generally only react to complaints and do not tend to use third party or own volition complaints to launch investigations.

  17.  In contrast, the only Press Council that raises its own complaints regularly is that which exists in Turkey. The Press Council effectively utilises own volition complaints as a means of "encouraging" pro-Government reporting. It is, in other words, state control by the back door.

Complaints handling: the PCC compared with its counterparts

  18.  In numerical terms the PCC receives far more complaints than any other similar institution: indeed, in 2002 we received more complaints than all the PCs in Europe put together. This is perhaps unsurprising given the nature of the British press and the high profile of the Commission. Moreover, readership levels in the UK are comparatively high. At the lower end of the spectrum, in Bosnia just 10% of the population read papers regularly.

  Inset (next page). A map of Europe shows where self-regulatory Press Councils have been established, where they are being set up and where no such regulation exists. This underlines the clear tradition of, and trend to, self-regulation throughout Europe.


  1.  In 1997 and 1998 the World Association of Press Councils (WAPC) tried to establish a global code of ethics and a trans-border complaints authority to uphold it. This proposal—which emanated from Turkey—was strongly opposed by the PCC, and indeed many other Press Councils, which saw the idea as anathema to press freedom and the principle that self-regulation works best when applied at the local or national level.

  2.  The PCC pulled out of WAPC, and was soon followed by the Press Councils of Australia and New Zealand. The only democratic Government still to be involved with the Association is Israel, and, apart from that institution, WAPC now comprises solely state-run Press Councils and organisations, under the auspices of the state-funded Turkish Press Council and Supreme Press Council of Egypt.

  3.  The PCC thought that any association of Press Councils should be more concerned with promoting self-regulation in those places that wanted it than trying to establish an unnecessary scheme of trans-border complaints. It therefore encouraged the European Press Councils to come together to form a loose association—see F3 below—and has sought generally to offer advice and encouragement to any country exploring the benefits of press self-regulation.

The Bosnian example

  4.  One of the countries in which the PCC has been most closely involved is Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), where some form of statutory controls on the printed press was mooted in 1999.

  5.  The PCC was contacted by the Independent Media Commission (IMC), a body set up by the International Community to licence and regulate the broadcast media, and agreed to provide advice on how it might be possible to establish an independent, self-regulatory Press Council in the country.

  6.  The IMC had, in partnership with the six journalists' associations of BiH, already produced a code of conduct, which they felt was appropriate for local circumstances, and had agreed on the formation of the proposed Council. Advice was, therefore, required on how to run a Press Council on a day-to-day basis.

  7.  Because of the obvious ethnic tensions in the country, the selection of a chairman was something of a stumbling block. The journalists' associations eventually decided that it would be advantageous to have an international chairman who had experience of self-regulation and invited the then PCC Chairman Lord Wakeham to fill the post. On his retirement from the Commission, the Acting Chairman of the Commission Professor Pinker was appointed. He attends four meetings a year in Bosnia.

  8.  Since the BiH PC began dealing with complaints in 2001 the PCC has also helped in the ongoing process of complaints handling, giving advice on how cases might best be resolved and giving a detached opinion on complaints based on the information provided by the BiH PC's secretariat. Ultimately, however, it is only those on the ground in Bosnia who can assess the best way in which a mediation can be achieved.

  9.  The Press Council of BiH is generally well supported by the industry, politicians and the international community and has received funding from bodies as diverse as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Swedish International Development Agency, the British Embassy in BiH and the EU.

  10.  The survival—and success—of the BiH PC is a great achievement for those wishing to underpin the fragile democracy in Bosnia. The PCC will continue to provide active support and guidance for as long as it is requested.

Central and Eastern Europe

  11.  In the past year the PCC has received a number of requests from Central and Eastern Europe for information and advice on press self-regulation. It is in this part of Europe where press freedom is most consistently threatened by stringent libel laws and suspicious Governments and it is, therefore, of great importance that self-regulation be encouraged if the will exists locally.

  12.  In the Ukraine a small NGO, Charter-4, which is committed to raising standards of press conduct and encouraging the growth of media self-regulation, has acted in partnership with the Independent Journalistic Trade to set up a Journalistic Ethics Commission (JEC).

  13.  This Commission, despite opposition from politicians and media owners is already acting as a de facto Press Council, examining complaints and encouraging journalists to operate by the rules of its code of conduct.

  14.  The PCC was approached by Charter-4 to discuss the theory behind self-regulation and the practicalities of running a Press Council. In November 2002 the Acting PCC Chairman travelled to Kiev for further meetings with those involved. The British Embassy in Kiev is also providing support and funding for this project.

The British Government and overseas self-regulation

  15.  In fact, the involvement of British embassies and Government departments has been growing recently. For instance, the British Council in Sofia, Bulgaria approached the PCC in 2002 for advice on the establishment of a Press Council in the country. It emerged that the EU was financing a major project designed to improve professional standards in the Bulgarian media and that the first aim of that project was to set up a system of voluntary self-regulation for the media.

  16.  The Department for International Development has been funding a project to establish self-regulatory systems in two areas of Russia—Rostov-on-Don and Nizhny Novgorod. The project is being overseen by the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP), which is based at Wolfson College in Oxford. The Commission sits—at the PCMLP's invitation—on the advisory council for this project.

  17.  The PCC has spent some time with journalists, publishers and politicians from the regions involved in the scheme, talking about the practicalities of creating media complaints bodies, the writing of Codes and how complaints are handled. In November of last year PCC representatives travelled to Russia to take part in a series of seminars on the subject of self-regulation in those regions. The project is ongoing and the Commission will give any further advice as necessary.

  18.  The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has also sponsored a major project in the Commonwealth, designed to promote Press Councils and other forms of self-regulation (see below).

Visits to the PCC

  19.  The Commission receives frequent visitors from overseas to the PCC, which allows us either to share information and experiences with our counterparts or to talk about the PCC to interested parties. In 2002, for example, the Commission had meetings with, among others:

    —  Flip Voets, the Secretary-General of the new self-regulatory Press Council of Belgium;

    —  the general secretary of the Norwegian Press Complaints Commission, Per Edgar Kokkvold;

    —  students from foreign universities (see Section D5); and

    —  visitors whose trips are organised by the FCO and who are keen for more information about self-regulation (see Appendix XVIII for a full list (not reproduced here)).

Conferences abroad

  20.  The PCC's position as a leading and high profile Press Council leads to a number of invitations to address foreign conferences. Unfortunately the Commission cannot attend them all but in 2002 a PCC representative did speak in Cyprus on the subject of the "Modern Media—the UK and Cyprus—Duties, Dangers and Deserts". The PCC also sent a paper to be presented at a conference in Latvia on the "Freedom of information and the inviolability of the private life".


  1.  As the World Association of Press Councils (WAPC) began to venture down the dangerous path of trans-border regulation, the PCC realised that despite its links with WAPC (which soon came to an end), it had not had a great deal of sustained contact with other Press Councils of Europe.

  2.  The Commission's first move was to arrange a meeting with representatives of the Dutch Press Council (geographically and philosophically the closest self-regulatory body to the UK), who suggested that an alliance of similar European bodies might be profitable for all concerned. The PCC welcomed this suggestion and undertook to organise a conference at which to further discussions.

The London Conference of 1999

  3.  Subsequently, in June 1999, representatives from about 20 European Press Councils and Commissions as well as other key figures in the field gathered in London. Addresses were given by representatives from France, Sweden, Germany, Bosnia and Ireland.

  4.  Those present at the meeting decided to form a very loose knit alliance, which would provide a forum for the exchange of information and advice, and which would meet annually. According to its mission statement, this Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe is:

  "A loose-knit group whose members believe in the application of self-regulation, independent of Government, at a local or regional level and based on nations' differing cultures.

  The Alliance was formed so that colleagues throughout Europe can co-operate with each other through the exchange of views and information on a regular basis, but without the need for formal bureaucracy. Colleagues will aim to meet each year to discuss matters of mutual interest.

  Participating countries agree that the writing of codes of journalistic ethics and their administration is the business of journalists and publishers, who take into account public feelings, and not the business of Governments.

  They also agree that it is not possible to operate a universal code of ethics, and are opposed to the imposition of supra national codes and regulatory organisations, either at the European or global level.

  Those participating in the Alliance will help to promote and support as much self-regulation a possible, in as many places as possible, so that local solutions can be provided to meet local needs."

  5.  Since its inception AIPCE has gone from strength to strength and has sought to bring in new members from around the continent when new Press Councils are established. Numerous issues of mutual interest—such as the impact of data protection laws, regulation of the internet and the implementation of European directives—are discussed at its annual meetings, which allow members to obtain a wider contextual understanding of European media regulation. Since London in 1999, conferences have been held in Bonn, Dublin and Malta.

  6.  AIPCE conferences are also now attended by interested parties from outside Europe, with observers from Israel and Japan attending this year's meeting in Malta.

  7.  Because the Alliance has no formal bureaucracy, contact between members and others interested in self-regulation has generally been on an ad-hoc basis. However, this has changed in the last year as a result of a PCC initiative which launched a new website for and about Press Councils, which was demonstrated to AIPCE members at its recent conference.

  8.  The new site——contains information and contact details about every known independent Press Council in the world. It is not only useful for the staff of Press Councils but also an excellent research tool for the growing band of students of self-regulation. The project is overseen by Professor Claude-Jean Bertrand of Paris, a world authority on media accountability systems.

The future

  9.  AIPCE will continue to act as a forum for debate and discussion and will be increasingly important as new Press Councils emerge and old ones develop.

  10.  In 2003 the Swedish Press Council, the oldest of the self-regulatory organisations in Europe, will host the annual AIPCE meeting. The following year, the Cypriot Code of Conduct Committee, one of the continent's newest independent Press Councils, will take the chair.

  11.  A list of those organisations that have participated in the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe is in Appendix XXVI (not reproduced here).


  1.  Outside Europe, the PCC's most significant international commitment is in maintaining contacts with Commonwealth Press Councils and advising Commonwealth countries wishing to move from restrictive press laws to a self-regulatory model. The trend in the Commonwealth is towards self-regulation and long-established press councils in New Zealand, Australia and Canada also serve as excellent examples of how things can be done.

  2.  This commitment has accelerated since the recent programme—organised by the Commonwealth Press Union (CPU)—to promote press freedom and self-regulation. This initiative was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as part of its wider project to support and advance the human rights of people in the developing world.

  3.  The CPU's project was based around a series of seminars that were held throughout the Commonwealth during 2001 and 2002 in Ghana, Kenya, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Barbados. Together with a seminar organised by the Australian Press Council the series was attended by 122 representatives from 39 countries. All were attended by PCC representatives—first Lord Wakeham and subsequently Professor Pinker.

  4.  The seminars established that while there was a strong desire for self-regulation in many countries, there were also many obstacles to achieving it. The press was often divided against itself and the funds needed to set up a self-regulatory Press Council were often lacking. Governments could be, perhaps unsurprisingly, often hostile to the self-regulatory ideal and civil society uncomprehending towards a new concept in consumer protection and dispute resolution.

  5.  In light of these problems the programme has been responsible for some important and gratifying developments and has seen complaints mechanisms established where previously there were none (see below). In Sri Lanka, for instance, the Government has been persuaded to amend the law on criminal defamation—inherited from the British—in order to allow a new self-regulatory body to flourish.

  6.  In all these places, and others, the PCC's policy has been to ensure that self-regulation was moulded to fit the individual country concerned and to encourage countries to develop their own code of ethical conduct, taking into account their distinctive civil traditions.

The conclusion of the project

  7.  The seminar series was brought to a close in London in November of last year. A report on the project, entitled "Imperfect Freedom—the case for self-regulation in the Commonwealth press" was launched at this final conference and its summary is contained in Appendix XXVII (not reproduced here).

  8.  The report showed that while there is a well-established tradition of press self-regulation in some parts of the Commonwealth, in others it needs nurturing.

  9.  In the Eastern Caribbean a Code of Practice has been written by editors and a Press Council with a lay majority has now been firmly established to cover the territories of Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent, St Lucia, Dominica, Montserrat, Antigua, St Kitts-Nevis and the British Virgin Islands.

  10.  The Sri Lankan press has been working towards self-regulation since 1998, with the PCC helping when necessary. Now the Sri Lankan PCC—helped by the impetus of the CPU seminars—is operational and hopes to start taking complaints from members of the public in the near future.

  11.  Other notable successes have been witnessed in Kenya, Nigeria, Botswana and Zambia. In each of those countries Press Councils have either been tentatively established or have been proposed as serious possibilities. Their success will depend largely on continued support from the press and politicians locally.

  12.  Continued support from the CPU and the PCC is essential, and the new Councils will benefit from the website, which will help them to keep in touch with established Press Councils and obtain advice from experts[101].The CPU also hopes to organise follow-up visits to countries where Press Councils have been set up or there are moves to establish such bodies.

Other developing world Press Councils

  13.  Aside from its work with the CPU, the PCC was approached in 2002 by the Foreign and Commonwealth office to help with the proposed establishment of an independent Press Council in Swaziland. Professor Pinker was subsequently invited to Swaziland to discuss the situation with politicians, the press, interested civic groups and the King. The project remains ongoing and it is hoped that a Press Council, the basis of which has been agreed, will be established within the next year.

  14.  The UN itself has recognised the importance of self-regulation to freedom of expression, concluding in a report in 2002 "perhaps no reform can be as significant for making democratic institutions work as reform of the media . . . Informed debate is the lifeblood of democracies"[102].

  15.  The PCC will continue to play its full part in achieving that.


  1.  The PCC welcomes this review of privacy and media intrusion by the Select Committee, and has enthusiastically grasped the opportunity of making this submission to set out its service to the public, the ways in which it has sought to raise standards, and the comprehensive manner in which it has publicised itself.

  2.  Press freedom is not perfect—and self-regulation will never be perfect. What this submission has sought to do is to show how it is nonetheless preferable, above all from the point of view of ordinary people, to any form of legal control.

  3.  A great deal has changed since the Select Committee last investigated this area. The Code and the PCC's sanctions have been strengthened. The Commission's independence has been renewed. Procedures—endorsed by the Courts—have been streamlined to offer complainants a fast, free and fair service. A body of case law, particularly on privacy, has been established which has helped raise standards further. The Code has been embedded among a generation of journalists. A substantial public information programme—concentrating on the most vulnerable in society—is in place and expanding. And the PCC is now leading the way in Europe in terms of customer service and effective regulation. Above all, it is quite clear that standards of reporting have been substantially raised since the 1980s when the blueprint for the Commission was designed. And it is independent self-regulation—demonstrating the power of voluntary controls—that has done that.

  4.  Of course there will always be more to do, and the PCC is far from complacent. The Commission strives consistently to improve its services—and welcomes constructive and practical proposals for change. Similarly, the Code itself is a flexible document, which has grown organically in strength and authority, particularly in the last five years. The Code Committee will also respond positively to proposals for further change in the Code's provisions—as it has clearly demonstrated in recent years.

  5.  We would welcome the opportunity to give oral evidence to the Committee if that would be helpful to the progress of this important and timely inquiry.

Annex 1



The case for press self-regulation

  1.  Press self-regulation serves two main purposes. It protects press freedoms and it protects citizens from abuses of those freedoms by the press. Freedom of expression and privacy are both fundamental human rights but they can seldom, if ever, be treated as absolute rights because they so frequently come into conflict with each other. In seeking to reconcile these conflicts, regulatory bodies must give due consideration to the claims of the public interest but the nature of these claims varies according to who is advancing them. Editors, for example, may advance a public interest defence in order to justify an invasion of privacy. Governments may advance the same defence in order to restrict freedom of expression or access to information. Editors, for their part, associate the public interest with the extension of these rights.

  2.  The resolution of these conflicts of interest and interpretation, as and when they arise, is the central concern of all adjudicatory processes—whether they are being carried out by statutory or self-regulatory bodies. The fact that such conflicts of principle occur so frequently explains why some form of press regulation is necessary. The dilemma we face is not one of choosing between regulation and no regulation at all but of choosing between two different kinds of regulation—the statutory or the self-regulatory options.

  3.  With regard to the press, two powerful arguments can be advanced in defence of the self-regulation option. First, a free press is one of the fundamental institutional characteristics of a free society. Newspapers and periodicals are public watchdogs. They scrutinise those who exercise power in every walk of life. They help voters make informed choices and reach considered opinions. They frequently criticise Government policies and the conduct of political office-holders. For all these reasons, as the late Lord McGregor once observed, relations between politicians and the press tend at times to be "uneasy, suspicious and fretful". If they were ever to become more cordial there would be good grounds for questioning whether or not the press was doing its job effectively as a public watchdog.

  4.  Media freedom is never absolute. It is subject to many legal restraints which in the United Kingdom include laws of defamation, data protection, copyright, confidence and, more recently, the 1998 Human Rights Act. If, however, the state were to become continuously involved in regulating the day-to-day conduct of news gathering and publication in ways that went beyond these legal restraints, such regulation would eventually become synonymous with statutory censorship of the printed word. Relations between Government and the press would become openly confrontational or abjectly conciliatory. And since it would be impossible to regulate the internet effectively the whole exercise would swiftly be rendered pointless.

  5.  Secondly, the case for self-regulation rests on the premise that, in complex democratic societies, self-imposed rules will carry a greater moral authority and, consequently, work with greater effectiveness than externally imposed legal rules. Self-regulation, at its best, works well because it is accessible to everyone, rich and poor alike. It is fast and flexible in its conduct of business. With the appropriate institutional safeguards it operates independently of all special interests and at no cost to either the taxpayer or the complainant.

  6.  The case for self-regulation, however, must be defended not only on grounds of general principle, but tested with regard to its practical effectiveness. In the United Kingdom, responsibility for meeting these criteria is shared between the Press Complaints Commission and the press itself.

  7.  In this short paper we describe how these responsibilities are shared and how the Code is designed to help in the reconciliation of conflicting rights and claims. We go on to review the effectiveness of the Commission's sanctions and its procedures for resolving complaints. We conclude with a general evaluation of the Commission's effectiveness over the past 10 years.

The division of responsibilities

  8.  Neither a statutory nor a self-regulatory system could work effectively without a very high degree of voluntary compliance. Since a self-regulatory system is entirely dependent on voluntary compliance it is imperative that such compliance should become as widespread as possible. A self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission like ours only works effectively if its Code of Practice is firmly based on the civic traditions and customary values of the general public and the industry which it regulates. These values are, in turn, underpinned by their attachment to more general principles of ethical conduct and formal doctrines of natural rights and duties.

  9.  The business of self-regulation is, however, a highly practical activity. Regulators have to apply general principles—which often conflict with each other—to specific cases as they arise in every day life. The Code of Practice, which the Commission administers, provides the general framework within which these principles can be put into practice.

  10.  The British system of press self-regulation is based on a clear-cut, but complementary, division of responsibilities between the industry and the Press Complaints Commission. The Code of Practice belongs to the industry which is responsible for upholding its requirements and keeping it up to date. The Commission is responsible for administering and enforcing the Code.

  11.  This division of responsibility dates from 1991 when the Commission's first Chairman, Lord McGregor, insisted that the Code should be written by a small committee of editors and publicly endorsed by the industry. Since then, the editors' Code Committee has kept its requirements under continuous review and updated them in response to changing needs and circumstances. These requirements include a general obligation to uphold the Code "not only to the letter but in the full spirit". A further requirement states that the Code "should not be interpreted so narrowly as to compromise its commitment to respect the rights of the individual, nor so broadly that it prevents publication in the public interest".

The Code of Practice

  12.  The Code of Practice provides clear guidelines on how the right to freedom of expression must be balanced against other rights, including privacy and considerations of public interest. It upholds "the public's rights to know" and sets out a number of qualifications that impose responsible limits on that right. In this respect, it should be noted that when the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights were incorporated into UK law, it was not deemed necessary for the industry to make any changes to the Code.

  13.  Article 10 of the Convention upholds "the right to freedom of expression . . . to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority". This right is now incorporated into United Kingdom law. It should also be noted that both the right to freedom of expression and to privacy are made subject to various qualifications relating to a consideration of the public interest. This includes such matters as the protection of national security and public safety, the prevention of disorder or crime, the protection of public health and morals and the protection of the rights and freedom of others.

  14.  The Code's definition of the public interest includes:

    (i)  Detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour.

    (ii)  Protecting public health and safety.

    (iii)  Preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation.

  15.  In cases involving children, editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to override the normally paramount interest of the child. In cases involving privacy intrusion, the right to privacy must be balanced against the right to free expression and the claims of the public interest.

  16.  The first two sub-clauses of this definition seldom give rise to serious problems of interpretation. It is the third sub-clause that often gives rise to disputes and is frequently invoked by editors as a prima facie public interest justification for intrusion into peoples' privacy.

  17.  Public figures, and in particular politicians, invariably put their own privacy at risk when they make pronouncements on moral issues which will affect the way in which ordinary citizens live their private lives and conduct their personal relationships. Members of Parliament, and other legislative bodies, have as much right as anyone else to comment on such matters but, when they do, their statements carry a special significance because they are in a position to recommend and introduce changes in the boundaries between those aspects of moral behaviour which are subject to legal sanction and those which are not. In more general terms, all public figures put themselves at risk of press enquiries into the circumstances of their private lives when what they say and do in public seems to be inconsistent with what they do in their private lives.

  18.  Nine of the 16 Clauses in the Code cover issues of a kind which allow editors to advance a public interest defence in justification of their actions. These issues include privacy intrusion, harassment, reporting on children, the use of listening devices, access to hospitals, the identification of innocent relatives and friends, misrepresentation and subterfuge, and payment for articles. A public interest defence cannot be advanced with regard to the identification of children involved in sex cases.

  19.  Clause 3 of the Code defines privacy in the following terms:

    (i)  Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private family life, home, health and correspondence. A publication will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent.

    (ii)  The use of long lens photography to take pictures of people in private places without their consent is unacceptable. Note—Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

  20.  There are other parts of the Code which touch on issues related to privacy intrusion. They relate to matters including harassment, which can be seen as a protracted form of privacy intrusion, the protection of people receiving medical care and people suffering from grief and shock, and for other vulnerable people including children, victims of sexual assault, and the innocent relatives or friends of those who have been convicted of crime.

  21.  The stringent and wide-ranging requirements of the Code recognise how deeply hurtful unwarranted privacy intrusion can be to the individuals affected. They also take account of the way in which these intrusions can affect innocent friends and relatives. Privacy intrusion was the issue that caused the Government of the day to establish the first Calcutt Committee of inquiry and privacy continues to hold a salient significance in the work of the Commission today.

  22.  Reconciling the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression will always be a complex and difficult exercise because privacy is such a paradoxical concept. People can only come to appreciate the value and nature of privacy by growing up in a society. In order to become sociable, however, people have to accept limits on their privacy. Privacy is not, therefore, an absolute and nor is the right to invade it. This is a dilemma that all members of a society have to live with.

  23.  In recent years the Code's requirements on privacy intrusion have been made more stringent. The Commission, for its part, has given more focus and refinement to the questions it asks when considering all privacy complaints. These questions include whether the disclosures complained about are already in the public domain, whether they raise issues of genuine public interest, and whether the past behaviour of the complainant has, in any way, compromised their right to privacy. In all such cases, the Commission seeks to establish whether or not the disclosures in the article complained about are proportionate to the information already in the public domain. With regard to stories about the children or other relatives of public figures, the Commission asks whether or not they would have been published at all if the familial links not existed. Complainants who have previously revealed details of their personal lives do not necessarily forfeit their future rights to privacy.

88   Professor Richard Shannon, "A Press Free and Responsible" (September 2001), pp. 156-7 and 162. Back

89   These and other statistics are set out in more detail in Section A4. Back

90   Compare with the current situation in the Republic of Ireland, where newspapers have no culture of correcting mistakes because of the legal ramifications of doing so. Back

91   According to article 53.4 of the Commission's Memorandum and Articles of Association: "Notwithstanding the provisions of Article 53.3, the Commission shall have discretion to consider any complaint from whatever source that it considers appropriate to the effective discharge of its function." Back

92   See PCC statement of March 1995. Back

93   For example, regarding the serialisation of a book about Mary Bell in The Times, Report 43, and regarding payments made by The Sun to Ronnie Biggs, Report 54. Back

94   See Report 50. Back

95   The relevant trials were Gary Glitter (Report 48) and Amy Gehring (Report 57). Back

96   It is worth noting that the PCC does not, in fact, now receive all that many third party complaints. Only 6% of the total last year turned out to be third party complaints. Back

97   Source-Professor Clause-Jean Bertrand, questionnaire to European Press Councils in 2000. Note that no information was supplied by Iceland. Back

98   June 1998. Some of these issues are dealt with in the adjudication on the issues arising from Clause 16 of the Code on payments to criminals (Report 43). Back

99   The role of the Commission during Dunblane and other tragedies is covered in Section A4. Back

100   Kaye v The Sun, Report 31. Back

101   See Section F3 para. 8. Back

102   United Nations Development Report, 2002, p 75. Back

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