Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 560-579)




  560. Could I just intervene for a moment because I would like to interrupt your line of inquiry before you resume. Mr Black has said that the PCC is a proactive organisation. In the House of Commons last Friday morning Linda Gilroy, the Member for Plymouth, Sutton stated her concern about reports that morning from Plymouth suggesting that some of the national press are doorstepping the families of those who have been lost. Have you been in touch with Linda Gilroy to ask her for information about that so that you can follow it up?
  (Mr Black) I am not sure if we have been in touch with her directly. I can ask somebody in my office if we have. It is certainly the sort of thing we do. Disasters, whether at a local or national level, do attract large amounts of media attention. At the time of the Paddington rail disaster, for instance, we had special leaflets printed which Westminster Council and Reading Council and so forth could give out explaining how people could deal with the press, the numbers they could ring to get a certain amount of expert advice about it, and as this war goes on we will be making sure that all those who might be put in a terrible situation of having lost somebody do know that there is somebody to turn to, and that is the sort of proactivity which I place great store by.

  561. That is a very long answer to a question I did not put, which was about what a Member of Parliament for a service constituency said was being said in her area. We have been aware of that and we have been in touch to see what information we can get about it. If you are a proactive organisation, can you explain to me why you have not been in touch with her to try and get this information because I would have thought that if these reports were accurate—and they may not be—you would want to put a stop to this?
  (Mr Black) Certainly that is right. If those reports are accurate then we should welcome a complaint from her and, indeed, the complaint could come through her Member of Parliament, who certainly would know how to get in touch with us and how to deal with the matter but, as I said, as the weeks unfold we will certainly be making sure that any of those in this appalling situation do have all the material they need to support them through it.

  562. I have mentioned it to you in this session. Will you follow it up now?
  (Mr Black) Certainly. That is what we are doing all the time with these sorts of things—

  563. I do not want what you are doing all the time; I want an answer to the question I put to you.
  (Mr Black) I have said yes—

  564. And the question is, even though you did not follow it up when Linda Gilroy said it in the House of Commons last week, now I have raised it publicly with you at this session will you follow it up?
  (Mr Black) Of course. Absolutely.

Mr Doran

  565. My question is what will be the consequences of you following it up, because there is proactivity which you have described, which is getting out there and making sure people understand about the PCC and how to contact them and I praise that as laudable and very important, but there is another proactivity which is about being concerned about press standards and providing some ground rules more than the Code, and we have highlighted the particular issue that Linda Gilroy has raised, and I think it is that sort of proactivity that we feel the PCC is lacking.
  (Mr Black) To a great degree the changes in standards have occurred over the years on the back of adjudications from the Commission on complaints from members of the public, whether from public figures or ordinary members of public, and we have set out in our submission those sorts of areas where we can show that a clear lead from the Commission on an adjudication against a newspaper has stopped a particular issue of concern. There are other areas where the Code has changed because issues have been highlighted with the Commission and with the Code Committee about concern of the press standards. The system has developed hugely over the course of the last ten years for those two reasons, and I would envisage it carrying on in that way.

  566. But the concern I have is that the problem that Mrs Gilroy has raised with the Secretary of State for Defence was fairly foreseeable, and is one where a proactive PCC might have sat down and thought, "We are in a difficult situation with national attention and a lot of media, relatives are going to be an issue, what are we going to do about this? Are we going to issue instructions to editors about how to deal with this?" You heard from Ms Thomson in the BBC that they have a set of rules for dealing with relatives in a situation like this and they have thought it through. Has the PCC thought it through and communicated its thoughts to editors?
  (Mr Black) There is a set of rules contained in the Code of Practice. There is a clear set of rules in clause 5 of the Code of Practice on the issue of intrusion into grief and shock and so on, so editors do know the rules and if they do not stick by them they will be in danger of censure by the PCC, but the point about the Code in the first place is to make sure that editors do not overstep the mark. One of the things that I hope comes out of this inquiry is that they do stick within the terms of the Code because they fear the consequences of not doing so.


  567. We all make important points—that is what this Committee is about—but Mr Doran has made a particularly important point. Do you not think it would be a good idea if you circulated all editors with a notice about the view of the PCC on doorstepping of relatives of casualties in this war?
  (Mr Black) Those rules are already contained in the editors' Code of Practice which makes clear, first of all, that you should treat people in these circumstances with sympathy and discretion and, secondly, that if it is made clear to a newspaper that somebody does not want to take part in inquiries or to be photographed, then they must desist from doing so. I cannot think of an editor who would wilfully step outside the terms of the Code particularly on somebody who was so grief stricken in these appalling circumstances. In the past we have dealt on many occasions with issues to do with funerals and so forth where we have been in touch with people, or people have been in touch with us and said, "We want a private funeral for somebody", and in those circumstances we will make sure that is circulated to all newspaper editors and the relevant local editors and so forth to make clear what the wishes of the person are and how that relates to the terms of the Code. So a good deal of that goes on underneath the surface.
  (Mr Hinton) Might I add something, Chairman?


  568. Before you intervene, Mr Hinton—and obviously you are very welcome to speak—I would just like to put this to Mr Black, and indeed, to all of you at that table. Of course, the Code prohibits this. That is not the issue. What Linda Gilroy reported—and it may not be accurate—was that the Code may be being contravened. In that case, and this having been raised in Parliament by a concerned Member of Parliament who represents a Service constituency, do you not think it would be a good idea for you to circulate all your editors with a reminder about what the Code says in the context of this war?
  (Mr Hinton) As the sole newspaper executive before you at the moment, Chairman, if I could just answer in a broader context, there is probably no part of the Code that is paid greater attention than the issue of intrusion into grief. Although this matter of the war and its casualties is very high-profile, the fact is that editors at all levels, on a daily basis, and journalists as well, are having to conduct themselves in a way that meets with the Code. So they are not unfamiliar with the need to behave according to the strictures of the Code in taking care not to intrude into the grief of bereaved members of the public. When there have in the past been major disasters—the Dunblane shooting is one—through the auspices and good offices of the Press Complaints Commission the press has willingly and instantly withdrawn from those areas to avoid the intrusion that you are so concerned about. It is interesting too to say that we are able, because of the manner in which the Code is communicated to editors and the way in which relations between the PCC and editors exists, to achieve that in a way that broadcasters have so far been unable to do.

  Chairman: I cannot say I am thrilled with the phrase "not unfamiliar with".

Mr Doran

  569. On more specific issues, though I am sure most of my colleagues will want to press the proactivity issue, I am interested in the way in which the PCC looks at legal actions, which may be prospective or have already started, and what effect that has on your ability to operate. It seems to me there is a little bit of an inconsistency in some of your submissions to us. You tell us that complainants are free, should they so wish, to pursue legal action and any claim for damages once the Commission has finished dealing with their complaint. Later on you say in a footnote, "The Commission is debarred only from dealing with an action which is the subject of current legal proceedings." We have had evidence from complainants, and we have seen the correspondence, including letters from the Commission, and one in particular includes this sentence: "The Commission is not permitted to deal with matters for which there was a legal remedy available through the courts to the complainant such as defamation unless there is good reason to do so." It seems to me that these two positions are at odds.
  (Professor Pinker) I do not think there is a conflict here. When a person complains, they are given a straight choice. They may either come to us before they go to law, or afterwards if they choose to go to law, but we do not deal with cases while they are under jurisdiction.

  570. What about cases which might be prospective? If I complain to the PCC and say, "I am thinking about raising a legal action," would that debar me?
  (Mr Black) The old Press Council, which was our predecessor body, sought to enforce a legal waiver on complainants, so that once they had dealt with your complaint, you were not allowed to take any subsequent legal action. The Calcutt Committee, with which members of this Committee will be familiar, when it set up the model for the establishment of the PCC, said that waiver must go, and the newspaper industry agreed with it. The position now is that anybody who has made a complaint to us is free to take legal action before, and indeed, the PCC will in some circumstances, if anybody wanted to raise it, deal with a complaint after legal action has been pursued. The only thing that debars us is where there is current legal action or something which is, for instance, the subject of a current public inquiry, or, on extremely rare occasions, where somebody brings a complaint to us and it is clear that it is actually about a legal matter, for instance, contract, copyright, or in some circumstances—we perhaps get a couple of cases a year—where it is so obviously a matter of defamation that it would be wrong for the Commission to deal with it. I think there is no inconsistency between those points.
  (Professor Pinker) Over the years, it has worked.

  571. Correct the impression that I have then, because on the one hand, you seem to be saying—I am again looking at your documents, and you make quite a big thing of this; it is a major element in your case for the PCC in its present form—that it is cheap, and it is quick, and it is available to everyone, but on the other hand, you seem to debar people who have an "available" legal remedy. That is where I have the difficulty.
  (Mr Black) Not an available legal remedy, because in many ways, a lot of the complaints we get are those where there could be some form of legal action. It is just if there are—and it happens in merely a handful of cases every year—those issues where the more appropriate legal remedy is very obvious, and it usually is if something is about copyright or is the subject of a contract with a newspaper, which obviously the Commission would not be the appropriate body to deal with; if it is a contractual matter or, as I say, a potential question of defamation, it must be for the courts.

  572. I am looking at a letter which came from the Commission. I cannot identify the recipient of it, but the letter was signed by Mr Tim Toulmin, who I assume is one of your employees. It says specifically at paragraph 3: "The Commission is not permitted to deal with matters for which there was a legal remedy available through the courts to the complainant such as defamation unless there is good reason to do so. The Commission notes that in this particular case [the named person] did not take legal action against the newspaper and sees no reason to depart from its usual rule." That seems to be a reason for refusing a complaint, and that is at odds with what you have just said.
  (Mr Black) No, I do not think it is at odds, Mr Chairman, because there are a number of occasions each year when that happens. If there is an issue which is very clearly a legal issue, we will tell the complainant of that, and that obviously falls into one of those categories.

  573. That puts a full stop on your inquiries?
  (Mr Black) It will do, yes.
  (Professor Pinker) Until such time as they come back, yes.

  574. So if I am a person who cannot afford to go to court, for example, and I insist that you deal with it, how will you deal with it?
  (Mr Black) If you come to us with something which might be a breach of a contract—and again, I do not know what this is—it might be a contractual matter or a copyright matter—that is something which falls well outside the scope of the PCC. It would be the same if you went to the BSC, the ITC, or any of those bodies.

  575. No, I am talking about something which is within your jurisdiction.
  (Mr Black) But I do not know whether this issue is within our jurisdiction.

  576. It is a case which has been dealt with by the Commission.
  (Mr Black) But I do not know whether the alternative legal proposition might be confidence, copyright, defamation. I am slightly hidebound there from being able to explain exactly why it was that we did not take action.

  577. I understand that. We have given undertakings to the person involved.
  (Mr Black) Indeed. Could I suggest, Chairman, that if you wanted to write to us in confidence with the specifics of that case, then I could certainly write back to the Select Committee.

  578. This seems to be a standard phrase. I am a lawyer and I used to write these sort of phrases. It is the sort that it seems to me would go in a letter like this.
  (Mr Black) Indeed, that would go in a letter where there was more appropriate legal remedy. It happens in about a dozen cases every year.

  579. You say more appropriate legal remedy. For example, if the appropriate legal remedy is an action for defamation, would that debar you from considering it further?
  (Mr Black) It depends on the particular circumstances of the case.

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