Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600-619)|
TUESDAY 25 MARCH 2003
600. What is the attendance record of the lay
(Professor Pinker) It is very good. It is very, very
good: nearly 100%.
(Ms Hepworth) There is always, in my experience, a
lay majority when the Commission meets. If you want to know my
own personal attendance record, as far as I know, it is 100%.
(Mr Black) The Commission cannot meet unless it has
a lay majority.
(Ms Hepworth) That is right. You have to be careful
to make sure that that is the case. Whatever you think, the Press
Complaints Commission entirely accepts we operate on a very difficult
line between freedom, the right to have a free media and the rights
of the individual, and we understand that. It is a very difficult
area to be in and it is controversial. But one point I want to
make very strongly to the Committee is that what seems to me to
be overlooked is that there are lay commissioners, drawn from
a very wide range of backgrounds, most of whom have had personal
experience themselves of being on the receiving end of media criticism.
They know what that feels like personally, as well as professionally.
They read every single complaint that goes to the Commissionevery,
single one. You may think you do not agree with our adjudications,
but our job is to read them, and to challenge where we think challenge
is appropriate. What has been missed in the discussion is that
a lot of the work of the PCC is dispute resolution, and the combative
nature of the discussion does not help, in the sense that most
of what we achieve is a resolution of a dispute between the complainant
and the newspapernot always; it is never going to be, but
that is the achievement, in my view.
(Professor Pinker) May I add two points, Chairman?
601. Just before you proceed, we have seen your
CV, Ms Hepworth, and it is a very impressive CV, but how do you
think it came that you were appointed to be a member of the Press
(Ms Hepworth) I can tell you how I was appointed to
the Press Complaints Commission. I was asked by Mr Guy Black,
whom I have known for many years, whether I had an interest in
the PCC, and I said yes, I did. A long time later, six or nine
months laterI cannot remember how longI was asked
to submit a CV, and it was made perfectly clear to me that my
CV was one of a number. I was called to an interview with the
then Chairman of the PCC, Lord Wakeham, and I was interviewed
by him. It was repeated to me at that point that I was a candidate.
There is an independent appointments group, quite separate, with
a lay majority, and they take a view. Subsequently, I was invited
to join it. That is how it happened. Can I make one extra point?
I should say, I was told that one of the reasons they were interested
in me was because they have a particular interest in areas like
the NHS. Clearly, the NHS is under a huge amount of media pressure.
I was at that time Chairman of an acute NHS trust, it is fair
to say under a lot of media pressure, and therefore they knew
I would have direct experience of what that kind of scrutiny was
like, and of course, it is very uncomfortable, and yes, I do.
(Professor Pinker) Chairman, we have struggled to
get a balance on the Commission membership. May I make two other
points on the issue of the role of the lay commissioners? First,
to say that in my years of service, as a commissioner and as a
chairman, I have never known one case of adjudication in which
there has been a clear split between the lay commissioners and
the editorial commissioners. The second point is that all our
commissioners come with strong views but open minds. It is very
difficult to predict the outcome of a debate about an adjudication,
and commissioners do change their minds. But one thing I can assure
you, sir: nobody browbeats anybody, and nobody cosies up to anybody
602. I think many of us on the Committee have
a strong regard for much of the work that the PCC does, but we
just wonder whether you could not do more and could not do better
and could not do it more transparently and more openly. That is
why the issue of appointments matters, and what I still do not
understand is why the Code Committee consists solely of journalists.
(Professor Pinker) May I point out that I think one
of the wisest decisions that was made in the very early days of
the Commission was the decision to make the industry responsible
for writing their own code, and for ourselves in a sense to endorse
that and agree to administer it. That is the division of labour.
It has never been possible for an editor or a publisher to come
back and say, "This code was foisted on us from outside by
people who don't know the realities of the industry." We
find that it has worked very well. They are responsible for upgrading
the code and revising it, but we also feed in experience that
we have had in adjudicating cases, and virtually every part of
the Code has been revised and adjusted and amended in the light
of experience over the years.
(Mr Hinton) No change to the Code can take effect
without it being ratified by the Commission.
603. But can it happen the other way round?
Can the Commission insist on a change to the Code that you do
(Mr Black) There have been cases, Mr Chairman, where
the Commission has been concerned about a particular issue and
has asked the Code Committee to look at it. A few years agoit
was apposite we were talking about intrusion into grief and shockone
of the problems that vexed the Commission was that the old code,
the Calcutt code, which your former Select Committee looked at,
only covered the matter of grief and shock in terms of news gathering,
and the lay commissioners on the PCC were concerned in particular
that we were having to turn down a lot of complaints about publication
of material at such times. We asked the Code Committee to look
at it, which they did, agreed with the Commission and changed
the Code. That is one of the areas where we have, I think, been
able to make a lot of progress since that Code change to the benefit
of ordinary people. So there is a two-way process and it works
(Ms Hepworth) Can I just make the point again that
everything that is put forward by the Code Committee has to be
seen by the full Commission, and indeed by the sub-committee,
which has lay commissioners on it. My feeling is that you think
these people are going to be pushed around by editors. We are
not. Look at our backgrounds. Look at who we are. We cannot claim
to be perfect but we are on the Commission for one reason, which
is to try to support the rights of people to their proper protection
under the Code. That is what we are there to do. That is the sole
purpose of it.
604. But if the public feels that the PCC consists
of editors and people who have been approached by the director
because they have been longstanding friends, they are not going
to have confidence in the PCC.
(Ms Hepworth) Can I just say I do not think, in all
fairness, that if you look at the CVs and the backgrounds of all
the independent commissioners, you would recognise in their background,
frankly the kind of people that you might be describing. I was
asked to become a member of the Press Complaints Commission. Anybody
who knows me knows I bring independent judgment. I am not anybody's
Patsy. I will stand up to anybody if I feel strongly about a case.
So will every other lay commissioner. Otherwise, what exactly
is the point of being on it? I do think in your own deliberations
the one thing you should consider is that the lay commissioners
exert a much greater influence than you understand. We are the
majority. One thing that struck me when I joined the Commission
was that the editors are actually very concerned to see the Code
being implemented. Nothing in the world is perfect, but what we
are trying to do all the time is to improve standards. I think
I bring, as do all the other nine commissioners who are lay appointments,
independent judgement and experience, and I do not think it should
605. I just wonder, Ms Hepworth, if I could
ask you this as a lay member. Do you understand our concern about
this payment business and bugging and so on that goes on to get
information? These are some of the letters we have had and some
of the cases that we have taken in camera. This is the bit that
really galls us. It must gall you slightly too. Do you not think
it is a matter for the lay members to bring this to the attention
of the other commissioners?
(Ms Hepworth) Are you talking about witness payments?
(Ms Hepworth) I think there are two points I would
make. Every commissioner can raise a subject that they have concerns
about. Our principal role is dispute resolution. What I would
say is what I think we do have to do in all our work is look at
what actual facts we have. The issue of witness payments is something
that I think it is fair to say every commissioner feels very strongly
about. In one of my previous professional roles some ten or twelve
years ago I saw that kind of interaction myself, and I found it
deeply unattractive, not to say repugnant. The issue is, what
are the actual facts and what evidence has there been of this
behaviour being regular? The Commission brought together a lot
of evidence about that. The Code, as you know, has been tightened
again to deal with it. Obviously, I would be extremely concerned
if you continued to report ongoing concerns about that area. Our
own view is that there does appear to have been an improvement
in standards over the ten years.
(Professor Pinker) We did look very, very carefully
back to see whether that clause had been breached, and it happened
very rarely indeed: once.
607. Professor, do you think it would be better
on the transparency side if members of the press that were Board
members were ex-editors rather than current editors?
(Professor Pinker) I think not, sir, because we do
need the benefit of editors who are actually in the fray, having
to make decisions every day of their working lives. I think, again,
it would rather tip the age balance in the Commission if all the
editors were retired people.
608. We have had lots of letters, and I suspect
that these will be published in our report, from people deeply
unhappy with the PCC, to be honest, some asking for a backstop
power, some wanting some discussion. You have seen Alan Rusbridger
and you have seen Simon Kelner saying there perhaps ought to be
some backstop power. What is your own thought on that?
(Professor Pinker) My own thought on that is that
I do not think having a backstop would improve the quality of
adjudications. We are always willing to consider an appeal if
there is new evidence after the adjudication, and I do not think
it is a general view that we need a backstop throughout the industry.
609. We are not so concerned about the industry;
we are concerned about our citizens, who want a fair crack of
(Professor Pinker) Yes indeed, but you have complaints
on your own files that some people think they would like to have
a backstop appeal, but on the other hand, we have the evidence
in our consumer survey to show that a very high proportion of
the people who have come to us have been well satisfied with the
service that they received. I think every regulatory body, statutory
or otherwise, is understandably going to have some dissatisfied
people. We accept that, and we strive to make it better.
(Mr Black) Could I add a point, Mr Chairman? It is
important with this issue of appeals to realise a couple of points.
First of all, as Professor Pinker has just made clear, we do have
what is in effect an internal appeals procedure, which is used
from time to time, where somebody comes back to us and says, "No,
you have misunderstood my complaint. Please look at it again,"
and we do. We have occasions when people bring back fresh evidence,
and we will look at it again. That I think we have in common with
the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the ITC and so on. There
are occasions, of course, when people are so dissatisfied with
us that they take us to judicial review. That has only happened
twice at full hearing in twelve years, which I think is not a
bad record for the PCC. On both of those occasions our procedureswhich
is what we are talking about herewere given a clean bill
of health by the Divisional Court, and I would have been particularly
worried if we had gone down on one of those matters. So there
are channels for people who are disgruntled, indeed, as we were
talking earlier about the legal waiver; people can subsequently
take a legal action against a newspaper, or indeed against us.
But I do not think there is any evidence that having a backstop
of an Ombudsman, substituting the judgement of one person on a
complaint for that of sixteen, would in any way substantially
deal with the concerns of those who were disgruntled with the
work of the Commission.
610. From the wealth of evidence we have had,
you are travelling on the M1 and the public are telling us they
are on the M8, and they do want a backstop power. I just point
that out to you. I want to move on, if I may. Many of the people
who have also written have also said that they had half a page
or a quarter of a page or a page or headlines of half a page and
then an article. When they were finally able to get their apology,
it was three lines; it was a letter on the letters page. It was
not the same space and not the same words. Is it unreasonable,
if you find in favour of a complainant, that they should have
the same space, the same headlines, on the same page?
(Mr Black) This is always going to be a difficult
area and one where there is always going to be room for improvement.
I would not sit here and begin to claim to you that every correction
was in exactly the place it should be. Ten years ago, it would
have been an even worse assessment. There is more to do, but I
think we are going in the right direction. The problem with hard
and fast rules is that we are dealing with lots of different types
of media here. I think you are having the benefit of the knowledge
of some of the local newspapers in due course. If you ask a local
newspaper, most of them will say to you "We will put corrections
on the letters page because it is the most widely read one."
You had evidence from Alan Rusbridger and Ian Mayes. They have
a specific place where they put corrections and their readers
are now probably in many cases infamously used to looking for
those corrections. I think it would be wrong for the Commission
to try to lay down that newspapers must put things in a specific
place. Butand this is an important butone thing
we strive to do: Vivien Hepworth made the clear point that we
are a conciliation body, a dispute resolution body, and if somebody
complains to us, we try to make it a part of that resolution process
that the apology, correction, clarification, letter, whatever
it may be, ends up in place which satisfies the parties.
611. When I complained against The Mail on
Sunday, first of all they offered me three sentences, then
they said, "OK, you can have 150 words but we will vet them,"
so I said, "What is the point? What is the point?" They
had also promised that they would not run the article, so they
lied to me. What is the point? I am an MP and I am able to actually
get angry. Citizens do not have the same confidence and they do
not have the same knowledge.
(Mr Black) I do not want to comment on your complaint,
if I may, because we are still waiting for some information as
to whether we need to proceed with it or not, and indeed, you
may ask for the Commission to reach an adjudication on the matter,
in which case I would not want to
612. That is the point. It is an illustration
of the bartering that is necessary, and the fact that they will
still vet my complaint about the original complaint, which they
now accept. It is the principle. That is where people have come
to us and talked to us in camera. They just felt powerless, because
they were doorstepped, and they did not know how to get back,
and finally six months down the line, it was just a small letter.
(Mr Black) This is a very important point, Chairman,
because this is an issue which we have been concerned about, these
cases which you have heard in camera. I am not going to refer
to any of them, but you very kindly let us have in confidence,
which we will respect, a note of those cases, and we have managed
to have a look at them, so as to be able to put our side of the
story as a great deal has been said about it. Of the 41 cases,
discrete complaints that you have considered, we have a record
of 35 of them. Twenty of them have been about accuracy. Only six
of them have been about privacy. There was no clause of the Code
in seven cases. Other parts of the Code related to two, but that
is of the complaints that you have given us. Of those, we resolved
16. In seven there was no breach. The average time taken to deal
with all those complaints, excluding just two, which raised a
number of legal issues, was 38 days. I do not recognise from the
cases that you have given us and we have been able to scrutinise,
the situation that you have characterised, and indeed, I would
much rather place my faith in the customer satisfaction survey
which we carried out as a new initiative last year. Admittedly,
they are going to be a benchmark for the future. We want to see
improvements. That survey found a 59% overall satisfaction rating,
with satisfaction ratings on resolved complaints, which are those
where there was a breach of the Code, significantly higherin
the high 90s in fact. Those are satisfied customers, even where
they are people that did not get anything out of the complaints
process, because with the majority of those people that we were
surveying, it ended up that there was no breach of the Code or
no further action after a remedial offer by the newspaper. I am
very proud of that recordvery proud of it.
613. I have put basically the same question
to all the editors who have been before us, and you have started
to answer it already. Anybody cannot remain static, and clearly
therefore hopes to improve itself. You have just said there is
more to do and clearly you accept that principle. With any self-regulatory
body, it is as important that it has to be seen to work as that
it actually works. Therefore, it is important that you have a
process for evaluating what it is you do and making internal recommendations.
What is the process for self-evaluation of the PCC?
(Professor Pinker) For self-evaluation of our own
614. Yes, and of the organisation, and how you
(Professor Pinker) That work largely falls within
the Chief Executive's scope.
(Mr Black) If I may, there are a number of things.
First of all, the customer satisfaction survey which we did last
year for the first time, having launched a pilot in 2001. Those
matters are reported back in full to the Commission, and the Commission
will then discuss those issues, and see if we can set new targets
for improvements during the course of the year. The Commission
will regularly look at our public relations and regional activities
programme, and also those matters to do with cooperation with
European bodies and so forth, as well as our relationship with
the Government. Then we will take on board the comments that come
from that. So there is a good degree of internal evaluation that
comes from our procedures, which is why, I think, if you look
back to 1996, we have a big track record of internal improvements
as well as changes to the Code year in, year out. We certainly
would welcome constructive suggestions from this Committee as
to how we might improve our service to ordinary members of the
public and areas where the Code might be changed. That is part
of the process of change and of strengthening.
(Professor Pinker) Let me add that there is also a
weekly meeting of a group, inaccurately called the Progress Committee,
because it is to look at all cases that are not progressing, and
that is, again, chaired by a commissioner or by the Chairman,
and there we look with the complaints officers at any complaint
which, for one reason or another, is not proceeding in the way
that it should. So apart from those periodic checks that our Director
refers to, the commissioners themselves are involved in looking
at the performance of the complaints officers.
615. Can I put to you two constructive thoughts
and ask you to think about them. You will have heard me ask the
BBC whether they had an independent audit, and the response was
yes, and though it was not always comfortable, it was actually
quite helpful. Would you consider appointing an auditor in the
same way that a plc or whatever has an auditor to audit what you
have set down, and which will sometimes tell youpossibly
privately, and it is up to you whether you publish it or notsome
uncomfortable things, but at least it will have the benefit of
being outside the organisation rather than inside.
(Professor Pinker) We will certainly reflect on that
very carefully indeed.
616. The other point is, you have mentioned
the customer satisfaction survey a number of times, and I read
your annual review. Thank you for putting it in. Thirty nine%
of your customers do not think you are very thorough and 41% are
not satisfied. Do you think either of those are good numbers?
(Mr Black) I think the key figure in all this is that,
of the complaints where we were looking at customer satisfaction,
the clear majority were people wherebecause a complaint
does not always equal a breach of the Code; that is an important
point. There will be occasions where the newspaper was right,
and when we tell an individual that, they are never going to be
satisfied with any aspect of the inquiry. The fact that actually
we managed to reverse that and get a majority satisfaction, even
when a majority of people did not get what they thought they were
going to get out of the process I think is very good, and I think
actually, if I were a "swingologist" I might say the
swing on that was a matter of about 20%. That is good news, I
think, and it is something we will want to continue to build on.
I am also gratified, as the Director of the Commission, that the
figures for the friendliness of the staff, the accessibility of
the literature and so forth are much higher.
617. You are putting the case to us that 61%,
by your numbers, think things are thorough or very thorough and
59% that the complaint was handled satisfactorily, or very satisfactorily.
The converse of those numbers, as I put them to you, is 39% and
41%. When I was in the five star hotel business, which is not
the same, I would not have accepted any number under 90% for customer
satisfaction. It seems to me you are very easily pleased, and
I just wonder whether those are actually targets that really should
be particularly meaningful. If I may go on, the whole report,
if you read it through, is a bit of a sales document for what
you do. You would have a lot more credibility if what was in it
was harder and actually had the bad bits as well as the good bits.
(Mr Black) On the first point, I do not want to labour
the point, but if you look at the group that we were surveying,
32% of those were those where we either upheld a complaint or
managed to resolve a complaint because there was a breach of the
Code. Therefore, if we get figures of 59 and 61 from a base where
you would expect those who claim to be satisfied to be 32%, I
think that is very good news, but there is always a concern that
we can improve the system further. That is why we have made very
clear on the basis of the first year's results that we want to
provide a benchmark for the future. We will be looking to improve
those figures over the years and, as I say, we would welcome suggestions
as to how we can do that. On the broader point about the annual
review, I am very proud of the service that the PCC offers to
ordinary members of the public and public figures alike. I am
very proud of what the Code has achieved, and I think we ought
to take the opportunity once a year to be able to trumpet that.
(Professor Pinker) May I suggest that if you look
at the sections of our report, which set out the number of changes
that we have made in our remit, in our constitution, and have
asked the Code Committee to consider in their reviews, we have
never been complacent. We have always been open to criticism,
and we have always been able and willing to learn from the lessons
of experience. We are not being complacent.
618. I come back to the initial point that I
made, that it is not so much about what you do as what it appears
that you do, what you are seen to do. If you are on the Board
of a plc, as I am sure many of you are, you are constrained; the
Higgs Report and all the other things make it very clear how you
report, what you have to say, and we all now have to obey that.
If you were to adopt the same standards, and had an audit as I
suggested, actually, that would give much greater weight to the
successes you have.
(Professor Pinker) Mr Thurso, we will certainly reflect
619. Returning to your record of proactivity,
what have you proactively done regarding the invasion of privacy
of men accused of paedophilia?
(Mr Black) At the time of the News of the World
campaign on naming and shaming, we did have a number of complaints
from individuals who were involved in that, and we dealt with
those. Then we became involved in discussions with ACOP and ACPO
and some of the others involved in that whole area to see whether
we could produce some guidance on the subject, which we subsequently
did. So that was an area where we proactively looked into this,
said there is an issue here which crosses the whole of the newspaper
industry, with profound ramifications for local newspapers as
well as national newspapers.