Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 600-619)



  600. What is the attendance record of the lay members?
  (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 Commission—every, 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 newspaper—not 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 Complaints Commission?
  (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 later—I cannot remember how long—I 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 else.

Mr Bryant

  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 not want?
  (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 ago—it was apposite we were talking about intrusion into grief and shock—one 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 well.
  (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 be cheapened.

Derek Wyatt

  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?

  606. Yes.
  (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 the whip.
  (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 procedures—which is what we are talking about here—were 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. But—and this is an important but—one 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 higher—in 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 record—very proud of it.

John Thurso

  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 performance?

  614. Yes, and of the organisation, and how you can improve.
  (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 you—possibly privately, and it is up to you whether you publish it or not—some 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 where—because 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 on that.

Ms Shipley

  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.

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