Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Press Standards Board of Finance Limited (Pressbof)

  Pressbof was set up by the newspaper and magazine publishing industry in 1990 to co-ordinate the industry's actions on self-regulation following the Government's acceptance of the report of the Committee on Privacy and Related Matters.

  Pressbof comprises representatives of the Newspaper Publishers Association, the Newspaper Society, the Periodical Publishers Association, the Scottish Daily Newspaper Society and the Scottish Newspaper Publishers Association. It is responsible for funding the Press Complaints Commission and provides a ready means of liaison between the PCC and the industry.

1.  CONSTITUTION AND PERFORMANCE OF THE PRESS COMPLAINTS COMMISSION

  1.1  The PCC has been established as the independent regulatory authority for newspapers and magazines in the UK.

  1.2  The PCC is a company limited by guarantee. In terms of company law the Commission members are members of the Company and its Directors.

  1.3  Although the Committee on Privacy had recommended that there should be a majority of press members on the PCC, this was changed in 1994 to have a clear majority of non-press members.

  1.4  The Commission members, other than the Chairman, are appointed by an Appointments Commission. Since 1994 the Appointments Commission has comprised the PCC Chairman, three independent members and the Pressbof Chairman. The Pressbof Chairman is the only member connected with the industry, so that there is always a clear lay majority.

  1.5  In view of the strongly-worded challenge directed to the industry in 1990 by the then Home Secretary, it was clear that the industry must have confidence in the PCC Chairman and the appointment of the PCC Chairman is made by Pressbof on the industry's behalf. Pressbof consults widely before making the appointment.

  1.6  Pressbof believes that Lord McGregor and Lord Wakeham, in their periods of office as PCC Chairman, established and developed the PCC so that it fully met the expectation of Government, gained the ever-increasing confidence of members of the public and earned the necessary respect of the industry itself. Pressbof is confident that Sir Christopher Meyer, KCMG, will be highly effective as the next PCC Chairman.

  1.7  The PCC has demonstrated its ability to handle the volume of complaints with expedition, thoroughness and fairness. Its procedures are user-friendly. The speed with which complaints are processed compares favourably with other regulatory authorities.

  1.8  There is a perception in certain quarters that the PCC is more concerned with complaints from VIPs than ordinary members of the public. This is not so. 90% of the complaints handled come from ordinary members of the public. Inevitably, a complaint from a public figure will draw more media attention but this has a value in providing continuing publicity for the role of the PCC.

2.  MEDIA FREEDOM, MEDIA RESPONSIBILITY AND INDEPENDENCE OF SELF-REGULATION

  2.1  A free and responsible press is an essential element of a democracy. The need to observe and report on the many facets of local, central and European Community government is vital. It cannot be allowed to fall victim to pressure from government. Any move to involve government in the regulatory process would be one step on the path to open or covert censorship: and thus to restriction of the individual citizen's right to be informed.

  2.2  Newspaper and magazine publishers, in taking up the Government's challenge in 1990, committed themselves unreservedly to acceptance of the authority of the PCC, to adherence to the industry's Code of Practice and to provision of the necessary finance for the self-regulatory regime. This commitment remains unwavering.

  2.3  The PCC operates with complete independence. At no time has the industry or any section of it sought to interfere with its adjudicatory process.

  2.4  There are critics who suggest that, because the PCC is financed by the industry, it has to be in the industry's "pocket". This is not the case. The recommendation of the Committee on Privacy gave the industry no choice. The industry was told that it had to provide "the necessary money for setting up and maintaining the PCC".

  2.5  Of course, Pressbof is interested in how the PCC uses its funding. Budgets and financial outcomes are discussed, but these discussions are constructive and are aimed at avoiding the financial problems that beset the former Press Council in its closing years.

  2.6  Since 1990 the industry has collected £17 million through a system of registration fees payable to Pressbof to meet the costs of self-regulation. Pressbof's budget for the calendar year 2003 is £1.7 million.

3.  PRESS BEHAVIOUR

  3.1  Adherence to the Code of Practice and the underlying possibility of being at the receiving end of an adverse adjudication from the PCC have had a marked effect on the conduct of journalists, the items that are published and the way in which these are presented. Editors do take notice of the Code and do judge potential stories against the benchmarks set by it.

  3.2  With the vast number of publications in the UK and with the great volume of news coverage every day in the week, there will always be lapses but Pressbof believes that these will continue to be minimised through observance of the Code of Practice.

  3.3  One area of significant achievement relates to children who were victims or witnesses in sex cases and to whom identification restrictions applied. In the past differing treatment of the reports in printed publications, radio and television could lead to what was known as "jigsaw" identification of the child. The electronic media has co-operated fully with the Code of Practice Committee in ensuring a common treatment of such reports and Pressbof is not aware of any recent incidents where jigsaw identification could have arisen.


4.  ADEQUACY OF THE CODE OF PRACTICE

  4.1  The Code of Practice adopted by the industry on 1 January 1991 was based on that recommended by the Committee on Privacy with only minor variations.

  4.2  The Code has been kept under continuing review since that time to ensure that it continues to set appropriate and relevant standards of editorial practice.

  4.3  Amended versions of the Code were distributed in May 1992, July 1993, May 1994, November 1996, December 1997 and December 1999.

  4.4  Changes currently under consideration are likely to be included in a further revised version in the near future.

5.  THE COMMISSION, THE APPOINTMENTS COMMISSION, THE CODE AND THE CODE COMMITTEE

  5.1  Pressbof is satisfied that the constitution and remit of the PCC as set out in its Memorandum & Articles of Association continue to meet the requirements of self-regulation.

  5.2  Pressbof is satisfied that the Appointments Commission functions effectively and that the diversity of PCC non-press members and the range of press members has been well maintained.

  5.3  Membership of the Code of Practice Committee comprises editors from all sectors of the newspaper and magazine publishing industry ensuring a spread both geographically and in the nature of the publications. Since 1995 appointments to the Committee have been subject to confirmation by the Appointments Commission.

  5.4  Since 1995 a lay input to the Committee's deliberations has been provided by the participation of the FCC Chairman and the FCC Director. Since 1993 changes to the Code have required ratification by the FCC.

  5.5  The work of the Code Committee derives from matters raised by members, references from the FCC and suggestions received from members of the public. The facility to submit suggestions to the Committee is publicised in FCC publications.

  5.6  The Code Committee has also given attention to Sir David Calcutt's Review of Press Self-Regulation (January 1993), the National Heritage Committee's Report on Privacy and Media Intrusion (March 1993), recommendations by the Secretary of State for National Heritage (July 1995), the Data Protection Bill, the Human Rights Bill, issues raised by the Financial Services Authority, the Home Office consultation paper Setting the Boundaries (August 2001) and the Lord Chancellor's Department's consultation paper Payments to Witnesses (March 2002).

  5.7  In addition to the distribution of the Code throughout the industry, it is issued to appropriate university departments and colleges of journalism. Permission is readily given for its reproduction in journalism textbooks. The PCC makes it widely available to members of the public.

6.  MECHANICS OF THE COMPLAINTS PROCEDURE

  6.1  The PCC's procedures allow for third party complaints where appropriate. Pressbof is confident that the PCC's discretion in this will be appropriately and constructively exercised.

  6.2  With an increasingly vigilant public which is nowadays fully aware of the PCC's existence and function, Pressbof believes that monitoring would only tend to distract the PCC from its prime function-dealing with complaints of unfair treatment or unwarranted intrusion.

7.  SANCTIONS

  7.1  The principal sanction of the self-regulatory regime is the requirement that any publication which is criticised by the FCC under the Code must print the PCC's adjudication in full and with due prominence.

  7.2  This remains highly effective. No editor relishes an investigation by the FCC and the obligation to publish an adverse adjudication is a serious professional matter: it is tantamount to saying to the publication's readers that the editor broke his or her own rules and has, therefore, been censured by his or her own professional body.

  7.3  The disciplining of any editor or journalist can only be a matter for the employer in accordance with the publisher's disciplinary procedures. Pressbof has recommended that employers make the Code part of journalists' contracts of employment, thus facilitating any necessary disciplinary proceedings. The recommendation also said that this should apply equally to editors. A survey of the industry in 1995 showed that the recommendation had been widely implemented.

  7.4  In 1993 Pressbof, on behalf of the industry, agreed that, in appropriate circumstances, the PCC should record that it was drawing the matter to the attention of the publisher/proprietor in order that consideration be given for any disciplinary action.

  7.5  There have been suggestions from time to time that the PCC should have the power to award fines or compensation. Pressbof discussed this at some length with the Department of National Heritage in 1993. Pressbof remains totally opposed to the introduction of any system of fines or compensation for the following reasons.

  7.5.1  The PCC has never suggested to Pressbof that its authority would be enhanced if it was able to award compensation or fine newspapers and magazines.

  7.5.2  A study in 1993, financed by the Council of Europe and UNESCO, of press self-regulation in 11 democracies found that the efficacy of the regimes was not linked to the power to award damages or levy fines, but to the consistency of the application of the relevant ethical codes, their observance by publications and the public's respect for the regulatory body.

  7.5.3  The PCC provides an extra-legal regime for complaint resolution. Its strength is in the speedy redress it provides to complainants. Newspapers and magazines are committed to the Code in both the spirit and the letter. In the event that the Code is breached, the PCC, through informal conciliation and the moral authority of its published adjudications, has the capacity to ensure that apologies and corrections are obtained and action taken when the complaint relates to the publication's newsgathering techniques.

  7.5.4  A fine or compensation-based system would require the formulation of quasi-criminal offences and civil wrongs, appropriate defences and methods of determining the scale of fines and the quantum of damages. This would mean that the scope of the Code would need to be narrowed and the ability of the PCC to assist complainants consequently reduced.

  7.5.5  The resulting, more elaborate, adjudicatory process would, almost certainly, lead to newspapers and magazines insisting on legal representation. This process, in aping the legal system, would bring to it the very disadvantages of the legal system which self-regulation seeks to avoid. The arguments over fines and compensation would dominate proceedings, which would become increasingly adversarial. As a matter of practice, this would often result in complainants being deprived of a speedy resolution of their complaint.

  7.5.6  It has been suggested by some that these dangers would be avoided if the levels of fines and/or compensation were strictly limited. In Pressbof's judgement, to graft on to the existing system the power to award "small" fines or damages would be to trivialise the work of the PCC, undermine its moral authority, and misunderstand its essential rationale.

  7.5.7  The industry has concluded that effective self-regulation of editorial content cannot be achieved by giving a self-regulatory body the power to award damages or fines. The practical problem of operating such a system within a self-regulatory context would be substantial. Such provisions would be detrimental to self-regulation. They would have the danger of eroding the industry's commitment to the self-regulatory regime. They would render it difficult for the PCC to offer complainants the speedy redress which has been developed so effectively over the last 11 years.

8.  HUMAN RIGHTS ACT

  8.1  During the passage of the Bill in the House of Commons, the Home Secretary stated that:

    —  The Government supported effective self-regulation as administered by the PCC under the Code of Practice.

    —  The Government had no plans to introduce legislation creating a general law of privacy.

    —  Thresholds in the Bill meant that interlocutory injunctions should be granted ex parte only in the most exceptional circumstances.

    —  The Bill provided an important safeguard by emphasising the right to freedom of expression.

    —  The Government intended that it should underline the consequent need to preserve self-regulation.

    —  That effect was reinforced by highlighting the significance of any privacy code, which plainly included the Code operated by the PCC.

  8.2  Pressbof has welcomed recent Court decisions which have, in effect, said that the detailed examination of questions of privacy is best left to bodies such as the Press Complaints Commission.

  8.3  Pressbof is not convinced of the need for more specific law on privacy. Should Parliament decide to legislate in this area, then any law should relate to all sectors of the community and not focused on the media.

9.  STATUTORY PRESS OMBUDSMAN

  9.1  Following publication of the National Heritage Committee's report in 1993 Pressbof examined closely whether or not the PCC should be supplemented by the appointment of an Ombudsman. It considered that such a move would undermine the regime established by the industry on 1 January 1991 and developed in subsequent years. An Ombudsman, regardless of who appointed him, would not command the authority or confidence of the public or press if he was to sit in judgement over the decisions of the PCC.

  9.2  This is particularly the case in view of the distinction and calibre of the current members of the PCC and the range and complexity of the complaints which they deal with as a Commission.

  9.3  It would not be possible for one person, even if backed up by a substantial staff of advisers and experts, to have the range of experience and authority provided by the full PCC.

  9.4  The vast majority of complaints are handled responsibly by editors and, where appropriate, by newspapers' readers' representatives. This process is often aided by the PCC conciliating a settlement. In the event that a complaint is not resolved informally, the PCC will adjudicate formally upon the complaint. There is no clear evidence of any demand for another layer of regulation to provide a formal right of appeal to an Ombudsman against PCC adjudications.

4 February 2003


 
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