Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Fifth Report


There has been a long process of debate, development and more debate over ways to reconcile freedom of expression by the media, essential in a free and democratic society, with respect for the private lives of individuals.

Various inquiries and different regulatory bodies have grappled with this topic since 1949. Simultaneously there has been a range of relevant major and minor developments in common law, on the statute books and at the European Court of Human Rights.

The current situation is one of uncertainty. The overall legal context is developing with the implications of the two 1998 Acts, on data protection and on human rights, yet fully to emerge.

The regulation of broadcasting has been reformed and the precise responsibilities of the Office of Communications (Ofcom) were being finalised at the same time as this Report was being prepared. Ofcom obviously has an important opportunity to produce an improved code and procedures with which to deal with the relatively few complaints about intrusion into privacy by broadcasters made each year.

Overall, standards of press behaviour, the Code and the performance of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) have improved over the last decade. However, the question arises of whether the progress made in raising press standards, from the very low baseline conceded by editors themselves, has gone far enough.

In 1993 our predecessor Committee, in the shadow of the "last chance saloon", recommended an integrated package of: enhanced freedom of information provisions; a privacy law; enhancement of press self-regulation, including the award of compensation, and establishment of a statutory Press Ombudsman. Ten years later, with a new Government ostensibly satisfied with progress, we offer recommendations arising out of a different scenario.

Of necessity we reserve our judgement on the arrangements to be established by Ofcom, to which we may well return. We see room—as do the Government and new Chairman of the Press Complaints Authority—for improvements within the current self-regulatory system which the press signs up to, funds and accepts judgement from, against its own Code. The key to this system must be that it commands the full commitment of the industry itself as well as the confidence of Government, Parliament and, crucially, the public. To these ends the measures we recommend are aimed at enhancing: the independence of the PCC and aspects of procedure, practice and openness; the Code of Conduct; the efficacy of available sanctions; and clarity over the protection that individuals can expect from unwarranted intrusion by anyone—not the media alone—into their private lives.

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Prepared 16 June 2003