Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Written Evidence


Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Society of Editors

  The society is pleased that the committee has now taken oral evidence from a wider range of editors.

  As the society, which has more than 400 members in all sectors of the media including national, regional and local newspapers, magazines, broadcasting new media, media law and journalism education, was not called upon to give oral evidence, we were told that it would be possible to submit further views.

  The following comments attempt to illuminate further some of the issues that arose during oral evidence sessions.


  We were somewhat dismayed that there appeared to be a perception that the detailed and comprehensive submission from the Press Complaints Commission, and indeed that from some national newspaper editors, was defensive and, as one of the committee said, "an over reaction" to the inquiry.

  We believe that it is in fact a necessary and full explanation of the achievements of self regulation. There appears to have been little credit given for these many achievements. There is a danger that key points will be missed about the huge changes that have happened across all papers over the last decade.

  This is especially true since the major changes concerning privacy following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Editors on the Code Committee were concerned not to destroy the essential balance between privacy and the public's right to know and free expression. At that time there was much debate about the required strengthening of the Code of Practice. In the end some editors had to be persuaded that amendments had not gone too far. Interestingly, this view came mainly from the regional rather than national press. They were certainly not seen as an easy option.

  But it was not only a change of wording that was achieved. The addition of a preamble pointing to the need to apply the code in spirit as well as in its letter was vitally important. This brought about a valuable and sensible change in how the code was interpreted and applied. Until then it was frequently the case that editors and journalists tended to look at the precise terms of the code in isolation. If particular behaviour was covered in the code, it was avoided. If the code was silent on an issue, newspapers considered themselves free to publish.

  The effects of the code changes and the addition of the preamble were that editors were encouraged to look at issues in a wider context. While it did not necessarily prevent reporting, it made editors think carefully before publication and they had to be prepared to justify their decision in terms of the public interest. The care and attention given to the code by editors across the board was certainly made clear in evidence.

  This brought substantial benefits not only for well known people but also the privacy of those who are not normally in the public eye.

  This is important in the context of some of the evidence provided by PressWise and others. Frequently, examples cited of inappropriate behaviour pre-date the 1997 changes and in some cases even the establishment of the PCC and the Code of Practice.

  Any idea that the industry is complacent is simply incorrect. There have been at least 30 amendments to strengthen the code of practice and several changes in the working and organisation of the PCC.

  We made it clear in our original submission that there is robust debate among editors about the code and the PCC. Behind the headlines everyone agrees that self regulation has improved behaviour.

  Some of the changes have come from within and some have been prompted from outside. The most recent changes in the code concerning Payments to Witnesses are a case in point. Far from these changes being forced on the industry, we responded to concerns raised by the Lord Chancellor in detail. He was persuaded that his concerns could be addressed more successfully through self regulation rather than legislation. As a result the code, that was already strict in this regard, has been strengthened further with a still more explicit clause.

  The arrival of Sir Christopher Meyer as chairman of the PCC will bring another fresh look at the code, the PCC and self regulation as a whole. His assessment of where we are and where we should be, will be a central part of the society's annual conference in the autumn. There is no doubt that all of the points raised in evidence to the committee and the perceptions of politicians and the public will be properly and thoroughly considered.


  As we pointed out in our submission, many newspapers already provide prominent and regular advertisements explaining how the public can complain. The society is already undertaking a survey to establish best practice in this regard and will undertake a renewed campaign to encourage the implementation of that best practice. At its conference last autumn the society provided a platform to explain the successes and benefits of the Readers' Editor system already adopted by The Guardian. As you have heard, while that might not be an example that can be followed in all newspapers, editors are keen to establish their own systems in order to achieve similar benefits.


  The committee heard substantial endorsement of the points we made at the outset about the effectiveness of the requirement to publicise adverse adjudications by the PCC.

  Any system of fines or other "punishments" would not only lead to time delays and costs for ordinary people. A financial penalty of say £10,000 would be the cost of a trainee journalist for a year on a weekly paper or it could put a publication out of business. Reporters or editors threatened with dismissal would seek, and be entitled under natural justice, to legal representation.

  Some complainants would remain dissatisfied even if editors were taken out and shot. Many people remain dissatisfied with sentences in court cases especially in highly emotive death by dangerous driving cases, for example. The law and imprisonment does not necessarily satisfy them. The few who remain dissatisfied with the PCC should be seen in the context of the many who accept its decisions or make use its services.

  The PCC evidence points to the number of complainants that are dealt with by editors with the help of robust complaints officers and the level of satisfaction with the system. It is not a failure that there are relatively few adjudications. That is clear evidence of the success of self regulation. Both the editors involved in complaints and those who read reports from the PCC learn from their resolution and help to prevent behaviour likely to lead to complaints.

  The essential point of self regulation is that it works to prevent inappropriate behaviour rather than simply to deal with its aftermath. Again, that is a strength, not a weakness.


  The danger is one of creating a state-appointed policeman of the press, able to institute investigations arbitrarily, bringing the risk of political or establishment pressure and the perils of prior restraint and censorship. We doubt that is what the committee would intend.

  An Ombudsman, appointed and paid for by the government, either directly or indirectly, would be the first step towards licensing of journalism. How do you define a journalist? How do you define a newspaper or magazine? In itself such a definition, that would be a necessary part of even a semi-statutory system, would be an infringement of free expression for everyone, not just the existing press.


  Professional membership of the PCC is another essential cornerstone of the system. Their involvement gives other editors confidence in the system and explains their acceptance of PCC decisions. It is vital that editors retain "ownership" of the code and its implementation. It is far more effective than a code imposed on them.

  Changes that have created a majority of lay members of the commission were welcomed by editors. Comments to the committee on this issue and on transparency are already being debated, as the committee heard in evidence, and will be properly considered.


  The society rejects any suggestion that PCC system is not as good as the BSC or other regulators. Evidence the committee has received from Geoff Elliott and the summary of his experience based on his membership of the Press Council, the PCC and now the BSC is especially apposite


  Several committee members expressed concern about complaints raised by their constituents. Many complaints received by local editors particularly concern their reporting of inquests and the courts. While that can of course be intrusive, open justice is an essential part of the administration of justice.

  Intrusion into grief is always a particular concern of editors and journalists at every level. The experience of most reporters who have to knock on doors in difficult circumstances is that for every one who slams the door, there are dozens of cases of grieving people who want to talk to a reporter about their loved ones and want to see something in the paper. Often it is a well-meaning friend or relative who thinks they do not want any media attention. Newspapers are now very sensitive about this and they are extremely careful not to be the deliverers of bad news and to withdraw when asked.

  An impression that appeared to have been created by some of the evidence the committee heard was that print editors blamed broadcasters for creating "media scrums". It is not a matter of blame. It is simply a fact that the growing number of broadcasting outlets, all of which need reporters and equipment, can make a situation appear worse.


  The evidence of regional editors is important. While they, personally, may not have felt the need to name paedophiles, several other editors have done so, in some cases long before the News of the World started its campaign. The thrust of the evidence from the regional editors who appeared was that this was an issue for individual editors, all of whom operate within the law. Editors across the country have entered into protocols with police forces through which they agree to warn the police and other authorities in advance of publication to help deal with potential vigilante incidents and to help prevent offenders "going underground". The Society of Editors and indeed the PCC have been involved in establishing these protocols.


  There was some discussion of activities by the media that might be unlawful. The Code of Practice is not a substitute for the law. Editors and journalists ask for no special treatment under the law, although there is an exception for journalism and artistic work under the Data Protection Act. This is in line with European practice and was requested and accepted by the media in the UK only reluctantly.

  It is assumed that the media abides by the law so any issue that is unlawful is not a matter for the Code of Practice, which is designed to deal with issues not covered by the law.

  The society's key concern is that the efforts of the publishing industry to improve standards should be recognised. Too often, some politicians and some members of the public sneer at the press, particularly the tabloids. They are quick to criticise yet, through history, the papers have been a force for good rather than evil.

  Hopefully, the committee might try to catch the press doing something good and praise it, rather than only criticising its mistakes. Against that background it is perhaps little wonder that some witnesses may have seemed a tad defensive.

  Given the millions of words published each day and each week, at speed, by so many newspapers and magazines, the low level of complaints that are upheld is remarkable. The apparent dismissal of the PCC evidence as complacent simply because it is long and detailed was bound to be controversial. It does not mean the press has a closed mind to constructive criticism.

  The society and indeed the whole of the industry is concerned to improve standards and to encourage complaints where they are justified. This will continue because newspapers recognise their commercial interest in improving public perceptions as well as the ethical concerns surrounding those complaints.

9 April 2003

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