Written evidence from Professor Chris Frost (PS 78)


The PCC and privacy


The PCC claims that it is a "modern, flexible organisation designed to keep the quality of UK journalism high in the digital age. It demonstrates using real cases, how we help put things right when the inevitable mistakes are made." (PCC annual report 2007: P2)


The Press Complaints Commission, Britain's press regulatory body, received 4,340 complaints in 2007. This number has increased steadily since 1991. Of these an average of 12.34% concern privacy.


However, whilst the majority of complaints concern accuracy, it is fair to say that the complaints that really concern society are about intrusion, discrimination, children and privacy. It is also fair to day that the PCC is not good at dealing with complaints on matters of fact or accuracy.


The PCC adjudicates only a tiny fraction of the complaints it receives - 2.18% (52 per year on average) over its full 18 years of work, but only 0.83% (30.6) for the last five years. Not only does it adjudicate on very few, but this number is steadily reducing.


The PCC justifies this by saying it resolves a lot of cases and that this is a better approach.

However it is difficult to accept that when one looks at the type of cases resolved. Most should have been handled instantly by the editor concerned as they are the kind of factual errors that inevitably creep into a pressured newsroom and should be sorted out with a correction or apology almost as quickly.


The PCC resolves an average of 191 (6.28%) complaints a year, although this increases to 289 (10.4%) for the last five years thanks to two bumper years.


Resolutions, however, mainly concern accuracy, with 97.5% of all resolved cases including complaints about accuracy. 12.2 % of resolved cases were about privacy, usually alongside accuracy. Whilst these were resolved it is likely that the complainant felt they had little option other than to accept the resolution offered. Adjudication - the only other option would have meant reminding people about the very invasion they had wanted to keep private.


Although the PCC says that privacy complaints represent 12.34% of all complaints made, the percentage of privacy cases amongst adjudicated cases rises to 32.9%. However, very few of these are upheld - only 21.8% of privacy adjudications were upheld - a total of 14. All the other complaints were rejected or resolved.


Adjudicated privacy cases


adjudicated privacy case


Rejected or otherwise resolved






















Of course that might be appropriate; however, taking the PCC's figures on the number of complaints made, an average of 408 complaints about privacy are made each year, yet only an average 48 are resolved and just 12 adjudicated with fewer than three of those adjudications being upheld.


However despite the tiny numbers and the clear attempt to avoid setting precedents, the PCC has had to make some judgements and although all the attention has been on the courts, some of their judgements have been interesting.


Several cases of people whose homes were raided by the police with the press on hand, were found to have had their privacy invaded, especially when video was posted on the websites.

A businessman whose secret internet sex chat was exposed by his partner was also found to have suffered an intrusion into privacy.


The PCC found that a child's video of her unruly maths class that was published on a paper's website also constituted an intrusion.


Excessive published detail in several suicides was also condemned.


In another case, the PCC was concerned about the publication of pictures taken of a woman receiving medical treatment after a road accident, although it made no finding here.


However a Mosley-style expose about the sexual activities of a female ambulance officer in a Sunday tabloid was not upheld and was said to be in the public interest.


Very few cases of the sort that reach the High Court have come to the PCC and it is clear that as far as privacy is concerned, if your privacy has been invaded and you have money, you should go to court; if you are poor, then just try to forget all about it. All the PCC can do is ask the paper to print a reminder of your shame to any who have forgotten or perhaps did not see it in the first place.


March 2009