Press standards, privacy and libel - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

6  Self-regulation of the Press

496. Finally we discuss self-regulation of the press; its future viability; the history and structure of the PCC, the current industry regulator; and its fitness for purpose. We also set out a considered programme of reform, aimed at making regulation of the press in the UK more effective.


497. Press self-regulation in the United Kingdom began in 1953, when the industry established the Press Council in belated response to recommendations by a Royal Commission of 1949. The Council had two functions, to defend press freedom and to investigate complaints, but it never accomplished either task to the satisfaction of the public or of the press itself. Successive reforms, including the introduction of lay members, failed to raise its standing and by the late 1980s it had, in the words of one historian, 'reached a state of terminal discredit'.[465]

498. In 1990, the Calcutt inquiry (see paragraph 10 above) recommended the replacement of the Press Council with a Press Complaints Commission, like the Press Council non-statutory and funded by the industry, but with a mandate to handle complaints more vigorously. It also recommended that the new body should not be charged with defending press freedom. The PCC was duly established by the industry in 1991.

499. The PCC is an independent body, which has two principal functions. It maintains and promotes a professional Code of Practice for journalists, and it deals with complaints from members of the public about possible breaches of the Code by newspapers and magazines. The board of the PCC is made up of 17 members: 10 lay members and seven editors. The PCC is funded by newspapers and magazines paying an annual levy to PressBof. Subscription to the system is voluntary, and not all UK publications choose to subscribe. In April 2009, during the course of our inquiry, the Chairmanship of the PCC passed from Sir Christopher Meyer to Baroness Buscombe.

500. Complaints to the PCC are adjudicated using its Code of Practice (see Appendix 1). The Code is written and revised by the Editors' Code Committee which is made up of editors of national, regional and local newspapers sitting alongside the Chairman and Director of the PCC. Unlike the PCC itself, the Code Committee has no lay members except the Chairman and Director of the PCC. The Code is not legally binding, and judges are under no obligation to take account of PCC adjudications, although they have been referred to by the courts.[466]

501. Complaints under the terms of the Code are assessed by the PCC to determine whether the Code has been breached. If they conclude that it has, the editor concerned may offer to resolve the complaint by the publication of a correction, an apology, a further article or a reader's letter. If offer is unsatisfactory to the complainant, the PCC will take a decision as to whether there remain issues for which redress is needed. If the PCC decides this is the case, the publication concerned is obliged to publish the PCC's adjudication with due prominence.[467] A copy of the ruling will also appear in the PCC's bi-annual report and be placed on its website.

502. In 2008, the PCC received a record 4,698 complaints, an increase of 8% on 2007.[468] It issued rulings on 1,420, broken down as follows:Table 1.2
Formal rulings under the Code, 2008
No breach of the Code 721
Sufficient remedial action offered by the newspaper 102
Resolved to the satisfaction of the complainant 552
Adjudicated and upheld 24
Adjudicated and not upheld 21

Press Complaints Commission: The Review 2008Table 1.3
Possible breaches of the code by clause of the Code, 2008, by % of complaints
Opportunity to reply 0.5%
Intrusion into grief and shock 6.9%
Children in sex cases 0.1%
Reporting of crime 1.1%
Clandestine devices and subterfuge 1.3%
Victims of sexual assault 0.4%
Financial journalism 0%
Confidential sources 0.3%
Witness payments in criminal trials 0.1%
Payment to criminals 0.3%

Press Complaints Commission: The Review 2008

503. Both the principle of press self-regulation and its practice by the PCC have always had critics and have often been matters for general concern. Indeed, in 1993 Sir David Calcutt, in a second report commissioned by the Government, concluded that self-regulation was not working and recommended that the Government should impose statutory regulation.[469] This recommendation was not acted upon.

504. This Committee and its predecessors have investigated these matters from time to time, most recently in our 2007 Report Self-regulation of the press,[470] which concluded that self-regulation continued to be the best way to maintain press standards while ensuring freedom of the press:

    "We do not believe that there is a case for a statutory regulator for the press, which would represent a very dangerous interference with the freedom of the press. We continue to believe that statutory regulation of the press is a hallmark of authoritarianism and risks undermining democracy. We recommend that self-regulation should be retained for the press, while recognising that it must be seen to be effective if calls for statutory intervention are to be resisted."[471]

505. The rationale for self-regulation which we expressed on that occasion found an echo in comments made to this inquiry by the then Creative Industries Minister, Barbara Follett MP:

    "We have put a barrier between Government and press regulation for very good reasons. As I said earlier, I have seen and lived in a society where that barrier does not exist. What you risk when you lift that barrier is interference and occasionally short-term advantage or popularity or restricting something for other means. We have to be intensely careful."[472]

506. Our 2007 comments also referred to the need for self-regulation to be seen to be effective. This constitutes a significant challenge and a continuous test for the PCC. It has no authority or resources besides those ceded to it voluntarily by the industry. It must satisfy Government and Parliament that the self-regulatory system is working. Most importantly, the PCC must have the trust of the public.

507. We have heard much praise for the PCC. Marcus Partington of the Media Lawyers Association highlighted its work behind the scenes, benefiting many ordinary people:

    "Many people do not know that the PCC proactively will warn newspapers before a story, or as a story develops that, for example, certain people do not want to be approached; certain people have been approached and do not want to be approached again; and that sort of thing happens all the time but it happens maybe on a quiet, behind-the-scenes, level which is actually very effective. If newspapers are told, for example, that somebody does not want to be approached then they would obviously adhere to that instruction by the PCC . . . I think what is very important is the PCC in those circumstances is used by the non-celebrities, the ordinary people who can approach the PCC and then use their services."[473]

508. Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, said the PCC had brought about significant change:

    "I have been in this business forty years; the journalistic landscape has changed dramatically since the '80s; journalists are much better behaved. There is an argument that the Code and the Commission has toughened things up so much that it is blunting the ability of some of the red top papers and the red top Sunday market to sell newspapers. […] Self-regulation works and it would be nice if occasionally that was recognised, along with the fact that we have continual vigilance, we continually update things, we change things, we change the Code in response to public worries. We do not always get it right but we try."[474]

509. Other voices from inside the industry, including editors, journalists and media lawyers, generally supported the PCC and saw little or no need for change.[475]

510. Even Mark Thomson and Jeremy Clarke-Williams, lawyers who primarily act for claimants and generally see the courts as the best remedy for press failings, acknowledged that the PCC was effective in dealing with press harassment.[476] Mr Clarke-Williams also told us that using the PCC was a sensible option for a client who had uncovered minor inaccuracies.[477]

511. Gerry McCann also had praise for the PCC's work in protecting his children and home from press harassment and intrusion, and there is evidence of general satisfaction among those in receipt of PCC decisions: the PCC routinely seeks feedback from them, and around 80% of those who responded in 2008 felt the procedure had been thorough and timely.[478]

512. There is no doubt that the PCC does a great deal of valuable work both in preventing breaches of the Code and in addressing complaints and we note that the PCC is successful as a mediator. The figures show that many people have benefited from a free and discreet service in exactly the way the PCC's founders envisaged and we wish to commend the staff of the PCC for this work.

513. However, in the evidence presented to our inquiry, the general effectiveness of the PCC has been repeatedly called into question. Adam Tudor, of Carter-Ruck, who advised and represented the McCanns, suggested to us that the PCC not only lacked power, but also nerve:

    "It cannot award damages. It cannot force apologies. As soon as there is any dispute of fact between the newspaper and the victim of the libel, the PCC backs off and says, 'This needs to go to law.'"[479]

514. The law firm Schillings, in written evidence to us, offered a similar assessment of the PCC:

    "It cannot: make findings of fact or declarations of falsity of allegations; make a monetary award of compensation in appropriate cases; compel witnesses or order disclosure; deal effectively with pre-publication disputes. There is also a general public perception that the Press Complaints Commission is too favourable to the media; accordingly there is a lack of public confidence in using this route to resolve serious complaints against the media."[480]

515. Dissatisfaction is by no means restricted to lawyers. The Media Standards Trust, the Campaign for Broadcasting Freedom and the National Union of Journalists were among the organisations to voice concerns, as did some journalists and editors, as well as media commentators and others.

516. Our own investigation of the cases of the McCanns (see paragraphs 333 to 375), Max Mosley (paragraphs 40 to 57), the Bridgend suicides (paragraphs 381 to 398) and the PCC's investigation of Glenn Mulcaire's dealings with the News of the World (paragraphs 470 to 472) have also left us with deep misgivings.

517. Criticisms of the PCC and press self-regulation take a variety of forms. The Commission is said to lack teeth, to be insufficiently independent of the press industry and to be insufficiently proactive in upholding standards. We will address these in turn. We will also address more specific criticisms concerning the PCC's statistics and the placing of newspaper corrections. Some conclusions and recommendations are given in the sub-sections where they fall naturally, but a number are withheld until the end of the section.


518. The PCC does not have and does not seek the power to impose fines, nor does the industry want it to have that power. The Society of Editors stated in written evidence: 'The case for fines and compensation has not been made. The PCC system would be destroyed and the huge advantages of voluntary compliance lost.'[481] News International agreed, suggesting to us that such a power would reduce the PCC's ability to resolve complaints:

    "A body that was able to impose fines would bear little resemblance to today's PCC. Its work would be slowed down by the involvement of lawyers on all sides and it would find that newspapers would be less likely to admit mistakes and offer ways of resolving complaints."[482]

519. Some editors also told us that the existing power of the PCC to oblige newspapers to make apologies, and sometimes to publish those apologies, was sufficient. Colin Myler insisted that PCC rulings were taken 'very seriously' in the industry and that 'no editor wants an adjudication against them'.[483]

520. Paul Dacre took the same view:

    "It is a matter of huge shame if an editor has an adjudication against him; it is a matter of shame for him and his paper. That is why self-regulation is the most potent form of regulation, and we buy into it. We do not want to be shamed."[484]

521. Some witnesses, however, complained that the PCC was unable to punish errant publications in ways that would make a real difference. Max Mosley argued that self-regulation without financial sanctions was no regulation at all, and the industry wanted it that way:

    "In the end Mr Murdoch would look at his pocket and he would make sure it did not happen. The journalists when they are on the scent will always overdo it and they need somebody holding them back and the best way of doing that would be a fine."[485]

522. The Commission's view is simple: "We believe it is not possible to combine the virtues of press self-regulation with a system of fines."[486] Its grounds for this belief are that industry 'buy-in' would be destroyed and some organisations would simply withdraw from the system. Further, any incentives to early resolution of complaints would be lost and disputes would swiftly turn into complex legal wrangles. It also argues that fines could not be imposed or collected without a legal basis - in effect that the PCC would have to become a statutory body.

523. There is merit here in reviewing briefly how these matters are managed in other industries. For example, among the responsibilities of Ofcom, a statutory body, is oversight of radio and television programmes and the conduct of those who make them. Ofcom can fine broadcasters for breaches of the Broadcasting Code.

524. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), like the PCC, is an industry-funded body which does not have power to impose fines. Unlike the PCC, however, the ASA can refer a broadcaster to Ofcom and it can refer an advertiser, agency or publisher to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). Both Ofcom and the OFT have the power to impose fines, and both have a statutory basis.

525. In the premium-rate phone industry, the ultimate statutory authority lies with Ofcom, but PhonepayPlus, funded by a levy on service providers, handles day-to-day regulation and can fine companies in breach of its code. It also has discretion to charge an offending company for costs incurred in an investigation.

526. One further example is the Panel on Takeovers and Mergers, which has the power to fine companies which breach its code. Its powers were put on a statutory basis in the Companies Act 2006.

527. We noted above our view, expressed in 2007, that self-regulation has to be seen to be effective. If the PCC is not seen to have authority, to uphold standards vigorously and to be independent of the press industry, one grave danger that arises is that members of the public will conclude that recourse to law is the only remedy.

528. The solicitor Jeremy Clarke-Williams, who spoke to us of "enormous cynicism" about the PCC, relayed the comments of clients: "Quite often members of the general public say, 'There is no point going to the PCC, is there?' when I meet with them at the initial client meeting. That is a sad reflection on the way in which it is regarded."[487]

529. Another view was expressed by the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, who told us that he had seen a shift in the role of the PCC: "I think over the last ten years it has changed its role into being more of a mediator and less of a regulator, and it did so almost without people noticing."[488]

530. We have heard evidence that a gap is opening up between the type of work undertaken by the PCC and the expensive and time-consuming work of the courts.[489] Such a gap defeats the purpose of regulation, potentially leaving many who are wronged in the press without access to satisfactory remedy. Gerry McCann told us: "From Kate's and my point of view, taking the legal route was a last resort [...]. I think there is a gap there currently in the regulation."[490]

531. We remain of the view that self-regulation of the press is greatly preferable to statutory regulation, and should continue. However for confidence to be maintained, the industry regulator must actually effectively regulate, not just mediate. The powers of the PCC must be enhanced, as it is toothless compared to other regulators.

532. In the case of the McCanns, Sir Christopher Meyer, the then PCC Chairman, argued to us that the issue was not about whether PCC was able or willing to assist the couple, but rather that a choice needed to be made by the McCanns themselves, between using the PCC's services or going to the courts: "What I said to Gerry McCann when I first him was, this is what the PCC can do for you, this is how we can help. If you want damages, if it comes to that, we do not do money, the courts do money, so you are going to have to make a choice."[491]

533. Roy Greenslade argued to us that Sir Christopher had in fact himself undermined self-regulation by not encouraging the McCanns to consider the PCC route:

    "Meyer could have said, 'Look, you're worried; we're going to take some action. If you want to go to law later that is your view,' but instead the PCC attitude is: 'If you're going to go to law we are having nothing to do with it.' I think that is wrong. I think that self-regulation should mean that they get involved irrespective of whether that person goes to law or not."[492]

534. Just as the PCC has no power to impose fines, it also does not deal with complaints that are, or will be, the subject of legal proceedings. The Media Standards Trust argues that people are bypassing the PCC altogether in favour of seeking redress through the courts, which are able to award damages, a trend accelerated by the introduction of CFAs.[493]

535. Adam Tudor, the McCanns' solicitor, told us:

    "If you were to ask me how I think The Express would have reacted if Kate and Gerry McCann had brought a PCC complaint rather than a Carter-Ruck letter, you could probably have felt the sigh of relief all the way down Fleet Street. Perhaps that gives you a feel for how it would be perceived. First of all, I am afraid it would have led The Express to think that relatively speaking they were off the hook because of the lack of teeth that the PCC has. Secondly, almost by definition, by going to the PCC Kate and Gerry would have been tacitly sending out a signal, not only to The Express, but to the rest of Fleet Street that they had no appetite to see this through and therefore perhaps could be fobbed off, as it were."[494]

536. Max Mosley, in his evidence to us, explained that he did not consider using the services of the PCC, as in his view, "they have no power".[495] He viewed the PCC as "very much a creature of the press"[496] and asked us: "Who is the editor of the Daily Mail? Mr Dacre. Who is the chairman of the Code Committee? Mr Dacre. It would be funny if it was not such a serious matter."[497]

537. Sir Christopher Meyer did not comment on the findings on the quality of journalism practised in pursuing the story about Max Mosley. However, he rejected in the most extraordinary terms any suggestion that Mr Mosley's experience at the hands of the News of the World qualified Mr Mosley to comment on the services offered by the PCC:

    "I must say it would be a desperate man who measured the quality of the PCC's service by something that Max Mosley may have said . . . I read what he had to say. It was absolutely predictable stuff, probably ventriloquised by Carter-Ruck, all the usual tired, pitiful stuff about limp wrists and - what was his stupid thing, arranging a piss-up in a brewery, some worn-out metaphor that he used. I really have no regard to what he had to say about the PCC."[498]

538. We are concerned at Sir Christopher Meyer's dismissal in such a cavalier way of Max Mosley's lack of faith in the efficacy of the Press Complaints Commission. The judgment in Mosley v News Group Newspapers makes detailed criticisms of the News of the World. We would expect the head of the Press Complaints Commission to have been, at the very least, concerned at the evidence given and the findings made in the Mosley judgment.

539. It is right that a complainant cannot both use the courts and pursue a PCC complaint at the same time, even if this means that some choose to bypass the PCC in favour of the courts. Indeed, if complainants were allowed to pursue an issue in both the courts and through the PCC it would both create an unfair burden on the newspaper industry and potentially prejudice a court judgment. Nevertheless, in cases where there have been clear and systematic failings by the press, the PCC should not use court proceedings as a reason not to launch its own inquiry. If the PCC were seen as more balanced and effective, then it is more likely that people will wish to use its services.


540. We have heard concern as to the independence of the PCC from the industry it regulates, notably relating to the number of newspaper and magazine editors on its committees.[499] Gerry McCann and Max Mosley drew our attention to the fact that the editors of publications with which they were in dispute sat on the PCC or its committees.[500] As discussed in paragraph 500 above, the only lay members of the Code Committee are the Chairman and Director of the PCC.

541. We note that Baroness Buscombe, the new Chairman of the PCC, announced in August 2009 an independent review of the PCC's governance, due to report in spring 2010, which includes consideration of:

    "the operation of the PCC board, sub-committees and secretariat; how transparency in the system can be enhanced; whether the independent systems of accountability - the Charter Commissioner and Charter Compliance Panel - can be improved; and the PCC's Articles of Association."[501]

542. We acknowledge that the PCC itself has attempted to address the issue of ensuring that it is seen to be independent, increasing the number of lay members of the PCC to 10 as against seven industry members. However, we believe that more needs to be done to enhance the credibility of the PCC to the outside world. We recommend that the membership of the PCC should be rebalanced to give the lay members a two thirds majority, making it absolutely clear that the PCC is not overly influenced by the press. We further recommend that there should be lay members on the Code Committee, and that one of those lay members should be Chairman of that Committee. In addition to editors of newspapers and magazines, practising journalists should be invited to serve on the PCC's Committees.

543. While the process for appointing lay members of the PCC is relatively transparent, with vacancies advertised and a clear recruitment and interview process followed, the methodology for the appointment of press members is less clear. The departure of Peter Hill, editor of the Daily Express, described in paragraphs 554 to 556 below, is an example of this lack of clarity. If the appointment and subsequent activities of the press members of the PCC are not transparent, then its activities will be little understood by the public. As a matter of best practice, information on all appointments to the PCC, as well as any rotation or dismissal of members, should be made available via the PCC's website as soon they occur and contained within the PCC's Annual Report.


544. We have already made clear our view that the PCC was too slow to intervene In two recent, high-profile cases where, at the very least, there were early grounds to believe the Code had been or would be breached, and where in fact the press engaged in sustained irresponsible reporting.

545. In the McCann case, despite the remarkable intensity and prominence of the coverage, and despite expressions of disquiet by many observers and by Mr McCann himself, the PCC remained virtually silent and invisible on the case until the conclusion of the Express Group libel case ten months after Madeleine McCann's disappearance. Indeed, the PCC annual reports for 2007 and 2008 contained only fleeting references to the case and no discussion of the coverage and the concerns it aroused.

546. In the case of the suicides in Bridgend, there was extensive and sustained media coverage of a number of suicides, self-evidently a cause for prompt action and close vigilance by the PCC, yet months were allowed to pass before Commission representatives visited the area.

547. The criticism that the PCC is insufficiently proactive enough is not new. Our predecessors in their 2003 inquiry, Privacy and media intrusion,[502] took evidence from the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, who stated: 'In terms of public confidence in the PCC's determination to uphold the Code then the capacity and the willingness to act proactively is something they should look into.'[503]

548. The Committee on that occasion recommended that the PCC should be more proactive and should take 'a more consistent approach to foreseeable events that herald intense media activity and people in grief and shock'.[504] This recommendation was echoed by the Government in their response to the report.[505] However, our predecessors' recommendation does not seem to have been acted upon with satisfactory effect.

549. There is a perception that the PCC has no power to act unless it receives a complaint from a person, such as Mr or Mrs McCann for example, who is directly affected by a breach of the Code, and also that it cannot entertain so-called third party complaints'. This is not the case. The PCC is empowered, through its Articles of Association,[506] to undertake proactive work:

    "It shall also be the function of Commission to consider and pronounce on issues relating to the Code of Practice which the Commission, in its absolute discretion considers to be in the public interests."[507]

550. It is also able to investigate third party complaints: "The Commission shall have discretion to consider any complaint from whatever source that it considers appropriate to the effective discharge of its function."[508]

551. Nevertheless, it is clear to us that the PCC regards itself very much as a complaints-handling organisation. The PCC's own website makes clear that the circumstances in which it would consider undertaking a proactive inquiry are rare:

    "The reasons noted above in relation to third party complaints may also militate against the PCC launching investigations proactively even where no complaint has been received. Nonetheless, as with third party complaints the PCC has an absolute discretion about whether or not to investigate a complaint. If it appeared to the Commission that there was a particular public interest in raising its own complaint then it could do so - but only in very exceptional situations"[509]

552. The failure of the PCC to prevent or at least limit the irresponsible reporting that surrounded the McCann and Bridgend cases has undermined the credibility of press self-regulation. In future the Commission must be more proactive. If there are grounds to believe that serial breaches of the Code are occurring or are likely to occur, the PCC must not wait for a complaint before taking action. That action may involve making contact with those involved, issuing a public warning or initiating an inquiry. We recommend that such action should be mandatory once three or more members of the Commission have indicated to the Chairman that they believe it would be in the public interest.


553. The power of the self-regulatory system to a large extent depends on the participation of all the major newspaper and publications groups. PressBof described the level of compliance with payment of the levy, from which the PCC is funded, as 'high'.[510] However there are some notable publications which do not subscribe to the self regulatory system. Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, explained why it does not do so:

    "We do not pay and Private Eye does not belong to the PCC, no. I have always felt Private Eye should be out of that. It means that we just obey or do not obey or we are judged by the law rather than by the PCC. Practically two and a bit pages per issue of Private Eye are criticism of other individuals working in journalism. On the whole, they appear on the board of the PCC adjudicating your complaint, so I would be lying if I said that did not occur to me. So no, I always thought it would be better for the Eye to be out of it."[511]

554. Another example of publications which have not paid a subscription to PressBof was Express Group newspapers (Daily Express, Sunday Express, Daily Star, Sunday Star). In December 2007, the Express Group was ejected from the trade organisation the Newspaper Publishers Association (NPA) after disagreements about unpaid fees. In May 2008, the editor of the Daily Express, Peter Hill, left the PCC board. This was also two months after the Express Group was ordered to pay £550,000 damages to Kate and Gerry McCann. Express Group reinstated its subscription to PressBof on 15 February 2009. The PCC continued to adjudicate on complaints relating to the Express Group and the Group abided by PCC decisions during the period in which it did not subscribe.

555. The explanations we heard from Peter Hill and from the then Chairman of the PCC, Sir Christopher Meyer, for Mr Hill leaving the PCC were not completely clear or consistent. Mr Hill said that he had considered resigning but eventually chose not to, but also said he "felt it was time for a change".[512] Sir Christopher's explanation was that there were a "combination of factors",[513] including the non-payment of fees by Express Group to the NPA and the Express's conduct in the McCann case.

556. Whatever the true reasons for Peter Hill's resignation from the PCC, we believe that the fact that the Express Group did not pay subscriptions into the self-regulatory system for a prolonged period is deplorable, even though the PCC continued to issue judgements on articles in Express Group papers.

557. Even the temporary absence of contributions from such a major newspaper group exposed a weakness in the very principle of the self-regulatory system. We accept that this was an exceptional case. Nevertheless, it illustrates the need to ensure that the PCC is reliably resourced by the industry to carry out its functions.

558. We are concerned that there are currently no incentives to subscribe to the PCC so, as in the case of Private Eye, publications can operate seemingly normally outside of the regulatory system. Similarly, the Express Group did not seem to have suffered from not subscribing to the PCC. If in the future more newspapers or periodicals were to withdraw from the system, it would cease to be viable both financially and as a regulator. We have concluded that there must be some incentive for newspapers to subscribe to the self-regulatory system. Without such an incentive for publications to join and remain in the PCC, the system is too precarious. We recommend that the Government consider whether proposals to reduce the cost burden in defamation cases should only be made available to those publications which provide the public with an alternative route of redress through their membership of the PCC.

559. Many, but not all, newspapers include in the employment contracts of their journalists an undertaking to respect the PCC Code. We have previously voiced our support for this procedure, mainly to bring home to journalists the importance of the Code, but also in the hope it would help protect journalists from being pressured into unethical practice. In our 2007 Report, Self-regulation of the Press, we concluded:

    "In the limited time available, we have not been able to resolve what appear to be conflicting statements on whether journalists come under pressure from editors to breach the Code. We nonetheless support the inclusion in staff contracts of a clause requiring adherence to the Code of Practice as a condition of employment, which we believe would safeguard journalists who believed that they were being asked to use unethical newsgathering practices."[514]

560. Following his evidence session with us during the course of our current inquiry the editor of the Daily Express, Peter Hill, agreed to ensure his journalists sign a contract binding them to the PCC Code.[515] We welcome Peter Hill's decision to include adherence to the PCC Code in the contract of journalists who work at the Daily Express. We are disappointed that our previous recommendation on this matter was not acted on across the industry. We therefore recommend that the PCC should mandate the inclusion of a clause requiring respect for the Code in staff contracts of journalists of all subscribing publications.


561. The PCC's handling of complaints has been criticised by several submissions to our inquiry, and more widely, on the grounds that too many complaints fall by the wayside in the handling process.

562. In its report A More Accountable Press,[516] the Media Standards Trust said:

    "On average, about 80% of the complaints made to the PCC - the majority of which are about accuracy - are rejected. 45-60% are rejected because the complaint is 'not formalised'; 10-15% because 'they have no case under the code'; 10-20% because they are 'outside the remit' of the PCC; and 1-5% because they are made by 'third-party complainants'."[517]

563. Professor Chris Frost, of Liverpool John Moores University, in written evidence, also noted the small proportion of complaints that result in adjudication:

    "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."[518]

564. By contrast, the PCC has pointed to rising numbers of complaints received as evidence of rising public confidence. In oral evidence to us, Sir Christopher Meyer, then the Chairman of the PCC, said:

    "The more we are used the more our reputation rises [...]. I have to say to you, Chairman, that pro rata today it looks like we will have a figure of near to 6,000 [complaints] by the end of this year, people who have come to us for help, and last year's figure of over 4,500 was itself an historic record. There is a credibility case launched against us; it is without merit and without foundation."[519]

565. It is consistently the case that a large proportion of the complaints in the PCC's totals never qualify for scrutiny of any kind. Of 4,698 complaints received in 2008, no fewer than 3,278 were deemed unsuitable for consideration. This occurs, in part at least, because of the way in which a complainant is defined.

566. Members of the public may register complaints with the PCC in a simple process by letter, phone or email, after which they are required to formalise their complaints within seven days, providing written accounts of their grounds and copies of the articles objected to. Even though PCC staff are available to assist with this formalising process, in a significant proportion of cases people do not proceed from the first to the second stage and in consequence their complaints cannot be considered. However, the PCC's published complaints totals, for instance those quoted by Sir Christopher Meyer above, include all first-stage complaints, not merely the formalised ones.

567. The PCC also notes in its 2008 report that it is increasingly dealing with multiple complaints.[520] For example, in that year 584 people complained about comments in an article in the Times by Matthew Parris in relation to cyclists, but the PCC found it necessary to make only one ruling. This is likely to become more common: the PCC recently received more than 21,000 first-stage complaints about an article by Jan Moir in the Daily Mail concerning the death of Stephen Gately, a total at least in part inspired by an internet campaign. Such cases, if not thoughtfully presented, also have the potential to skew the statistics of PCC activity and in turn adversely affect public perceptions.

568. Controversy over the PCC's complaints activity arises in part from the manner in which the PCC presents its complaints statistics in its annual and biannual reports, and we recommend that the PCC should conduct a review of this matter with a view to ensuring maximum clarity.

569. In particular, contacts from members of the public which are not followed up with the appropriate documentation should not be considered as true complaints. Including them in headline complaints totals (quoted frequently by both the PCC and its critics) is unhelpful to the public and we recommend that a different formula be found for presenting them in the statistical sections of PCC publications.


570. The interpretation of the Code's requirement for an apology to be printed with 'due prominence' remains a matter of controversy. In the Peaches Geldof case discussed in paragraph 326 above, Jonathan Coad told us that although the inaccurate headline ran across the from page, the apology that followed appeared on page two and occupied only 2.6% of the total area of the original coverage:

    "The point is this: the newspaper agreed, as they could do no other, that the front page story was inaccurate, but what they would not do was put the correction on the front page. I went to the PCC and made the point that millions and millions of people who do not buy the newspaper will have seen this on the front page and therefore the only place for the correction to be is on the front page. In 2003 Sir Christopher Meyer came in front of you and said of prominence, not once but twice, that of course corrections must be 'at least as prominent' as the original article 'otherwise it would be ridiculous'. I think we would agree with that."[521]

571. The Editors' Codebook, the companion manual to the PCC Code of Practice, states that while the PCC does not interpret 'due prominence' to mean 'equal prominence' it expects that "the positioning of apologies or corrections should generally reflect the seriousness of the error - and that would include front page apologies where appropriate."[522]

572. In oral evidence to us, the then Minister Barbara Follett acknowledged that the placing of apologies was a problem:

    "From my own personal experience, the offence can be on page two in large type and the apology basically somewhere around the ads in very small type, and that is something which I would like to see changed."[523]

573. The printing of corrections and apologies should be consistent and needs to reflect the prominence of the first reference to the original article. Corrections and apologies should be printed on either an earlier, or the same, page as that first reference, although they need not be the same size. Newspapers should notify the PCC in advance of the proposed location and size of a correction or apology; if the PCC indicates that the requirement for 'due prominence' has not been fulfilled and the paper takes no remedial action, then this non-compliance should be noted as part of the published text of the correction or apology. We recommend that this should be written into clause one of the PCC Code.


574. A truly effective self-regulatory body is one to which both the public and the industry looks as an active and leading upholder of standards; one which, at times when standards are a matter of genuine public concern, engages actively with the industry, publicly and privately, to ensure that standards are upheld. It can be relied upon to investigate and pronounce upon, without fear or favour, any issues which it believes have a bearing on the maintenance of standards in the public interest.

575. As we have recognised, the PCC does much good work both in preventing breaches of the Code through dialogue with newspapers before stories are published and in resolving complaints after publication. However, there is still a widespread view that its inability to impose any kind of penalty when a breach of the Code does occur significantly reduces its authority and credibility. In order to command public confidence that its rulings are taken seriously by the press, we believe that, in cases where a serious breach of the Code has occurred, the PCC should have the ability to impose a financial penalty. The industry may see giving the PCC the power to fine as an attack on the self-regulatory system. The reverse is true. We believe that this power would enhance the PCC's credibility and public support. We do not accept the argument that this would require statutory backing, if the industry is sincere about effective self-regulation it can establish the necessary regime independently. In the most serious of cases, the PCC should have the ultimate power to order the suspension of printing of the offending publication for one issue. This would not only represent a major financial penalty, but would be a very visible demonstration of the severity of the transgression.

576. It is vital that both the press and the public understand that the PCC is more than a complaints handling body, and that it has responsibility for upholding press standards generally. To this end, we recommend that the PCC should be renamed the Press Complaints and Standards Commission. Further, in order to equip it more fully to discharge this remit, we recommend that the PCC should appoint a deputy director for standards. It may be desirable for the person appointed to have direct experience of the newspaper industry; we recommend that this should be permitted.

577. The freedom of the press is vital to a healthy democracy; however, with such freedom come responsibilities. The PCC has the burden of responsibility of ensuring the public has confidence in the press and its regulation and it still has some way to go on this.

578. This Report is the product of the longest, most complex and wide-ranging inquiry this Committee has undertaken. Our aim has been to arrive at recommendations that, if implemented, would help to restore the delicate balances associated with the freedom of the press. Individual proposals we make will have their critics - that is inevitable - but we are convinced that, taken together, our recommendations represent a constructive way forward for a free and healthy UK press in the years to come.

465   R. Shannon, A Press Free and Responsible: Self-Regulation and the Press Complaints Commission 1991-2001, (London 2001), p 2 Back

466   Ev 418 Back

467   Press Complaints Commission, The Editors' Code of Practice, clause 1-ii Back

468   Press Complaints Commission, 08 The Review, the Annual Report of the Press Complaints Commission Back

469   Department of National Heritage, Review of press self-regulation, by Sir David Calcutt, QC, Cm 2135, January 1993, para 8.2 Back

470   Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2006-07, Self-regulation of the press, HC 375 Back

471   Ibid. Back

472   Q 1089 Back

473   Q 36 Back

474   Q 588 Back

475   For example see Ev 2, 7, 277, 285 Back

476   Q 117 Back

477   Ibid. Back

478   08 The Review, the Annual Report of the Press Complaints Commission, p 30 Back

479   Q 195 Back

480   Ev 37 Back

481   Ev 418 Back

482   Ev 415 Back

483   Q 833 Back

484   Q 587 Back

485   Q 152 Back

486   Ibid. Back

487   Q 117 Back

488   Q 892 Back

489   Qq 110-8, 193  Back

490   Q 193 Back

491   Q 343 Back

492   Q 434 Back

493   A More Accountable Press: Part 1 Back

494   Q 195 Back

495   Q 141 Back

496   Ibid. Back

497   Ibid. Back

498   Q 344 Back

499   E.g. Gerry McCann Back

500   Qq 141, 194 Back

501   "Buscombe announces independent PCC governance review", Back

502   Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2002-03, Privacy and media intrusion, HC 458-I Back

503   Ibid., Q 785 Back

504   Ibid., para 72 Back

505   Department for Culture, Media and Sport, The Government's Response to the Fifth Report of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on Privacy and Media Intrusion, Cm 5985, October 2003, para 4.13 Back

506   Articles of Association, as adopted 26 April 2006, Back

507   Article 53.1A, adopted by special resolution 23 February 1994 Back

508   Article 53.4 Back

509   Press Complaints Commission, Frequently asked questions, Question 7: Why isn't the PCC pro-active? Should it not be prepared to take up breaches of the Code without waiting for complaints?, Back

510   Ev 109 Back

511   Q 890 Back

512   Q 679 Back

513   Q 363 Back

514   Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Self-regulation of the press, para 58 Back

515   Ev 172-173 Back

516   A More Accountable Press: Part 1, p 11 Back

517   Ibid., p 11 Back

518   Ev 463 Back

519   Q 356 Back

520   08 The Review, the Annual Report of the Press Complaints Commission, p 26 Back

521   Q 115 Back

522   The Editors' Codebook, The handbook to the Editors' Code of Practice, 2nd edition, p 18 Back

523   Q 1076 Back

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