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.
THE PRESS COMPLAINTS COMMISSION
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'.
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.
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.
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.
It issued rulings on 1,420, broken down as follows:Table
|Formal rulings under the Code, 2008
|No breach of the Code
|Sufficient remedial action offered by the newspaper
|Resolved to the satisfaction of the complainant
|Adjudicated and upheld
|Adjudicated and not upheld
Press Complaints Commission: The Review 2008Table
|Possible breaches of the code by clause of the Code, 2008, by % of complaints
|Opportunity to reply
|Intrusion into grief and shock
|Children in sex cases
|Reporting of crime
|Clandestine devices and subterfuge
|Victims of sexual assault
|Witness payments in criminal trials
|Payment to criminals
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.
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,
which concluded that self-regulation continued to be the best
way to maintain press standards while ensuring freedom of the
"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."
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."
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."
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. [
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."
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.
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.
Mr Clarke-Williams also told us that using the PCC was a sensible
option for a client who had uncovered minor inaccuracies.
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.
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.'"
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
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.
THE PCC AND FINES
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.' 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."
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'.
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."
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."
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."
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
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
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
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."
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
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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."
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".
He viewed the PCC as "very much a creature of the press"
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."
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."
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
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.
THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE PCC
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.
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.
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
"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."
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.
A MORE PROACTIVE APPROACH?
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,
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
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'.
This recommendation was echoed by the Government in their
response to the report.
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,
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."
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."
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"
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.
THE AUTHORITY OF THE PCC
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'.
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."
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".
Sir Christopher's explanation was that there were a "combination
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
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.
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.
THE PCC'S STATISTICS
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
562. In its report A More Accountable Press,
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'."
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."
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."
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.
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
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
"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
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."
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."
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
THE FUTURE OF THE PCC
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
Ev 418 Back
Press Complaints Commission, The Editors' Code of Practice, clause
Press Complaints Commission, 08 The Review, the Annual
Report of the Press Complaints Commission Back
Department of National Heritage, Review of press self-regulation,
by Sir David Calcutt, QC, Cm 2135, January 1993, para 8.2 Back
Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Seventh Report of Session
2006-07, Self-regulation of the press, HC 375 Back
Q 1089 Back
Q 36 Back
Q 588 Back
For example see Ev 2, 7, 277, 285 Back
Q 117 Back
08 The Review, the Annual Report of the Press Complaints
Commission, p 30 Back
Q 195 Back
Ev 37 Back
Ev 418 Back
Ev 415 Back
Q 833 Back
Q 587 Back
Q 152 Back
Q 117 Back
Q 892 Back
Qq 110-8, 193 Back
Q 193 Back
Q 343 Back
Q 434 Back
A More Accountable Press: Part 1 Back
Q 195 Back
Q 141 Back
Q 344 Back
E.g. Gerry McCann Back
Qq 141, 194 Back
"Buscombe announces independent PCC governance review",
Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2002-03,
Privacy and media intrusion, HC 458-I Back
Ibid., Q 785 Back
Ibid., para 72 Back
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
Articles of Association, as adopted 26 April 2006, www.pcc.org.uk Back
Article 53.1A, adopted by special resolution 23 February 1994 Back
Article 53.4 Back
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?,
Ev 109 Back
Q 890 Back
Q 679 Back
Q 363 Back
Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Self-regulation of the
press, para 58 Back
Ev 172-173 Back
A More Accountable Press: Part 1, p 11 Back
Ibid., p 11 Back
Ev 463 Back
Q 356 Back
08 The Review, the Annual Report of the Press Complaints
Commission, p 26 Back
Q 115 Back
The Editors' Codebook, The handbook to the Editors' Code of Practice,
2nd edition, p 18 Back
Q 1076 Back