Appendix: Press Complaints Commission's
I have been asked by the board of the Press Complaints
Commission to write to you in response to the Select Committee's
The Commission welcomes the level of consideration
which the Select Committee has applied to its practices. It is
glad to see its fundamental recognition that "self-regulation
of the press is greatly preferable to statutory regulation, and
should continue". It is grateful that the report has also
publicly commended the staff of the PCC, and acknowledged that
the PCC "does a great deal of valuable work both in preventing
breaches of the Code and in addressing complaints". The Select
Committee has accepted that "many people have benefited from
a free and discreet service in exactly the way the PCC's founders
envisaged". This can provide real encouragement to those
who work at the PCC.
It is also notable that the Select Committee has
again ruled out the introduction of a privacy law, which is something
that the Commission wishes strongly to endorse. As the Commission
has made publicly clear, it currently handles hundreds of privacy
complaints every year, and represents the preferred route of many
people who would otherwise seek to go to court.
The Commission itself, prior to the reporting of
the Select Committee, has accepted that it should be seeking to
improve its effectiveness and its accountability, and to clarify
its working independence from the newspaper and magazine industry.
That is why the incoming Chairman instituted a Governance Review
into the PCC systems, which is yet to report. The Governance Review
will consider all of the relevant recommendations made by the
Select Committee, before reporting to the Commission later this
It should, therefore, be clear that the Commission
welcomes constructive criticism, and will consider the recommendations
made by the Select Committee in that light. The Commission accepts
that it must be better at examining itself and how it works and
the Governance Review will help to achieve that. It is important,
however, that the PCC does not prejudice the outcome of the Governance
Review and so the Commission is not yet in a position to respond
to all of the Select Committee's views and recommendations. Governance
Review members, as you know, are currently arranging to speak
with representatives of the Select Committee.
I should also make clear that proposed changes to
the Code are a matter not for the Commission but for the Editors'
Code of Practice Committee, which is a separate body. Additionally,
some of the Select Committee's recommendations relate to the remit
and sanctions of the PCC, which are matters for the industry to
consider. The PCC performs its responsibilities independently,
but the framework in which it operates - as with all self-regulatory
mechanisms - must be agreed by the industry itself. We understand
the industry will respond separately to the Select Committee's
In this response I will, therefore, seek to provide
the Commission's thoughts on the outstanding issues on which it
can comment. The Commission does not accept all of the conclusions
drawn by the report and is concerned that some of the recommendations
seem to be based on the remarks of partisan witnesses merely taken
at face value. The Select Committee has not fully tested, or even
consulted on, all of its practical suggestions. This is disappointing.
The Commission believes that the Select Committee
has failed to acknowledge the current level of proactive work
undertaken by the PCC, and the extent to which the PCC is already
concerned with the raising of standards. Last year, the Commission
issued over 1600 rulings, and negotiated over 600 settlements,
which demonstrated an effective record of holding editors to account.
Recent PCC rulings have set clear standards on, for example, the
reporting of suicide, pregnancy, material taken from social networking
sites, transgender issues, the prominence of apologies and more.
The Commission also acts several times a week to help prevent
media harassment, by communicating concerns from affected parties
- including some of the most vulnerable people in the community
- across the industry. This is a bespoke service, which we believe
could not be replicated by any other system.
In terms of proactivity, the Select Committee recommends
that the PCC should engage in "dedicated and compulsory training
of coroners and police family liaison officers about ways in which
the PCC can help and
providing them with standard leaflets
which can be offered to those with whom they come into contact".
The Commission has already informed the Select Committee of its
work in this area, which includes wide-ranging contact with (and
training of) representatives of such bodies, as well as others.
It is not within the power of the PCC to make training in such
sectors compulsory, but it welcomes the Select Committee's encouragement
for external bodies to take up the Commission's regular offers
of training and assistance.
The Commission also regularly seeks to contact potential
complainants, to help individuals shape their concerns effectively
and to ensure that those at the centre of news stories are aware
of our services. In the Commission's view, the work it did in
Bridgend (even if it could have done more), and more generally
in the field of suicide reporting, represents a positive example
of its proactive approach, which was under-valued by the Select
Committee. That said, the Commission welcomes the stimulus from
the Select Committee for it to improve in this area and become
even more proactive. It agrees that Commissioners should prompt
the PCC's consideration of specific cases, where it is in the
public interest. This has been the practice for some years, but
will now be formalised as a matter of policy for the Commission.
Of course, the test for the Commission at all times
must be whether any proposed improvement can be practically achieved.
For example, it is easy to assert that the Commission should issue
"public warnings" without receiving a complaint, or
any contact from a potential complainant. In practice, the Commission
must pay due regard to those directly affected by the matter under
complaint, and indeed will necessarily rely on them for their
views on the subject of the article. The credibility of the Press
Council (which the PCC was brought in to replace) was fatally
undermined by its willingness to comment on issues without information
from those concerned.
It is in this context that the PCC's actions in regard
to the McCann case must be viewed. It would not have been possible,
contrary to the Select Committee's assertions, for the Commission
to have come to an independent view in May 2007 on questions of
accuracy or impropriety in the reporting of the McCann case. The
PCC would clearly have needed information from those at the centre
of the story to do so. At that point, the Commission had already
sought to engage with the McCanns and make itself available to
offer all necessary assistance. The McCanns publicly thanked the
PCC for its work in dealing with harassment and protecting the
privacy of their children. They elected, as was their right, to
pursue other matters through the courts.
However, the Commission is committed to learning
lessons from a case that led to a significant amount of public
concern about press standards. It does accept that it could have
done more to direct the McCanns' concerns about reporting, and
to channel them into more formal complaints. It will take this
on board for the future.
The Commission also wished to comment on the Select
Committee's remarks on phone message hacking and the PCC's work
in this area. It believes that your report mischaracterises what
the PCC actually sought to do, which was not to duplicate the
police investigation but to seek to ensure a change in practice
at the News of the World, as well as to confirm best practice
within the industry as a whole. The Select Committee acknowledges
that standards have risen in this area, and the PCC has played
a part in that.
That said, the Commission will consider internally
whether it could have clarified its intent and role better, and
has taken due note of how its work has been received in some quarters.
Finally on this subject, the Commission wishes to
take this opportunity to correct the record. Your report says
that the Chairman of the PCC issued a statement in November 2009
which may have suggested that Gordon Taylor's lawyer, Mr Lewis,
misled the Committee. This is not the case, as the PCC made publicly
clear at the time. Baroness Buscombe has never suggested - and
does not believe - that Mr Lewis misled the Select Committee and
her statement, which made no reference to Mr Lewis, was not intended
as a criticism of him or the evidence which he gave to the Select
Committee. Baroness Buscombe regrets that her statement may have
been misunderstood and that this has been of concern to Mr Lewis.
Baroness Buscombe and the Commission therefore wish to make the
position entirely clear.
Turning to more general matters, the Commission believes
that its proper role is to uphold press standards, as defined
by the Code of Practice, by providing the public with an effective
means of redress by which editors can be held to account. The
Select Committee supports this concept. However, the Commission
cannot - and does not wish to - seek to uphold general standards
relating to taste and offence. This is for good reason. It would
be unacceptable for the Commission unduly to restrict freedom
of expression of the press by imposing its opinions on the overall
suitability of material, unless there are grounds to do so under
the Code. The Code does not include matters of taste or offence
and the Commission would not suggest to the Code Committee that
Currently, the Commission does not accept that it
is possible - or appropriate - to monitor widely for compliance
with the Code, especially given the vast amount of information
that is now being published on and offline across the newspaper
and magazine industry. At the heart of the Code is the protection
of the individual and the Commission believes a model of efficient
and transparent complaints handling to be more appropriate to
a digital age. The impact of convergence, and online reporting,
is something the PCC will be actively assessing in future.
The success of self-regulation is not only based
on the fact that the industry takes it seriously and responds
to its requirements, but also that the public have access to it
and confidence in it. The Commission accepts the Select Committee's
view that it has, in the past, failed to present its complaints
information clearly enough. It is already in the process of improving
how it communicates in this area. The Commission is committed
to releasing new advertising material, both in print and online,
so that accessibility to its services can increase. This will
build credibility, as it is notable that most of those who actually
use the PCC - in contrast to certain individuals who merely observe
at a distance - value the service it offers.
The Commission recognises the importance the Select
Committee has attached to the prominence of corrections, apologies
and PCC adjudications. It agrees with the Select Committee that
publications should consult with the complainant and PCC about
prominence prior to publication. In practice, this commonly takes
place, but the Commission welcomes the suggestion that the Code
should refer to this.
It is worth pointing out that recent figures show
that over 85% of PCC-negotiated corrections and apologies appear
no further back than the original transgression, or in a designated
corrections column. The PCC has specifically upheld complaints
against newspapers for failing to publish corrections with due
prominence. This goes further than the Select Committee's recommendation
that "non-compliance should be noted as part of the published
text of the correction or apology". The Commission will further
prioritise the issue of prominence in the future.
At present, the Commission believes its powers are
effective, and can point to a culture in which its sanctions have
real impact and led last year to a record number of settled complaints.
However, it welcomes the fact that the issue of sanctions can
be re-examined, and will be talking to the industry on this point.
The Commission does want to take this opportunity seriously to
question whether the suspension of printing of an offending publication
- even if that were practicable - could ever be proportionate
and appropriate in a democratic society. As far as the Commission
can determine, no other analogous body in the civilised world
would employ such a sanction.
In response to other recommendations, the Commission
welcomes the notion that there might be external incentives to
encourage subscription to the system of self-regulation and looks
forward to hearing suggestions in this area. It also accepts the
idea that adherence to the Code should be written into the contract
of journalists for all publications. This practice is already
widespread, but the Chairman of the Commission will be writing
to relevant figures on this basis shortly to encourage universal
The Commission acknowledges the specific context
and range of the Select Committee's report, which necessarily
used a limited period of time and a few individual cases as a
basis for analysis of the PCC. It is unsurprising that the
Commission would have an alternative perspective on some issues,
bearing in mind its ability to rely on an archive of thousands
of cases and the experience of its varied Commissioners. But the
Commission does not wish to lose sight of the shared commitment
to self-regulation, embodied in the report, and wants to
make clear that it is willing to participate in dialogue
with the Select Committee, and the newspaper and magazine industry,
to continue its development for the future.
24 March 2010