Firearms Control - Home Affairs Committee Contents

Press Complaints Commission

I have been informed, by Bob Satchwell (the Director of the Society of Editors) that your committee is interested in exploring issues to do with media coverage of the Derrick Bird shooting. I thought it might be useful for me to set down how the Press Complaints Commission acted in response to what happened in Cumbria on 2 June 2010.

When the PCC became aware of the incident (early in the afternoon, after two shootings had been reported), we contacted local police and hospitals to inform them about the PCC's services. Over the course of the next few days we had several conversations with police communicators, and were on hand to offer advice and support with media concerns. 

The PCC runs a 24-hour system by which anybody who feels harassed by the physical attention of the media (both broadcast and print) can speak immediately to senior members of PCC staff. We can disseminate any family's request to be left alone across the whole industry.  This invariably relieves the pressure, and stops people being contacted without consent. We were asked to do this on one occasion by a family in Whitehaven, and believe this was effective.  The same system can be used to inform editors of privacy concerns, and so prevent intrusive material being published.

Given the very high-profile nature of the incident, I travelled in July to Cumbria for meetings with local police, the editor and deputy editor of the Whitehaven News, and local clergy (including the Archdeacon of West Cumberland), who played a prominent role in the aftermath of the tragedy.  I also had an open letter published in the Whitehaven News, encouraging people to come forward with complaints. I attach an example of a complaint being resolved by the PCC: I also attach, for information, a document (which we will shortly be publishing) on how the PCC generally responds to major media events (such as the Derrick Bird case), which I hope is useful and shows how we seek to be of assistance at such times.

I see from the published evidence to your committee that Jamie Reed MP has expressed particular concerns about the media coverage. Sadly, Mr Reed has failed to respond to repeated requests from the PCC for a meeting so that we could address those concerns, and offer assistance to any constituents with particular problems.  We remain, of course, available to address any specific issues that have arisen.

Evidence has also been submitted by Professor Ashton, who—I note—would like to see a Code of Practice for all coverage of shooting incidents.  His concerns appear to span both print and broadcast media, in this country and abroad.  I presume that you will be writing to representatives of both broadcast and print media, and considering the global aspect of such coverage, but wanted to highlight the fact that the PCC independently enforces a Code of Practice (written by a body of editors) that is subject to annual consultation. I would be happy to pass on any suggestions to the appropriate person for how this Code might be amended.    You may wish to contact the Committee directly with proposals.   I will also be in touch with Professor Ashton, to see if he would like to discuss his concerns further.



This explanatory note sets out what action the Press Complaints Commission takes following a major incident (such as an accident, natural disaster, attack on human life) in which media attention on those affected is likely to be intense.

As soon as it becomes clear that sustained media attention is likely to follow a news story, the PCC will act immediately, attempting to contact the subjects or victims of the incident. Where appropriate, it makes contact directly. However, for practical reasons, in most cases it contacts an intermediary and request that a message is passed on. Examples of intermediaries include:

the local police force (usually via the press office);

the Coroner or Coroner's Officer (or the Procurator Fiscal in Scotland);

the MP or other elected representative;

the hospital(s) and/or NHS authorities dealing with the injured;

a solicitor or agent, if one is named;

the local religious or other community leader(s); and

any other representative whose name has been made public.

In the case of particularly large-scale incidents which are likely to involve the full range of emergency services, the PCC contacts the regional COI (Central Office of Information) group, a government body which runs a series of Regional Media Emergency Forums co-ordinating the response to such incidents.

Generally speaking, initial contact is made on the telephone, with a follow up email then sent. The PCC explains how it can help vulnerable individuals in the following ways:

1.  If someone does not wish to speak to the media: the PCC can send a private advisory note to editors, making clear an individual does not wish to comment publicly on their situation. This can help to prevent any unwanted media approaches being made at all.

2.  If someone is being harassed by a journalist or photographer: the PCC can issue a private "desist notice" which requests journalists and photographers cease their approaches with immediate effect. This can be sent either to an individual publication if the concern relates to a specific title, or to the industry more widely if the concern is more general or appears to involve multiple publications.

3.  If someone is concerned about a story that has already been published: the PCC can deal with a formal complaint under the Editors' Code of Practice (see

The PCC ensures that all of its contact details are made available at this time (including the 24-hour emergency number), and that the individual or their representative is aware of the relevant parts of the Code. It also points people in the direction of any relevant guidance notes which may be helpful, for example on dealing with media attention in the aftermath of a death (which has recently been revised), or the rules on reporting inquests. An offer to send printed copies of literature will also be made at this stage.

A copy of a tailored briefing on how the Commission can help in major incidents is then sent. The PCC representative always explains that, in sensitive situations, its advice is confidential.


If the incident or death has happened abroad and British nationals are affected, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is responsible for co-ordinating the help they receive. If the incident involves a large number of people, or is otherwise significant, the PCC can contact the FCO to offer its assistance in managing any problems with media attention. We point out that journalists working for foreign titles do not fall under our remit, but that journalists working abroad for British titles are expected to abide by the terms of the Code. In some circumstances, the PCC can pass on concerns about journalists' behaviour to other press councils, if one operates in the country in question.

The PCC has worked with the FCO to arrange for information about its services to be included in the FCO's Guide for bereaved families2, a copy of which is given to families who suffer the death of a family member outside the UK.


The PCC continues to stay in contact with the officials involved throughout the duration of the incident and its aftermath. PCC staff are always willing to speak on an out-of-hours basis.

The PCC promptly responds to any concerns raised either by people directly affected by the incident or by third parties. It considers, as far as possible, comments about the incident made in the press or on social media by those involved.


The PCC regularly works with emergency service providers, so that those supporting the vulnerable know how it can help even before something happens. Some examples of this work (which the PCC is always looking to expand and improve) include:

liaising with DCMS to publish information in its "Humanitarian Assistance in Emergencies"3 guidance;

liaising with the Ministry of Justice to publish information in its "Charter for bereaved people";4

running training seminars for police press and family liaison officers throughout the UK;

contacting the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the Association of Police Public Relations Officers (APPRO) and the National Executive Board for Family Liaison to offer information;

maintaining contact with various parts of the NHS (for example, Strategic Health Authorities and specialist hospitals) in order to ensure that those representing vulnerable individuals understand the protection offered by the Code of Practice;

sending targeted brie$fing notes and literature to key emergency service contacts, and offering talks to explain the PCC's work.


2 Foreign and Commonwealth Office:

3 Department for Culture, Media and Sport:

4 Ministry of Justice:


Scott Langham, Head of Complaints:
Press Complaints Commission
Halton House
20/23 Holborn
London EC1N 2JD

Telephone numbers:
020 7831 0022 (within office hours: Monday to Friday 9am to 5.30pm)
07659 152656 (emergency number for use outside office hours, primarily in cases of harassment by journalists or for pre-publication advice).

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