The PCC and Media
The Press Complaints Commission. Do they make much of a difference to the Journalism Industry?
“The PCC should be scrapped if newspapers fail to improve their behaviour within a year.” (Lord Puttnam, June 2010)
Evaluate the implications of the above statement for the present and future operations of the various journalism regulatory bodies and codes of conduct in the UK.
Should the PCC be scrapped?
The Press Complaints Commission, also known as the PCC, is a regulatory body that deals with complaints from members of the public about editorial content of newspapers and magazines. It is organised and ordered by journalists. In total the PCC receive about 10,000 complaints a year, inaccuracy and unfairness being top of the list. 2 in 3 complaints are about facts and figures being wrong in copy and 1 in 5 complaints relate to intrusion of privacy.
The code of practice that the PCC adheres to binds all national and regional newspapers and magazines. It has been drawn up by the editors of these prints themselves. The code of practice covers the way in which news is gathered and reported. It also provides special protection to groups of people that are particularly vulnerable such as children, hospital patients and those at risk of discrimination. It has no legal powers as all newspapers and magazines contribute to the costs which makes the industry self-regulating. The PCC say that key benefits of the system of self regulation are that it is; accessible to all, quick and free, an industry committed to standards and independent commission, an industry that protect the vulnerable, and an industry that help maintain a free responsible press.
The PCC does not deal with any complaints about broadcast journalism. The Parliament has empowered Ofcom to be the regulatory body for media broadcast. There is a statutory obligation for broadcast to protect consumers from what it considers harmful or offensive material. Ofcom can fine media organisations for breaching regulations which the PCC cannot do because it has not legal rights. This has insistently becoming a problem as there are no boundaries for journalists.
The PCC promote themselves as a body which help people from being harassed by the press. In one case the PCC worked with the Cheshire Police in 2007 to assist the family of Garry Newlove, a man who had been murdered outside his home in Warrington. The PCC were approached by the family as they were concerned the media attention surrounding the case would be too intrusive into this sad time in their lives. Five youths were accused of the murder and the family knew this would be a story that would interest the press. The PCC circulated a statement from the family to editors, managing editors and lawyers, which asked the media not to contact the family in any way about the trial. The family had explained that previous contact from journalists had made them feel harassed. As a result of the PCC’s work, the family did not experience any contact.
Jaquai Hanson, the Deputy Head of Corporate Commissions for Cheshire Police said:
“The Desist Notice gave a distraught family the opportunity to grieve in private and find the time they needed to come to terms with their situation. From that has come a voice – in Helen Newlove and her daughters- which has captured the thoughts and feelings of a huge section of society.”
Another case in which a person felt they were being harassed by the press was in 2007 when the author of the Harry Potter books, J.K Rowling, complained to the PCC about three separate articles in the Scottish Mail, Daily Mirror and Daily Record which identified her home address causing her privacy to be compromised. Since this was a breach of privacy she contacted the PCC who had previously said “when publishing details about a celebrity’s home without consent, newspapers must take care to ensure that they do not publish the precise address or material that would enable people to find the whereabouts of the home.” Each newspaper replied in turn stating that they had not enclosed any new information but rather information that had been published already. All newspapers defended their article but noted the complaint and offered not to re-publish details of her home location unless they become newsworthy. This was however rejected by the complainant’s solicitors. The PCC also ruled that “While the Commission appreciated that the complainant is someone who guards her privacy closely – and clearly objected to the attention given by the press to her property purchase – it did not consider that there was anything in these articles that contravened the Code or the Commission’s guidelines.” This is very different to the previous case as J.K Rowling felt threatened by the newspapers and felt that this was an unfair print, it affected her whole family by revealing where she stayed. The PCC did nothing and this is where the Press Complaints Commission is very wrong at times.
When a death is being publicised it is always difficult to write a story about it regardless of what happened as there will always be someone objecting to it. However, the PCC have not upheld some cases in which they should have at a time of grievance. The death of Stephen Gately shocked everyone and when the Daily Mail came out a very hurtful story about his passing; his family and friends, along with around 25,000 other complaints from the members of the public, still were not enough for the PCC to say that the comments were inaccurate, intrusion into a time of grief and also discrimination. The Daily Mail commented by saying that the article written in which allegations were made about drugs and sexuality were written in a comment piece clearly marked as a columnists opinion and no-one who read the piece could be lead to believe otherwise. The newspaper also said that its columnist had added nothing that was not in the public domain about the tragedy and its Irish editors had chosen not to publish it. The PCC did not uphold this complaint and none of the clauses were seen as breached. The PCC said:
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental part of an open and democratic society. This is enshrined in the Code of Practice which states that there is a "public interest in the freedom of expression itself". Individuals have the right to express honestly-held opinions, and newspapers have the right to publish them, provided the terms of the Code are not otherwise breached.”
The National Union of Journalists has been the latest organisation to criticise the Press Complaints Commission after the inquiry into alleged phone hacking by the News of the World. This case first emerged in 2005 when the News of the World newspaper published a story about Prince William’s knee injury. This started the suspicion that phones were being intercepted. This year the Guardian newspaper claimed the News of the World journalists were hacking up to 3,000 celebrities, sports stars and politicians mobile and house phones. The PCC also investigated this case but could find ‘no evidence’ that phone hacking was still going on. Ever since this happened the PCC has been criticised for its lack of authority. Delegates from the NUJ’s annual policy-making conference condemned the PCC for its “failure to mount a proper investigation into the evidence of widespread telephone tapping by the News of the World.”
Lord Puttnam is a British film producer and also sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords although he is not a politician. In an interview with the Guardian Lord Puttnam said:
“I believe the PCC does a pretty good job of handling individual complaints from those who feel themselves to have been in some way traduced.”
“What they cannot do is prevent the slow reduction of politics to form a gruesome spectator sport. Nor can they ensure the general representation of young people is more representative of reality.”
“I believe they should be given a year to address these issues and if they find it impossible then they type of regulation Ofcom imposes on television would seem to become appropriate, and probably inevitable. The national press at that point will only have themselves to blame.”
Journalists have no boundaries and rules to adhere to. The PCC have no legal rights to fine Journalists. The National Union of Journalists also has a code of conduct that they expect all members to stick to in which it states that “Subject to justification by over-riding considerations of the public interest, a Journalist shall do nothing which entails intrusions into private grief and distress.” The NUJ’s code of conduct is only a set of guidelines more than rules. If they were stuck to by law, Journalism would be a completely different industry.
The lack of action against journalists who do wrong causes a problem for all the industry of Journalism. Lord Puttnam is making a good point here as the PCC says on its website that it is great at handling individual cases by showing a few as examples. When it comes to big stream cases the PCC do not have the authority to do anything so the newspapers and magazines in Britain get away with a lot of the things. The PCC’s main role in any complaint is essentially to act as a dispute resolution service.
What also makes the system of self-regulation a problem is that because the PCC complaints are dealt with by editors and journalists themselves it makes the whole system a bit biased and corrupt. Newspapers are being allowed to run riot into people lives and get away with the intrusion, harassment and bribery that persistently circulate throughout the media industry.
If newspapers do not change their behaviour in the next year or so the PCC could be completely scrapped and replaced with a statutory system for handling complaints which would be law based and would have to be adhered to. If not it would be a much more serious punishment than what is currently enforced. If this was to happen the media industry and the journalism within it would become very different. Newspaper writers, editors and even photographers would need to become a little less upfront in their approach to contact members of the public. What is constantly making the news these days is how the newspaper editors and writers have messed up in some way or another and this is affecting the whole media.
The guidelines set by the PCC and the NUJ would need to be looked at again if the PCC was to become a more statutory system. They would both need to be applied and work with each other. Right now there are a set of guidelines which aren’t enforced by any of the organisations and this is causing the problems in the industry. There are no boundaries stopping journalists from imposing in people’s lives, running stories which they feel are newsworthy in some way or another. Anything can be newsworthy in some way or another and this is where the problems lie. Newspapers need to become more professional in the way they handle situations where personal lives can be affected. The editors running the PCC need to become stricter in their approach regardless of what newspaper they work for, if they do not the PCC will never work. If a legal system was put into action the newspaper would be more news orientated once again, the newspapers have slightly drifted away from this is recent years and it needs to go back to have the industry functioning properly once more. Whilst the editors and journalists continue to think that their newspapers are doing a great job of self-regulation and abiding by the principles and spirit of the code, then the PCC will never work. The Editors need to admit defeat and move on.
Because the PCC have no legal rights, the more cases that they deal with in which they do not find a conclusion, the angrier people are going to get with them. The PCC’s reputation has already been so badly damaged by high interest cases like the News of the World case, the Stephen Gately death and also the smaller celebrity cases concerning J.K Rowling, that the PCC will never fully regain its credibility. As long as the editors are in charge of the PCC, the newspapers will never change; if anything the intrusion into the privacy of people in the public eye is only going to get worse.