Archive for the ‘PCC’ tag
It’s good to be pleasantly surprised. I confess I was pretty sceptical about the ‘independent governance review’ of the PCC (whose report is published today). I wasn’t sure how ‘independent’ it actually was, and was concerned by the very limited publicity for written submissions and that oral evidence was taken in secret.
But it turns out to be a carefully thought out and reasonable response to the many calls for reform over the last 18 months. This includes, of course, the calls by the Media Standards Trust since February 2009 (‘A More Accountable Press’).
It’s clear from the report that they’ve been listening. By my count the review appears to have accepted, in whole or in part, 19 of the 28 recommendations we made in our submission earlier this year (‘Can independent self-regulation keep standards high and preserve press freedom’) in addition to those of others like Peter Preston and MediaWise. The real challenge now is to see if the PCC and the newspapers embrace the recommendations and use this as an opportunity to revitalise self-regulation, or ignore them and leave the current system frozen in aspic.
The recommendations are detailed (I think I counted about 75 in all) though mostly in plain English. They include:
- Greater openness about the system – for example, being open about funding (it still seems remarkable that an industry that recognises the importance of knowing where the money comes from doesn’t make clear how its own self-regulation is funded), making sure the PCC statistics are ‘consistent and clear’, and providing more information about complaints
- Codifying the sanctions and telling people about them – this could mean providing a clear ladder of remedies so people understand what the penalties for breaching the code are and have a better idea about the seriousness of a breach
- Making the PCC more proactive – emphasising the importance of taking action where there is a clear sign of public concern
- Introducing more ways to judge the effectiveness of the PCC – including targets for the year, and polls that measure not only confidence in the PCC but also in the press (this way hopefully we won’t get the Commission claiming success each year whether complaints go up or down)
- Clarifying the purpose of the PCC – including making plain ‘how it considers standards issues’ and ‘what it means by – and what it wants to achieve through – proactivity’.
On some of the big issues – particularly the all-important one of sanctions – the review pushes most of the responsibility back to the PCC and the industry. This makes sense from the perspective that the industry would balk at any ‘outside’ pressure on them to introduce new penalties for breaching the code. However, if this becomes an excuse neither to strengthen existing sanctions nor to explore new ones then people will still not take the PCC seriously as an independent self-regulator – as it aspires to be.
It should also be said that this review leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre. The Commission could, if it wanted, do not much more than publish minutes of its meetings, and alter the appointments and compliance process. Equally, the industry could ignore recommendations to divulge their contributions, and fail to become more involved in the promotion and discussion of standards. Hence why this review is a good start, but certainly not an end point.
One subject on which the review didn’t go into much detail is funding. The PCC has a much smaller budget than organisations like the Advertising Standards Authority or Ofcom. Taking on the additional responsibilities recommended in the review will cost more. Though the review takes note of this it thinks costs can be kept down. This could be tricky and other funding mechanisms ought to be explored. In our submission we suggested the PCC start charging for investigations – like the Financial Services Ombudsman. Alternatively the industry could throw more money in the pot, though given the parlous state of news organisations this seems unlikely at present.
The ball is now squarely in the PCC and the industry’s court. The PCC has made positive noises about the review and has already made some commitments – for example around transparency (it said in its annual report it would adhere to the principles of the Freedom of Information Act). PressBoF, which has been fantastically opaque to date, seems to be raising its head slightly above the parapet. We await the response of the Editorial Code Committee. But it remains to be seen what the Commission, the Board of Finance, the Code Committee – and most importantly the industry – will actually do.
How would you react if you saw two opinion polls that appeared to contradict one another? My initial reaction would be ‘Huh, that’s interesting, I wonder why that is?’ I’d then – if I was interested enough – try to work out what was contradictory and why.
Peter Preston takes rather a different approach in The Observer (‘What does Joe Public think about the PCC? Not too many complaints’). Reporting on an – as yet unpublished – PCC sponsored opinion poll whose findings appear to conflict with previous polls (that of the Media Standards Trust included) Preston suggests the PCC figures mean it is ‘case closed – until someone opens it again’.
But if you take a slightly more open minded approach and examine the PCC survey’s findings, you discover not only similarities between its results and others (including the MSTs), but that most of the results are not really so very conflicting at all.
[Let’s ignore, for the moment, that the actual poll is not currently available to Joe Public, only to the press, and that it was conducted by ‘Toluna’, an online DIY polling company that is not recognized by the British Polling Council].
To take the findings as reported:
Finding #1: 81% of Britons know the PCC exists. This finding tallies closely with that of the MST poll conducted in December 2008. The MST survey –a YouGov online poll with 2,024 respondents – found that 20% of people knew ‘a lot’ or ‘a fair amount’ about the PCC, 44% knew ‘a little’, and 29% had ‘heard of them but nothing more’. Only 8% knew nothing or weren’t sure. (Full results online in appendix of ‘A More Accountable Press’).
Finding #2: 58% think it would (in Preston’s words) be ‘improper to just go wading into inquiries or judgments without being requested to do so’. Of course it would be improper to ‘just go wading in’ – is anyone suggesting they do?
The question is not ‘do you think the PCC should just go wading in’ but ‘what should prompt the PCC to assess whether an article(s) has broken the editorial code?’
All regulators have a code of conduct (or equivalent). When this code has been broken – or appears to have been broken – is it is the responsibility of the regulator, any regulator, to investigate whether it has been and, if it has, to do something about it.
Right now the PCC will look into a case only if a ‘first party’ makes a formal complaint (there are a few notable exceptions to this rule). Many of those who criticize the PCC think this is too restrictive. What if it is entirely clear that a news article has broken the code but there is no obvious first party to complain? What if a ‘third party’ makes a valid complaint? What if there is significant public concern about an issue such that it would be in the public interest to have an independent investigation? If the PCC took action in these cases would it be ‘wading in… without being requested’? No, it would be making an inquiry based on the request of a third party or in the public interest.
Figure #3: according to the report, twice as many think the PCC should respond to complaints rather than ‘monitor everything’. How on earth would the PCC monitor everything? Given the tsunami of information on the web that would be impossible. But to keep an eye on the press, and to be alert to serious criticism of its actions – isn’t that the role of any independent regulator?
Figure #4: 51% think ‘the current commission make up of majority outsiders and senior journalists is right’. ‘Senior journalists’? ‘senior journalists’! Surely what the survey meant to say is ‘editors’ since that is who sits on the commission. This is not a semantic distinction. The NUJ has been campaigning for years to get ‘senior journalists’ onto the Commission without any success.
Figure #5: ‘77% prefer a quick apology to calling in the legal eagles’. Of course they do! Wouldn’t anybody? The problem is, they rarely get a quick apology. Many rarely get an apology or correction at all.
Figure #6: ‘only 14% say the Commission’s work is ineffective’. On its own, this figure is not very helpful. Most members of the public have not had experience of complaining to the PCC, therefore it is very difficult for them to judge whether it is effective or ineffective. It was for this reason that the Media Standards Trust did not ask this question in either of its surveys.
More helpful are surveys of those who have direct experience of using the PCC. And indeed there is an annual PCC survey, the latest of which covers 2009.
Here too we get some inkling of the need for a little skepticism about survey results – especially those commissioned by an organization about itself. If you look at the PCC satisfaction surveys over the last few years, they are remarkably – curiously – consistent.
‘72% of those surveyed considered that the overall handling of their complaint was very satisfactory or satisfactory’ compared with a figure of 75% in 2008 and 76% in 2007
‘79% of people felt that the time it took to deal with their complaint was ‘about right’’, compared with a figure of 79% in 2008 and 81% in 2007
The figures are, in other words, almost exactly the same each year. This is a consistency even Pravda found it difficult to maintain.
It may be that this is simply a coincidence, and perhaps the figures will show a distinct change this year, we’ll see. Still, it makes one realize that such surveys should always be read with a skeptical eye – and an open mind.
[This piece was first published on Comment is Free on Wednesday 24th February]
And now the hard work of reform begins. The evidence of the need for radical change to the current system of press self-regulation continues to mount – particularly with publication of today’s damning Culture, Media and Sport select committee report. But the reaction of many of those within the press shows how much resistance there still is to change.
One of the most important things the select committee report has done is link reform of libel law with reform of press self-regulation. The two have to happen hand-in-hand, as Paul Farrelly made clear. The huge costs of libel law are, as the select committee found, threatening free speech – especially in important areas of public interest like scientific discussion. But if the law is reformed, as it needs to be, practical alternatives need to be found that will give the press pause before publishing stories that may be highly intrusive or inaccurate. And, if a newspaper does publish something that is intrusive or inaccurate, there need to be effective systems in place to make the paper accountable and help ensure it does not happen again.
Independent press self-regulation should be this alternative. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is a complaints mediator, not a self-regulator. As the select committee report says (and the Media Standards Trust stated in our report last month), this is a valuable service and one that the PCC works very hard at performing.
The public recognise the importance of independent self-regulation, as opposed to government regulation, but expect more than the current system delivers. A survey conducted by Ipsos MORI last month (commissioned by the Media Standards Trust) found that more than half the public (52%) want the press regulated by an independent self-regulatory body run by those independent of the newspaper industry. This contrasts with only 8% who want a newspaper industry complaints body set up and run by the newspaper industry, as at present (Ipsos MORI 980 person face-to-face survey in January 2010, commissioned by MST).
Regulation carries with it a wider remit than mediation. A self-regulatory body needs to monitor compliance with a code of practice, report regularly on breaches in the code and conduct investigations where there is significant public concern about wrongdoing. This is not a personal view, but reflects the attitude of the public. Of those interviewed, 73% thought that monitoring compliance with the code and conducting investigations should be the chief purpose of an independent regulatory body. Only 12% expected its main role should be to mediate complaints between newspapers and complainants, as at present.
There is now a real opportunity for reform. The current governance review, announced by the PCC last August, is looking at how to make the PCC more transparent and accountable, and at whether to increase its remit. Based on the written submissions it has received (including one from the Media Standards Trust), and on the strong criticism of the current system by the select committee report, it should feel empowered to make far reaching and radical recommendations.
There is no need to resort to statutory regulation to strengthen the current system. This is a myth promoted by defenders of the status quo which is misleading and unhelpful. The current system can be changed significantly yet remain entirely self-regulatory. The PCC could, for example, have a ladder of remedies that were gauged according to the gravity of the offence. For the most serious it could levy financial penalties, as suggested in today’s report.
Still, the hostile response of News International to the select committee report, and the skewed coverage in the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Sun, indicates the lack of enthusiasm within the industry for change. News International accused the report of resorting to “innuendo, unwarranted interference and exaggeration” and of pursuing a “party political agenda”. This is a remarkably aggressive response to a cross party select committee. Though it also seems like a healthy endorsement of the select committee’s comment that News International’s behaviour “reinforces the widely held impression that the press generally regard themselves as unaccountable and that News International in particular has sought to conceal the truth about what really occurred”.
The opportunity for reform will not last long. Indeed, John Kampfner suggested that this may be “the last opportunity to show that self-regulation can work”. The freedom and tensions of the net are such that some publications will increasingly question the value of press self-regulation. Unless there are clear benefits to being part of the current system, such as the reduction of the cost burden of defamation to members, then outlets will leave and the system will become progressively irrelevant.
Today we, the Media Standards Trust, made our submission to the Press Complaints Commission’s governance review.
I’ll have a go at summarizing the key bits of our submission, but I’d recommend you take a look at the real thing (I would wouldn’t I), which you can find at www.mediastandardstrust.org.
Integrated to the submission are the findings of an opinion survey, commissioned specially for this and conducted by Ipsos MORI. The survey results strongly support our belief that the public expect considerably more from press self-regulation than they are currently getting.
In essence, we’re saying that the PCC already performs a valuable function – of mediating complaints between a publication and a complainant. The problem is, the public expect more than this. People don’t just want a mediator, they want an independent self-regulator. The difference being that, in addition to mediating, an independent self-regulator would do things like monitor compliance with the code (i.e. keep a constant eye on newspapers) and conduct regular investigations into areas of public concern – without requiring a complaint.
Indeed this was one of the most interesting findings of the survey. When asked what the about the responsibilities of an independent regulator, 48% thought it should be obliged to investigate where there is evidence to suggest a newspaper article is inaccurate. At the other end of the spectrum only 5% thought it should wait for a complaint by someone directly referred to in an article before investigating.
So, in our submission, we do our best to outline how the PCC might move from where it is now – mediating – to where the public expects it to be – self-regulating, without requiring any recourse to statutory regulation.
How can it do this? Well, to pick out a few of the 28 recommendations in the submission, it could:
- Become a membership organization and, as part of the terms of membership, set out clear rules and remedies. This way, if a member broke the rules the repercussions would be clearer and the commission would have more power to enforce them. Currently the PCC only has the power of adjudication and no way to enforce it – other than by re-issuing its findings
- Be obliged to investigate breaches of the code where this is evidence of public concern – without requiring a complaint
- Be able to accept complaints from any source – except where they run contrary to the interests of an individual in privacy and intrusion cases
- Put a financial value on each adjudication which would be met by the newspaper publishing an apology to the equivalent advertising value
- Comply with the principles of the Freedom of Information Act, particularly in terms of transparency of funding and decision-making processes
None of these, nor any of the other recommendations, require anything other than the agreement of the industry to draw up and put into practice.
We’re looking forward to discussing this with the PCC and the governance review over the next month or two.
If you’d like to be kept up to date with how the submission progresses please do get in touch (I’m at martin DOT moore AT mediastandardstrust DOT org.