Archive for the ‘Press Complaints Commission’ tag

Phone tapping revelations shows lack of press accountability

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The latest allegations in the News Group phone tapping scandal highlight the chronic lack of accountability in the press.

This is a guest post by Matthew Cain, who is leading the second stage of the Media Standards Trust’s review of self-regulation of the press.

Not accountable to editors
The editors in the case were keen to assert that they knew nothing of the activities of the individuals involved in phone tapping. Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail (which submitted 952 transactions from 58 journalists through Operation Motorman) told the select committee: “I will be very honest with you, I had not been aware they had been that extensive”.

He went on to say that the practice of paying for data of this sort had stopped and both newspapers and the PCC had ensured proper training so that journalists complied with the law. “I cannot think of more rigorous things we could have done to ensure that all abuses were completely [stopped]”.

The current system of press self-regulation is built on the premise that editors are responsible for the activities of their newspaper. As Peter Hill told the select committee ‘I reprimanded myself because I was responsible’ (for the coverage of the McCann case). However, as Paul Dacre told the committee, “I read the features and the commentary and a lot of the news stories” and “I read more words of my paper than most editors” but it is not possible to read all of the coverage produced by a newspaper.

Not accountable to the PCC
The Press Complaints Commission is not constituted to undertake investigations of this kind. Its constitution establishes it only as a body to resolve and adjudicate on complaints about the code:

“The primary function of the Commission shall be to consider, and adjudicate, conciliate and resolve or settle by reference to the Press Code of Practice . . . complaints from the
public of unjust or unfair treatment by newspapers . . .
“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.”

It has a small staff, with no special powers to do this sort of investigation, a small budget (£1.8m) and its purpose is to resolve and adjudicate on complaints against newspapers regarding possible breaches of the code. The PCC was simply unable to investigate this affair with the same rigour as other regulators, even though its investigation was more comprehensive than most of its activities.

Should not be accountable to government
It would be too great a limitation on freedom of expression if government were to regulate the press. The thought of a government regulator being able to fine and jail journalists for investigative reporting is undemocratic. Yet the failings identified in this case give ammunition to those who support more government regulation.

Limited accountability to the law
Everyone is accountable to the law but it is preferable that journalists have as much freedom as possible. The Data Protection Act makes it an offence to gain unauthorised access to confidential databases but carries a public interest defence. However, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (which relates to phone tapping) carries no such defence.

Newspapers are already fearful of the growth of media lawyers and the emerging case law around privacy. Any judicial oversight or investigations of newspaper practices could be deeply damaging to fundamental freedoms. The investigation by the Metropolitan Police may be necessary as the law takes its course. However, it is not appropriate for the police to get involved in the business of how newspapers are produced and self-regulation ought to act as a barrier to this sort of action.

As the Media Standards Trust has warned:

“Given the success of recent cases, the legal challenges and precedents will increase, unless the system of regulation is improved to give complainants more effective remedy against invasions of privacy.”

Not accountable to readers
Only two newspapers have independent readers ombudsman, the Guardian and the Observer. No other national newspaper thinks it necessary to appoint someone to represent the interests of the reader to the newspaper. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Media Standards Trust at the end of last year found that 70% of the public believe there are “far too many instances of people’s privacy being invaded by newspaper journalists”. The same poll revealed that 75% of the public now believe ‘newspapers frequently publish stories they know are inaccurate”. Fewer people are buying newspapers each year and few people trust journalists. That would not appear to be sufficient incentive for newspapers to change their behaviour.

Accountable to the profession?
Cases like these are a compelling reason for self-regulation. The difficult balances between privacy and the public interest can be discussed internally, amongst experts and independent representatives. Those in the industry who want to ensure high standards can ensure that all adhere to a clear code of practice. And those that break the rules can be embarrassed in front of their peers. Yet it hasn’t happened in this case. The failure of the industry to hold a newspaper to account weakens the position of supporters of self-regulation.

The importance of reform
The press can continue on the current path of low trust in newspapers with the widespread opinion that journalists do not seek to tell the truth, declining readership, economic crisis and growing intervention from the courts.

Alternatively they can use the opportunity to demonstrate why journalism matters; why the skills of journalism make it more valuable than a opinionated blog; why it’s vital to democracy and why high standards in journalism are essential to being able to entertain, inform and investigate on behalf of their readers.

Self-regulation remains preferable for the press. But it must be made to work or else it will be by-passed by those whose interests are better served by the courts and those who would gladly see a less free press.

Written by Martin Moore

July 9th, 2009 at 1:13 pm

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A More Accountable Press – Part 1: the Need for Reform

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If a newspaper or magazine publishes something inaccurate, misrepresentative, or unfairly intrusive about you, then there ought to be someone independent and effective that you can go to for redress.

Today we (the Media Standards Trust) are publishing a report – A More Accountable Press – that assesses the current system of press self-regulation, as led by the Press Complaints Commission. It concludes that, as it stands, this system is neither independent nor effective. 

The current system is paid for by the newspaper industry, its rules are written by working newspaper editors, and almost half the Commission itself is made up of newspaper and magazine editors.

You would be forgiven, as a member of the public, for thinking that the system was geared more towards protecting the interests of the press than the public.

And, were you to look into it further, you’d become even more convinced of its partiality. Right now, if you make a complaint, you have about a 250:1 chance of getting an adjudication in your favour (based on the 16 successful adjudications out of 4,340 in 2007, Annual Report). Those are pretty terrible odds. Not surprising then that many people are now choosing to go to court instead.

The failure of the current system to offer the public fair redress is not only bad for the public, it’s bad for journalists. It undermines people’s trust in journalism. A couple of weeks ago an international poll found the UK media was amongst the least trusted in the world (Edelman poll, results publishing in PR Week).

A national survey commissioned by the Media Standards Trust in December, and conducted by YouGov, was similarly depressing. It found that 75% of the public think newspapers publish stories they know to be inaccurate. 70% of people believe there are far too many instances in which newspapers invade people’s privacy (full results can be found at the back of the report).

Nor does a poor system of self-regulation provide journalists with an adequate defence from the State, from the law (in the case of public interest journalism) – or even from their own proprietors.

This report – ‘A More Accountable Press’ – analyses what’s wrong with the current system. Now we plan to think about how to make it better.

From today we’ll be asking news organisations, regulators, journalists and the public how to address the problems we’ve identified. If you have any thoughts as to how things can be improved, please get in touch.

Written by Martin Moore

February 9th, 2009 at 12:00 am

Why so little coverage of new Press Complaints Commission chair?

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A new chair of the Press Complaints Commission was announced on Friday. I say announced, though perhaps whispered would be a better description.

The Financial Times reported the news that Baroness Buscombe is to take over after Sir Christopher Meyer steps down at 17.03 on Friday. The Media Guardian followed this up with a piece at 18.35 – about half an hour after most people have turned off their PC’s and have headed off to enjoy their weekend.

The following morning the Press Complaints Commission added the news to its website (though the press release is dated 14th November). The FT ran another hundred words on Saturday. The Times buried it in the Business section’s ‘Need to Know‘. There was no mention of it in today’s media sections and, most curiously of all, the PCC did not even notify the people on its mailing list (including me).

Why such limited coverage? Baroness Buscombe will be the first woman to run the industry body, and will take over from the controversial Meyer after two full terms in office. She will have responsibility for press self-regulation at a time when it is very unclear about its future, and under threat from State regulation (via the internet), legal precedent (particularly with regards privacy law), and the economic crisis in the news industry. Even Sir Christopher Meyer said last week that the PCC may not survive if the industry chooses to go ahead with ‘swingeing budget cuts‘.

Wouldn’t it be helpful to know more about her, about how and why she was chosen, and about the issues she will face when she takes up her new position?

Instead, the most detail provided by the press comes from Media Monkey, which tells us:
‘She is a Tory peer, and has been a frontbench spokeswoman in the Lords, which some may find little surprising (her most-admired politician is Oliver Letwin); favourite TV is Scrubs; her hidden talent is being “a bit of an actress”; her desert island objects, also according to Campaign magazine’s helpful guide, the A-List, are “Green & Blacks chocolate, an iPod and Mitsouko by Guerlain”; and the blue baroness reckons Meryl Streep should play her in the film of her life’

Written by Martin Moore

November 17th, 2008 at 3:41 pm

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The PCC boldly goes…

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Causing barely a ripple in August’s becalmed news, the Press Complaints Commission has just taken a bold new step into the unknown. It has made its first ruling on audio-visual content on the web.

It has upheld the complaint of Mrs Laura Gaddis, president of the PTA at John Ogilvie High School, about a mobile phone video taken of a disruptive maths class.

One of the students in the class, who wanted to show her parents how chaotic they had become, filmed it on her phone. When her parents saw the video they were so appalled they sent it to the Hamilton Advertiser, which then published the footage on its website.

But despite being a bold step away from regulating print, this PCC ruling was reasonably straightforward. Clause 6 of the Code says that ‘Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion’ and that ‘Pupils must not be approached or photographed at school without the permission of the school authorities’. So it would have been strange if the Commission had ruled otherwise.

But it’s not hard to imagine a more complex situation. Increase the age of the students slightly – make them, say, university level, and the same ruling does not apply. A group of 18 year olds filmed causing trouble at college can presumably be published without compunction. But can it? Do the students or the teacher have any protection? Does the public interest test apply even though the person collecting the content is not a ‘journalist’?

Who has right to the content and whose permission should be sought before it is used? I know of a number of examples where newspapers have taken pictures from Facebook and Flickr without any attempt to gain permission from the photographer or the person photographed. Equally newspapers have been known to copy content from blogs and use it without contacting the blogger (I know because one did with this blog).

Of course if you want to see disruptive classes, or much more disturbing content (children fighting, bullying etc.) it is not hard to find online (e.g. at LiveLeak). The recent Panorama by Raphael Rowe showed how much of this footage is already available.

The PCC must be pleased with the ease with which it could make its first ruling. Subsequent ones are unlikely to be as straightforward.

Written by Martin Moore

August 15th, 2007 at 7:31 am

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