In the last part of this four part post, Jonathan Coad considers the PCC from the perspective of the “person in the street”, looks at a survey of public opinion and makes recommendations for the future.
Recently I got into a taxi and had this remarkable conversation with the cabby. When he learnt that I was a media lawyer, the first thing he said (wholly unprompted) was how outrageous he thought it was that he would read a story that covered say a whole page, and the correction was only the small fraction of the size. He then went on to say that he thought the newspapers should be required to publish an apology/retraction which was at least the size of the offending article.
When I told him that the PCC was created by the press, funded by the press, appointed by the press, the Code was written by the press, and that seven of the seventeen Commissioners were Editors, he was completely astonished. He thought (and he was confident that all his friends thought likewise) that the PCC was some kind of government organisation and exercised a genuine regulatory role. He then said that it was absurd for the press to regulate itself, since it was plainly no real form of regulation.
This is almost literally the “Man on the Clapham Omnibus”, and it was a truly remarkable confirmation that the general public expects the body that regulates the press to be truly independent, and finds the PCC’s failure to ensure that corrections enjoy the same prominence as the offending article to be a clear regulatory failure. It therefore indicates that there may be public support for any campaign to improve the quality of press regulation.
One of the striking contrasts in the reaction to the decision of Eady J in Mosley is the outrage bawled out of the pages of the press (and the tabloid press in particular), as contrasted with the overwhelming majority (around 90%) of those who commented on newspaper blog sites on the outcome. Virtually all of the comment from the general public was in favour of the Mosley decision and was in stark contrast to the self interested views expressed by most editors and journalists.
Has the PCC ever invested in a survey to establish what the public really wants in a regulator – rather than just attending to the preferences of the large corporate entities that fund it and own the papers that it is tasked to regulate? Of course not! If it had, it knows perfectly well that the answers would not be to the liking of its sponsors. So my firm has funded a survey that does answer those questions. The results are startling in their contrast to the form of regulation operated by the PCC.
Survey of Public Opinion of the Policies and Practices of the PCC
There are a number of respects in which the policies and practices of the PCC appear designed to fulfil the objective for the PCC identified by Professor Robert Pinker (i.e. to protect press freedoms) rather than serve the interests of the general public, whose rights/interests are being infringed by the press. I have identified a number of these above, and in order to prove beyond doubt that the PCC is primarily committed to preserving press freedoms at the expense of the interests of those who have reason to complain against it, I drafted a set of survey questions. I set them out below in full, along with the percentages of the general public who selected from the options which the survey offered them.
The preface to the survey was as follows:-
“BACKGROUND; The PCC (Press Complaints Commission) is a self regulatory body which deals with complaints from members of the public about the editorial content of newspapers and magazines. The PCC’s sole sanction is to oblige newspapers and magazines to publish agreed corrections or PCC adjudications.”
The survey was a modest one, and intended principally to provoke a more comprehensive consultation process with the general public in order to establish what it wants in a regulatory body – something which I do not understand that the PCC has ever undertaken. It was undertaken by the Spot On Group and taken from 100 individuals – 50 male and 50 female – which I understand is the minimum number necessary to obtain a statistically significant result. Here then are the questions and percentage figures for the answers which the survey generated:-
1. Should the size and position of corrections/adjudications published by newspapers be:
a. Less prominent than the original; 4%
b. Equal prominence to the original; 40%
c. More prominent than the original. 56%
2. Should inaccuracies on the front page be corrected:
a. On the front page; 66%
b. On an inside page. 34%
3. Should journalists be permitted to speak to children under 16:
a. Only on issues involving their own or another child’s welfare with parental consent; 31%
b. Only with their parents’ consent; 67%
c. Not at all. 2%
4. Should the Committee that writes the PCC Code of Practice be comprised of:
a. Only representatives from the press; 6%
b. Representatives from the press and the general public; 69%
c. Representatives from the press and representatives for complainants; 24%
5. Should meetings of the Commission to adjudicate complaints be recorded by:
a. A transcript; 3%
b. A minute prepared by the PCC; 1%
c. Both. 96%
6. Should a complainant (or his/her representative) be allowed to attend the meeting of the Commissioners which adjudicate their complaint?
a. Yes 99%
b. No 1%
7. Should there be an independent appeal from PCC adjudications?
a. Yes 99%
b. No 1%
8. Should the PCC be able to impose financial sanctions?
a. No; 0%
b. Yes – a fine for the newspaper; 4%
c. Yes – compensation for a successful complainant; 2%
d. Yes – awarding professional costs to the complainant; 5%
e. A combination of these financial sanctions. 89%
9. Should the Commission be comprised of:
a. A combination of press representatives and non-press members; 55%
b. Press representatives and representatives for complainants; 41%
c. Non-press members only. 4%
On the issue of prominence (question 1) only 4% agreed with the PCC’s policy that corrections/apologies should have less prominence than the original. Well over 90% thought that they should be at least as prominent as the original, and a striking 56% thought that they should be more prominent than the original.
As to question 2, two thirds of those questioned thought that front page infractions should be remedied by front page apologies. This is again in stark contrast to the practice of the PCC – notwithstanding the protestations of Sir Christopher Meyer when he attended before the Committee in 2003 to give evidence. The practice of the PCC is very different.
As to question 3, the PCC Code answers with proposition A. Only 31% of the population agree. 69% consider that children should enjoy more protection than the PCC Code provides.
As to question 4, the PCC considers that representatives of the press should write the Code. Only 6% of the public agree with that. The other 94% think there should be some independent representation on that Committee.
As to question 5, PCC adjudications are only reported by a minute prepared by the PCC. 99% of the population disagree with that policy, and require both a minute and transcript of the meetings.
As to question 6, complainants are not allowed to attend adjudications. Only 1% of the public agree with this and 99% think a complainant should be allowed to attend.
As to question 7, the PCC refuses to permit an independent appeal from its adjudications. 99% of the general public disagree with them.
As to question 8, the PCC refuses to impose financial sanctions. 100% of the population disagree with that policy.
The only respect in which the PCC is supported is that the Commission should be a mixture of press and non press members (question 8).
So does the PCC fulfil the Role of an effective Regulator?
The PCC was created by the press. It is funded and appointed by the press. The Code of Practice is written by the press, and seven of the seventeen Commissioners are newspaper editors who have a direct commercial interest in keeping restrictions on what they publish to a minimum. Such a body cannot possibly provide a disinterested means of resolving complaints by an individual against the press. Even if it was possible for it to do so, since it is essential that justice is not only done, but seen to be done, no confidence can be had on the part of the general public in an entity which is so obviously merely a sub-division of the commercial press.
It is difficult in this post to set out all the evidence that the PCC is an inadequate and hopelessly biased body. However, as I set out above, the clearest evidence of its innate bias in favour of the press comes from the license that it gives to newspapers to publish apologies/corrections which are a tiny fraction of the size of the offending article (or inaccurate portion of the offending article). The evidence of transparent bias and wholesale failure by the PCC to provide a fair and effective means of complaint is however overwhelming. This means that where complainants are being robbed of their rights, society as a whole is the loser.
As the expert commentator Roy Greenslade, himself a senior journalist, regularly observes, the PCC achieves its intended function. That is to ensure that there is inadequate and ineffective regulation of the press, which in turn permits appalling infractions on the rights of individuals such as suffered by the McCanns (until legal action was taken) under the editorship of a PCC Commissioner. This same serial offender against the spirit and letter of the PCC Code was one of those that adjudicated on all the complaints cited above. Hardly surprising that the outcomes were so plainly unfair, as they will continue to be until the PCC is either fundamentally reformed or replaced by an entity that truly is “fast, free and fair.”
A Summary of the PCC’s Current Failings
i. The PCC is structurally and institutionally biased in favour of the press.
ii. It fails to live up to its claims to be fast, free and fair.
iii. Its policies and decisions fly in the face of public opinion.
iv. The PCC’s real agenda emerges most clearly on the issue of prominence where corrections/apologies enjoy only a fraction of the prominence of the offending article. In administering its sole sanction the PCC blatantly places the interests of the press over the public.
v. It purports to fulfil a dual role of protecting the public from press excess and defending press freedom. These roles are mutually exclusive.
vi. Its Code is written exclusively by the press removing all independent influence from its core principles, and is therefore heavily press biased.
vii. Its procedures are opaque, secretive, and the PCC refuses to allow any substantive appeal from its adjudications.
viii. The PCC’s remit in the 21st Century is anomalous.
Recommendations to make the PCC Fast, Free and Fair
i. The Mission Statement be revised for a new PCC making it clear that it exclusively serves the interests of the public, rather than the press.
ii. The Commissioners be entirely composed of individuals without vested interests in the press and that there be an equal number of Commissioners drawn from those who regularly represent those who have suffered as a result of misconduct by the press.
iii. Hearings be open to complainants, recorded, transcripts made available, and that there be a proper substantive appeal procedure (part of the ASA procedure but absent from the PCC).
iv. The Code be amended to provide that apologies, corrections and adjudications must be published with at least the same prominence as the offending article, or that part of the offending article which is inaccurate if it is only inaccurate in part.
v. The new PCC be given the power to make some form of financial provision such as the payment of compensation and reimbursement of professional fees.
vi. There be a system of fully independent appeal against adjudications.
Jonathan Coad is Head of Litigation at Swan Turton LLP