If you complain to the Press Complaints Commission (soon to be rebranded as IPSO), one of the least likely consequences is that the Commissioners will adjudicate on the question of whether you are right and the Code has been breached, and if so what the paper should do to make amends.
You might think that this was their job, but no. In 2013, according to their Monthly Complaint Summaries, the PCC recorded 5,941 complaints but only 44 cases published last year (0.7%) resulted in adjudications.
In fact everything about the PCC system is geared to avoiding formal ‘adjudications’, as they are called. That is because adjudications provide clear-cut outcomes, and when complaints are upheld in an adjudication, editors are obliged to publish the rulings.
What the PCC does instead of adjudicating is to draw complainants into a process of mediation, which they optimistically call ‘resolution’. Since IPSO, to be launched in May 2014, will adopt the same process, it is worth looking at the problems with PCC ‘resolutions’. Here are six:
1. Inequality of arms
No doubt many complainants are happy to have the PCC help them reach an agreed outcome with papers, but as the Leveson Report noted, this process is wide open to abuse by newspapers. The complainant is an ordinary person taking advantage of a free complaints process, almost always for the first time and without legal advice. The big newspaper groups, by contrast, hand complaints to their legal departments, which are staffed with qualified lawyers.
The PCC does not normally act as the complainant’s champion in this process; instead it works as a postbox. As Lord Justice Leveson pointed out in his report, all of this hands the big newspaper groups (who are the subjects of most complaints) a powerful advantage.
2. Complaint fatigue
The ‘resolution’ process can be slow. Newspaper legal teams that handle many complaints year after year find it easy to drag matters out and wear down the determination of complainants. This leads to what Lord Justice Leveson called ‘complaint fatigue’, which is likely to cause a complainant working alone to settle for a remedy that is less than he or she seeks, or to give up altogether.
In 2013 PCC cases for national newspapers took, on average, more than four months (126 days) to ‘resolve’, and some of the 2013 cases appear to relate to stories published as long ago as 2006 and 2007.
3. No clarity for the public
When a matter is ‘resolved’ and it is clear that a newspaper has breached the code of practice, no breach is recorded by the PCC-IPSO and nor is the fact of a breach communicated to the public. This means that the public has no access to a frank picture of which papers breach the Code most often.
Our research suggests that the principal breachers of the Code are likely to be the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Daily Telegraph and the Mirror. We know that they attract the most complaints and that, in the rare cases where the PCC acknowledges Code breaches, they are the worst offenders. They are also, in practice, the owners of the PCC-IPSO, and it suits them that their unethical conduct and wrongdoing are not exposed to the public.
4. Problems unaddressed
This failure to record breaches properly means that the PCC-IPSO cannot uphold newspaper standards. It does not formally know when, for example, one paper is repeatedly breaching one clause of the Code, or when many papers are doing so, and this in turn means that PCC-IPSO does not step in to protect the public by requiring papers to raise their game.
The 2013 figures also show that again and again newspapers were:
(a) publishing agency copy without checking it,
(b) using incorrect photos to illustrate stories, and
(c) scraping private data from social media websites.
A normal regulator would have publicly drawn the papers’ attention to this and sought action and assurances that the Code will be observed, but formally the PCC does not even know it’s happening.
5. Feeble remedies
Given the inequality of arms between ordinary people who bring complaints and newspaper legal departments adept at resisting them, it is not surprising that the remedies associated with resolutions often appear feeble.
In 2013, according to the PCC’s own data, where a ‘resolution’ involved some kind of action by a national or main regional newspaper, the most frequent of these remedies were:
42.8% – An online correction (183 counts)
18% – Print correction (77 counts)
10.7% – Removal (46 counts)
9.1% – Other (39 counts)
7.5% – Letter of apology (32 counts)
6.8% – Print Apology (29 counts)
2.1% – Donation (9 counts)
1.6% – Payment (7 counts)
1.4% – Online Apology (6 counts)
Unscrupulous editors will like those figures. What they least like to do is to print corrections and apologies, and here that happens in less than a quarter of cases. Remember too that we know nothing from the PCC data about the prominence given to those corrections and apologies, and whether it is proportionate to the original offence.
In many cases in 2013, corrections to national newspaper articles were only published online (and typically appended to the original piece) and not in print. When this happens – and also when the remedy is the removal of the online article – print-only readers are never informed that they have read something incorrect.
5. The Daily Mail
The Daily Mail, which stands out as the paper giving rise to most complaints by whatever measure you choose, also stands out as the least likely to say sorry. Our analysis suggests that Daily Mail group newspapers rarely, if ever, apologised for their mistakes in 2013 – even when other newspapers making the same error had done so.
6. A further note on adjudications
For years, the press industry answered the charge that the PCC was toothless by saying that the public did not understand how much editors feared adverse adjudications. For example the Daily Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, told MPs (Ev155) in 2009:
“It is a matter of huge shame if an editor has an adjudication against him; it is a matter of shame for him and his paper.”
One way in which editors could avoid this kind of shaming without changing their behaviour was to ensure that the PCC delivered as few of these adjudications as possible.
Hence the emphasis on ‘resolution’. As Lord Justice Leveson said in his report:
“There is a balance to be struck between mediation and formal adjudication, but I have little doubt but that under the current system that balance has fallen in the wrong place.”