Courage under fire: the PCC in 2003

Faced with calls for the end of selfregulation, and criticism of the manner in which it handles privacy complaints and deals with press payments to witnesses and criminals, in 2002 the Press Complaints Commission resisted outsiders’ proposals for change but initiated considerable developments of its own.

Payments to witnesses and criminals

The Lord Chancellor published a consultation paper on payments to witnesses in spring 2002. However, despite his initial indication that he intended to introduce legislation that banned such payments, the PCC persuaded the Lord Chancellor that legislation could be avoided.

In March, the PCC announced changes to the Code of Practice that bans payments to witnesses once proceedings are active. Such payments will, however, be permitted if proceedings are likely, but not yet under way, and information disclosed by witnesses is in the public interest.

Success in respect of payments to witnesses was followed, however, by difficulties over payments to criminals. The PCC concluded that the News of the World’s payment to a criminal, in respect of an article about an alleged attempt to kidnap Victoria Beckham, was not in breach of the code because the story had no connection with the recipient’s conviction.

Similarly, when the Daily Mirror paid Tony Martin, the farmer convicted of manslaughter after shooting a burglar who broke into his home, for a series of interviews published during the summer, the PCC accepted that there had been no alternative but to pay Martin for his story. Disclosure was in the public interest.

The PCC’s investigation into The Guardian’s payment to a fellow inmate of Jeffrey Archer concluded, however, that the newspaper had breached the code. The commission was concerned that the inmate was not paid for an article commenting generally on prison conditions but rather for an opportunistic article based on Archer’s notoriety.

Faced with veiled threats from The Guardian that it would withdraw from the PCC system, the commission wrote an open letter to the paper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, confirming that payments to criminals for the purpose of stories that are of public interest would be permitted. Indeed, in light of controversy concerning payments to criminals, the PCC issued a press release in September justifying its approach to date in investigating payments to criminals. It concluded that the commission has generally had no problem interpreting the code in a coherent fashion, and remarked that it was unsure why some editors should find it ambiguous.

However, it indicated also that the editor’s Code Committee plans to review the terms of clause 17 of the code, and in particular its provisions in respect of book serialisations.

Privacy

The PCC again last year faced complaints by celebrities that the press had intruded into their privacy.

In respect of Ms Dynamite’s complaint against the Islington Gazette, which was upheld, and Kate Beckinsale’s complaint against the Daily Mail, which was rejected, both were unsurprising in their conclusions.

However, the most significant development in respect of privacy was the PCC’s response to the out of court settlement of the claim brought by Sara Cox and her husband against the Sunday People.

Prior to issuing their claim, the Radio 1 DJ had complained to the PCC that photographs of her and her husband on honeymoon had been taken when they were in a place where they had a reasonable expectation of privacy, and had been published in breach of her right to privacy.

The editor of the Sunday People published a prominent apology and wrote to the complainants, which the PCC reported as being a resolution of the matter. However, Cox and her husband subsequently issued a High Court claim against the newspaper that resulted, 20 months after it had begun, in damages being paid by the newspaper. However, the PCC was quick to dispel rumours about the case circulated in the media soon after the settlement.

In its press release the PCC defended the steps it had taken in respect of Cox’s complaint but noted that legal action, which was begun only seven days after the photographs about which she complained had appeared, had precluded the PCC from taking any further action. Although detractors cited Cox’s decision to initiate legal proceedings as evidence of the PCC’s failure to deal effectively with complaints and provide complainants with adequate sanctions, the PCC pointed out that complainants have always been entitled to pursue action through the courts, regardless of the PCC’s findings.

Moreover, because settlement was reached, a court never had the opportunity to rule on the merits of Cox’s claim and it therefore remains to be seen whether celebrities will in future decide to bypass the PCC in favour of the courts.

Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Report

In June the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee published its report on privacy and media intrusion, which focused heavily on the role of the PCC. Among its proposals was the introduction of a twin-track procedure entitling claimants to request judgment rather than mediation, and the introduction of a team to handle inquiries from the public related to issues that arise prior to publication.

It also recommended the introduction of punitive and compensatory awards for breach of the code, the appointment of lay members to the commission and the entitlement of journalists to refuse assignments that are in breach of the code. The commencement of an investigation into illegal payments to police officers was also recommended.

The PCC’s response was robust. It reiterated that as an independent body it was not obliged to accept any of the recommendations made by the Select Committee. However, Sir Christopher Meyer, who took up his role as chairman of the PCC in March, had earlier in the year already set out an eight-point plan to increase independence, transparency, visibility and accountability, and this approach was endorsed by the select committee in its recommendations.

Meyer’s proposals included the appointment of an extra lay member to the commission, an annual audit of the commission’s customer service, an obligation on newspapers to publish adjudications clearly, consistently and prominently and the introduction of regular reviews of the code.

Meyer also proposed a series of open meetings throughout the UK, at which the PCC could talk about its role and answer any questions from the public, and the establishment of a Charter Commissioner, who would deal with complaints concerning the procedure followed by the PCC in reaching adjudications.

Some of these changes have already been implemented, as well as others such as a 24-hour advice line, intended to provide an emergency response to complaints of harassment.

Further implementation of Meyer’s proposal is likely in the next 12 months. Developments are also to be expected in response to the range of complaints made against the press that are unlikely to decline in 2004.

Indeed, Meyer has recommended that all papers and periodicals carry contact details for the commission and its services. He accepts that this may lead to more complaints but has said this is a small price to pay for increasing the visibility and accessibility of the PCC’s services.

Whether he will remain of this view if his proposal is implemented and complaints subsequently flood in, remains to be seen. Indeed, even without the introduction of this change, complaints to the PCC in the first three quarters of 2003 were up significantly on the same period of 2002. There are no signs that the commission’s workload in 2004 will not continue to rise.

James Damon is a solicitor in the media and entertainment group at Charles Russell

by James Damon

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