MPs back self regulation of the press

Prince William’s on-off girlfriend Kate Middleton is the victim of “clear and persistent harassment” by the paparazzi and the Press Complaints Commission has failed to protect her, MPs said today.

Ms Middleton has protested on more than one occasion of being pursued by photographers in the street.

But the PCC has been “less than impressive” in its response, according to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.

The findings were part of the Committee’s report on press self-regulation.

It concluded that self-regulation should continue – but pointed to “recent lapses in standards” which had damaged the image of the press.

One such event was the “hounding” of Ms Middleton, the MPs said.

The situation came to a head in January, when Ms Middleton faced a pack of photographers and news crew outside her London home amid mounting

speculation that she and William were about to announce their engagement.

Three days later, the PCC circulated a letter from Ms Middleton’s solicitors pointing out that their client was being harassed and warning that a formal complaint would be made if editors continued to use material obtained from the paparazzi.

The Select Committee report said: “In the case of Ms Middleton, harassment was evident, yet photographs taken by the paparazzi continued to appear in national and regional papers. We see no plausible public interest defence.

“We conclude that editors, in failing to take care not to use pictures of Kate Middleton obtained through harassment and persistent pursuit, breached… the Code of Practice.

“The PCC appears to have waited for a complaint to materialise: it could and should have intervened sooner. There may be valid reasons why a person who is suffering from media intrusion is reluctant to make a formal complaint.

“The Press Complaints Commission took too long to act to protect Kate Middleton from clear and persistent harassment.”

While the PCC “was correct in bringing editors’ attention to the letter from the solicitors acting for Ms Middleton, it did so long after the worst abuses had occurred”, the report said.

In its submission to the Committee, the PCC said that when issuing “desist” notices it relied on information provided by the parties concerned.

But the Committee said: “The PCC should be readier to depart from its usual practice of issuing a desist notice only in response to a request.”

The report used the case of News of the World royal reporter Clive Goodman as a second case study.

Goodman was jailed for illegally accessing voicemail messages on phones belonging to members of the royal household.

The newspaper’s editor, Andy Coulson, resigned as a result of the case.

He recently took up a new post as the Conservative Party’s director of communications and planning.

The Select Committee described the case as “one of the most serious breaches of the Code uncovered in recent times” and observed that Goodman’s “actions have been rightly condemned”.

It added: “We are in no doubt that the editor of the News of the World was right that he had no choice but to resign. By doing so, a clear message has been sent that breaches of this kind cannot be tolerated and that editors must accept final responsibility for what happens on their watch.”

The Committee concluded that self-regulation of the press should continue.

To abandon it and to rely exclusively on the law “would afford less protection rather than more, and any move towards a statutory regulator for the press would represent a very dangerous interference with the freedom of the press.”

Committee chairman John Whittingdale said: “Self-regulation by the press is infinitely preferable to the alternative. However, it must be seen to be effective if it is to survive. Recent incidents have raised doubts about the extent to which editors and management are committed to strict enforcement of the rules.

“Is is imperative that in future both the PCC and editors should be seen to be vigilant in ensuring that all journalists are abiding by both the spirit and the letter of the code.”

Culture Secretary James Purnell said: “I believe strongly that the press must continue to regulate itself and that self-regulation is the best way to ensure high standards of reporting.

“A free press is vital in a healthy democracy. We welcome the Committee’s report, which we will consider carefully.”

PCC Director Tim Toulmin said the broad context of the findings were positive.

The committee recognised that the “PCC can be successful when asked to

intervene and stop harassment”, he said.

But the PCC would not act without having been directed to do so by the person involved, in this case Ms Middleton, he said, adding: “We would not have intervened without her express consent.

“In the Middleton case her lawyer was in contact with me. He was keeping us informed and it was up to him to decide on his client’s behalf when he wanted something to go around the industry.

“We think it is unfair for the committee to have ignored the conversations we had with her people in the build up. It is unfair to criticise us for not acting when we were not being asked to act. But they paid us a backhanded compliment by recognising that we are effective when we do act.”

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