PCC tightens rules on privacy and harassment

The Press Complaints Commission has made a series of alterations to rules governing the actions of newspapers and their journalists, tightening definitions of privacy and harassment of individuals featured in the news.

Privacy rules have been amended to now take into account previous relevant disclosures made by the complainant.

The rule change is likely to make it more difficult for public figures to bring privacy complaints when they have previously sought newspaper coverage about their private lives, however the alteration of the code is also likely to add an extra safeguard for those wishing to stay out of the public glare.

Earlier this week the News of the World and the Daily Mail issued apologies to Fabio Capello and made ‘substantial’ payments to charity for publishing photos of the England football manager on holiday with his wife.

The PCC had previously issued guidance that Capello was concerned about maintaining the privacy of his family. The change to the privacy rules has now, in effect, simply codified existing best practice.

Under current rules, to which newspaper editors sign up voluntarily, editors can claim exceptions to parts of the regulation if they can ‘demonstrate fully’ those breaches served the public interest.

This rule has now been amended, granting editors more latitude, to make it a requirement that they demonstrate a ‘reasonable belief’ they were acting in the public interest.

In addition, the PCC has approved changes to its own rules that now require journalists to identify themselves, if requested, in situations where harassment may become an issue.

Ian Beales, secretary of the PCC code committee, said: “These amendments are intended to strengthen and clarify the code, for the benefit of both complainants and the press, by incorporating elements that largely reflect embedded PCC jurisprudence or existing industry best practice.”

Under previous regulation, Clause 3ii of the editors’ code stated: “Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent.”

That rule will now be lengthened to include the words: “Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.”

Beales added: “When considering complaints of alleged intrusions into privacy, the PCC has traditionally had regard for any relevant previous disclosures by the complainant. That has now been codified.

“Also, it would be unusual for journalists in pursuit of a story not to identify themselves to the person they wanted to interview or photograph – unless there was some public interest reason for not doing so. The code now reflects that.

“Similarly with the public interest exceptions: currently, editors must demonstrate how their action actually served the public interest.

“But that doesn’t allow for publication or investigative activity that genuinely appeared to be in the public interest, even where none actually emerged. Increasingly in the courts – and especially under Data Protection law – the test is whether there was a reasonable belief that the action was in the public interest.

“In reality the PCC would also be likely to take into consideration, under the spirit of the code, whether the action would have seemed reasonable.

‘So now, having taken legal advice, we have modified the code to reflect that. It means editors must convince the PCC that they had good reasons to believe their action was in the public interest. It is a stiff test – shallow or spurious reasons won’t do – but a fair one.”

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