The PCC's ever-increasing authority

The year 2001 will go down as another good one for the Press Complaints Commission. Not only have we seen its adjudications referred to in, and influencing the outcome of, injunction applications (see the Heather Mills and Amanda Holden cases), but in July, the High Court threw out Anna Ford’s attempt to judicially review the commission’s decision to reject her complaint, namely that her privacy had been infringed by the use of long-lens holiday snaps of her and her then boyfriend appearing in OK! magazine.

Ford’s application for permission to begin proceedings to quash the PCC’s decision was not, it is important to remember, an appeal on the facts from the PCC’s decision.

Neither was the court considering whether her right of privacy had been infringed. The court’s sole task was to consider if she had an arguable case to invoke its limited supervisory jurisdiction over the commission.

The court has made its position clear in a number of earlier cases: it is reluctant to interfere where a body has exercised its discretion in balancing competing interests.

More particularly, as concerns the media, Lord Woolf made clear last year in Regina v Broadcasting Standards Commission ex parte BBC that what constitutes an infringement of privacy is very much a matter of personal judgment and is not an area where the courts are well equipped to adjudicate.

In these circumstances, the court has said it will only interfere with the decision of a body such as the PCC where it would be clearly desirable to do so.

In Ford’s case, the court considered that the PCC had ample material on which to reach its conclusion that the particular beach on which Ford was photographed was not a place where she could reasonably expect privacy.

It would not, therefore, interfere with the commission’s exercise of its discretion.

The decision reinforces the PCC’s work and its ability to offer a cost-effective and efficient process to resolve disputes. It also underlines the commission’s ability to bring finality, save in exceptional circumstances, which is of great importance to all.

By way of a footnote, the PCC, for the purposes of Ford’s application, necessarily had to concede that it was arguable that the it was a public authority under the Human Rights Act 1998 and was amenable to judicial review. This must not be confused with the PCC accepting it is a public authority. That particular fight will be one for another day. 

Julian Pike is a partner in the media team at Farrer & Co

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