It has been a busy year, with a number of referrals to the Press Complaints Commission, some quite high profile. What lessons should the press learn for the future?
Protection of confidential sources is insufficient to answer a complaint about accuracy. Have available corroborative material or provide the complainant with a suitable opportunity to reply.
Many celebrities are susceptible to any number of allegations. Where there is doubt as to the veracity of the story, do not rely solely on one account: corroborate or approach the subject for comment.
Correct inaccuracies promptly (where it is a serious matter, six weeks was held to be too long and a failure to apologise censured).
Privacy and harassment
Publication of information already in the public domain with nothing inherently private about it (such as Steve Bing’s office switchboard number) will not breach the privacy provisions of the code.
What you have already revealed to the public or let pass without complaint will be taken into account by the PCC.
The material in question must be proportionate to that previously revealed. If the subject has never discussed private issues of the type published, the mere fact that the complainant has previously spoken publicly about other matters will be insufficient to justify the publication of intrusive material.
Obtain consent to take photos in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a quiet cafe, particularly if it is clear the photos could not be obtained from outside the premises, even if the subject’s presence is incidental.
Euan Blair’s university application was deemed relevant to his welfare. There must therefore be an exceptional public interest in publication.
The mere fame of a child’s parent is insufficient – the test remains whether such an article would be published if the child were not related to famous parents.
The PCC has noted it is more difficult to protect individuals where they begin to acquire a public profile in their own right – for example by making public appearances.
Interviewing children on matters concerning their welfare must take place only with consent from a parent. The child’s consent is irrelevant.
Obtain a parent’s consent to interview a child witness.
Make clear to the parent what is to be published, particularly where identification is intended.
Payments to witnesses
The Amy Gehring case helped illustrate that the press is doing it right and acting responsibly:
No approach was made until after the witnesses had given evidence.
The court was made aware of the offers of payment.
The parents had raised the subject of payment, not the newspapers.
There was a clear public interest in the first-hand accounts and any material not called in evidence.
Payment was not on the condition of the defendant’s conviction.
Responsibility for gathering material in accordance with the PCC Code lies with editors.
Where a breach is recognised, offer an immediate apology and undertake not to publish.
Failure to co-operate swiftly with the PCC will result in a complaint being upheld.
Basic denial of complaints is insufficient. Answer each in detail.
The PCC has no remit to make a ruling unless a complaint is received from someone directly affected and a paper cannot refer itself – the unusual step taken by The Guardian.
Monica Bhogal is a media lawyer at Charles Russell Solicitors