Monday 19 October 2009

Breaking! Press complaints commission to consider public complaints about press

The Press Complaints Commission is to break new ground by investigating public complaints about a press article which a record number of people think breaches the PCC's code of conduct for newspapers.

It has even released a PCC to consider press complaints statement to mark this historic moment.

Sarah Ditum at Paperhouse has an interesting post, with extracts from both the initial "don't try to complain if the article isn't about you personally" policy, and a follow-up email, reflecting the public PCC statement.

The PCC generally requires the involvement of directly-affected parties in its investigations, and it has pro-actively been in touch with representatives of Boyzone - who are in contact with Stephen Gately's family - since shortly after his death. Any complaint from the affected parties will naturally be given precedence by the Commission, in line with its normal procedures.

If, for whatever reason, those individuals do not wish to make a complaint, the PCC will in any case write to the Daily Mail for its response to the more general complaints from the public before considering whether there are any issues under the Code to pursue.

As the PCC will not be in a position to engage in direct correspondence with every complainant, it is issuing this statement to make clear what action it will be taking. It will make a further public statement when it has considered the matter.

The tone of that offer to write to the Daily Mail is rather deferential - in the "is there anything else you would like to say to us today, Mr Dacre" style of the 1950s television interviewer.

But progress is progress!

The news that over 21,000 people have complained captures how the high profile episode will put the established policies and practices of the PCC under pressure. (Like, I am sure, many other people who have blogged and tweeted about it, I have not submitted a complaint myself).

Taking the biggest ever virtual mail-sack of press complaints and saying "nothing to do with us, guv'nor" - would bring the PCC itself and the whole status quo system of press regulation into deep public disrepute.

Leave aside the merits of whether Moir's article does indeed breach the PCC code on various counts suggested, such as accuracy; the treatment of the recently deceased; or discrimination so that references to sexuality must be relevant.

That is because it will, of course, be a surprise to many non-media insiders that the press complaints commission does not consider complaints from the public merely on the grounds that the articles are in breach of the PCC code which the newspapers have signed up to.

The bar on third party complaints is not to be found in the code itself.

It is, of course, possible for newspaper articles to be demonstrably inaccurate without setting the slightly narrower threshold that they have to be inaccurate about me personally!

But it should not be enough to say that the case is "exceptional" - because of the record number of complaints made.

There is certainly a constituency of people who complain that self-regulation is never going to work. The PCC is of course aware of this, with its deputy chairman co-authoring a conference paper last month which noted that:

Self-regulation hardly has the best of reputations. Whether it relates to lawyers, MPs or the press, there is inherent suspicion about any group that appears to regulate from within. Scepticism, however, is perfectly healthy and should ensure that those who oversee such regulatory frameworks do not rest on their laurels. Equally, critics of self-regulation should take care that calls for change don't risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Clearly, the industry wants to preserve self-regulation. This is, in my view, a legitimate position. For me, the core test is whether they would be able to win the trust of reasonable people who might complain that their complaint will be fairly dealt with, and of broader civic and public opinion as to whether that is taking place.

But the current system does not have sufficient credibility or trust, and this is likely to become clearer if there are more high-profile cases where large numbers of people believe there

Three things would help to maintain confidence. None strikes me as rocket science.

(i) That it should be possible for third parties to challenge articles in breach of the code.
(ii) That a workable model needs to be found to deal with complaints of this kind.
(iii) That the results of assessments - including remedies - need to command sufficient public and political confidence

Workability and resources would be a key practical issue. After all, the PCC may throw its hands up in horror. You want us to be able to gauge on whether everything in the Daily Express is accurate, simply because they have signed up to our code? That was hardly the intention of creating it. (And there will no doubt be worries about the ability of pressure groups to complain all the time about eveything).

But these are not insurmountable obstacles.

The fact is that there is a perfectly good model of press self-regulation which can deal with the capacity and resource pressures more sensibly.

It is that newspapers themselves adopt the ombudsman model which was often thought of as a US import, but has now successfully been used by several UK titles, most prominently both the Guardian and Observer, but also the Mirror titles. (I can not find a full list, but will append a link if somebody has one).

The key 'trust' threshold is that the ombudsman is managerially and editorially independent of the editor, and seen to be so in practice. The difference between those who complain to the BBC - and find the process tortuous and incredibly defensive even when mistakes have clearly been made - as compared to the Guardian or Observer is that, in the latter case, the papers have established a good record of being able to criticise themselves publicly when they make a mistake. This means that, where a complaint fails, there is a good reason for thinking it got a fair wind.

(For the record, I have personally complained just once to The Observer - successfully, and was amused to see that the Katwala/Cohen blog-off even made Stephen Pritchard's review of the year. But I did, perhaps more surprisingly, get a reply and even something of an apology on the one occasion when I did bother to write to the Mail about whether I was British or not).

I don't see what there is for any reasonable newspaper to run away from here. I wonder whether those 'broadsheets' who do not have such a system in place think it would be like the sky falling in. I admit that I don't think Mr Richard Desmond or Mr Paul Dacre will be falling over themselves with enthusiasm.

But I think it is also worth asking whether the price of maintaining trust in self-regulation is that all newspapers should adopt the ombudsman model internally, (or perhaps otherwise pay a substantially higher levy to have complaints dealt with directly by the PCC). That would obviously supplement the PCC model, not replace it, but it would distribute the work of dealing with complaints more sensibly.

A similar reasonable demand for self-regulation to work would be that all newspapers introduce a corrections and clarifications column, placing this somewhere reasonably prominent in the newspaper, such as next to the letters and leading articles. Beyond that, where the PCC might be strengthened further is in being able to clearly insist on due prominence for judgements; depending on the prominence

If that is not the answer, then perhaps the PCC and the industry want to come up with a model of their own. I doubt that the traditional staunch defence on the status quo, including the bar on third party complaints will cut it as legitimate or plausible.

Statutory regulation is what the media wishes to avoid, in the laudable cause of a free press. But I see no reason at all why there shouldn't be Parliamentary and civic pressure about the form which self-regulation should take to be considered serious and sufficient by outsiders. So the media is going to have to think through and adapt an an age of increasing demands for transparency and accountability, combined with much lower barriers to entry to potentially high profile scrutiny of the media itself.

Pressure on the PCC to consider public complaints of articles which are in breach of the published code, whether third-party or not, is not likely to go away. Nor should it.


Shamik Das said...

And who's the chair of the editors' code of practice committee?!

Step forward Mr Paul Dacre!

You couldn't make it up.

Jessica Asato said...

Hi Sunder, I can see why self-regulation could be made to work better, but why would it be such a disaster to have an independent regulator funded by the taxpayer? Just because the money comes from the state, doesn't mean that the state can necessarily direct the outcome.