Court isn't the place to argue over privacy

The PCC is far more than a self-regulatory talking shop, argues Sir Christopher Meyer. And it hits editors where it hurts them most
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The Independent Online

In the 18 months since I became chairman of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), privacy issues have been near the top of my agenda. As I moved into Salisbury Square, the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport was wrapping up its inquiry into the press and privacy. Since then, individual privacy cases, either before the courts or the PCC, have made regular news.

I have to point out to people that our Code of Practice has 16 different clauses, of which privacy as such is only one; that while privacy is one of the most contentious areas, the largest group of complaints by far is about accuracy; and while it is the celebrity cases that make the headlines, nine out of 10 people who use our services lay no claim to celebrity at all.

Two recent court decisions have stirred things up anew. First we had the Law Lords' 3-2 ruling in May this year in favour of Naomi Campbell in her claim of breach of confidence and data protection against the Daily Mirror. Then there was the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, which upheld Princess Caroline of Monaco's claim against the German government for failing to protect her privacy from intrusion by the German press. I am no lawyer. I put my head into the lion's mouth in thinking that these decisions have made a muddle of the law. Some even believe that they pull in different directions where the publication of photographs is concerned. I am not surprised that people are unsure how the law is developing. The multiple court rulings in the Campbell case show how divided views on privacy have become among judges themselves. As for the Caroline case, I can well understand the concern of the British and German newspaper industries at the possible implications for freedom of expression. That is going to need careful watching.

Meanwhile, as two or three cases involving privacy and the press made their way through the courts last year, the PCC made 271 rulings on privacy complaints. Most of them were ordinary members of the public caught up in the media spotlight for one reason or another. But some were from actors, royals, footballers, politicians and the rich - all of whom preferred to do it our way, rather than go through the courts. This trend continues. Within the past few weeks, the PCC has received complaints about privacy intrusion from people as diverse as the footballer Ruud van Nistelrooy, a member of the Royal Family and actors such as Leslie Grantham from EastEnders.

In the case of Van Nistelrooy - which concerned pictures of him and his wife on honeymoon - we negotiated last week the prominent publication of a full apology in a national newspaper as a means of resolving his complaint.

If you think that the press has violated your privacy, a spectrum of choices is available to you: you can write to the editor directly; you can write to the readers' editor or ombudsman if one exists on the newspaper; you can come to the PCC; or you can go to the law. All these possibilities coexist.

There is room for them all. It is not a zero-sum game. Nevertheless, there are important differences. Trying to seek redress at the PCC will cost you no more than a postage stamp, phone call, e-mail or fax. We do not charge. You deal with us directly. You do not need a lawyer. Our procedures are fast. On average, the PCC sorts out complaints in less than six weeks. This is because our process is intentionally not adversarial. Newspapers almost always co-operate in resolving complaints. If they do not and we uphold your complaint, you will not get any money. But you will not have your private life turned over in public. The Campbell case took three years, from which she got her costs, £3,500 and intense public scrutiny of her private life. You will have the satisfaction of seeing the editor eat humble pie in public. You will have added to our case law, so further defining where the press cannot tread. I would argue today that the only coherent body of "jurisprudence on privacy" is the PCC's.

Business is booming at the commission. That is not a boast. It is a fact. Last year, the gross number of complaints that we received was almost 40 per cent up on 2002. We are on course this year to match, perhaps exceed, last year's figure of almost 4,000. Why is this happening? Whatever your opinion of journalism in the UK, it is hardly the result of a sudden and calamitous fall in standards. I believe that people are coming to the PCC in ever-growing numbers because they are increasingly aware of our existence and effectiveness. I travel around the UK most months to meet editors and owners of newspapers in our nations and regions. I urge them to publicise the PCC, for example, on the editorial or letters page, as the place to go to when an aggrieved reader cannot sort things out directly with the editor. Most editors readily agree. Don't forget that roughly half of all complaints that we get are about the UK's regional press, the best and most vibrant of any of the seven countries in which I have lived.

Then we have launched our PCC open days and workshops: a kind of travelling road show, to which the public are invited to debate self-regulation with commissioners; the director of the PCC, Tim Toulmin; and myself. We have been to Manchester and Edinburgh already. Next stop: Cardiff later in the autumn. At any one time, somebody from the commission staff is on the road, talking to one body or another - police, minority groups, trainee journalists - about the services the PCC can offer. Tim and I have just started a dialogue with the Muslim Council of Britain. In a couple of weeks I will be seeing Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality. All this is underpinned by our website which even our detractors concede is well designed. This level of activity is important. Self-regulation in any profession is a tough sell. Self-regulation for newspapers and magazines is even tougher. At the PCC we have to be able to show that we are independent of the industry which finances us; and effective in ensuring compliance with our bible, the Code of Practice. Sceptics are plentiful and, in my experience so far, most are to be found in London. This is yet another way of measuring the gulf which exists between the metropolis and the rest of the country. The plain truth is that self-regulation no longer accurately describes the work done at Salisbury Square. The PCC has grown organically over the years, giving it an independent life and momentum of its own: 13 years of precedent-setting case law across the Code of Practice; a Code that has itself been amended more than 30 times; a tough lay majority on the commission; a minority of editors drawn from all over the UK, who have different perspectives on the issues we debate; a small expert staff, none of whom has come out of the newspaper industry; procedures introduced at the beginning of the year for independent quality control; and a fully public explanation of our adjudications.

Anyone who thinks that an adjudication, or ruling, against a newspaper is just a slap on the wrist, does not understand the press. This is a censuring of the editor. It is public, it is prominent, and it has to be published in full in the offending newspaper. The screams and howls from editors when they know this is coming down the track is a wonder to behold. It gets them where it hurts most: in their self-esteem and reputation.

Any regulator of the press would be confronted by dilemmas, hard choices and controversies. Churchill once said that democracy was the worst system of government until compared with all others. Self-regulation is similar. It has its jagged edges and it must evolve or die. But I believe that, in its common sense, its experience, its absence of interference from the state, and its mission to reconcile complainant and editor, the PCC is preferable to any conceivable alternative.

MPs back moves for new law

labour MPs overwhelmingly back the idea of a privacy law, and are convinced that the media is responsible for public apathy towards the political process.

A poll, conducted by CommunicateResearch for The Independent, found that the introduction of a "tightly defined privacy law with a clear public-interest defence" would be supported by 90 per cent of Labour MPs, but only 68 per cent of Conservative MPs. MPs from "other" political parties were more reticent, with 36 per cent of them opposing a privacy law.

Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, is said to have no plans to introduce such legislation, preferring to leave the matter in the hands of the Press Complaints Commission and the courts. However, the poll, based on the responses of 101 MPs, revealed a great deal of mistrust of the media among those on the Labour benches.

Labour MPs were also far more concerned than Conservatives about media ownership. When asked whether they feel that media owners and editors are sufficiently accountable to the public, 97 per cent of Labour MPs said "no". Conservatives, perhaps safe in the knowledge that their party enjoys the support of large swathes of the media, were more comfortable with the status quo, with 36 per cent feeling that editors and owners were sufficiently accountable, and 58 per cent wishing to see greater checks and balances.

Finally, 87 per cent of Labour MPs blamed the media for undermining trust in politicians and, hence, for voter apathy.

Ian Burrell