Press standards have improved, but more reform needed

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The Independent Online

Fourteen years since the former Tory minister David Mellor infamously claimed that the press was "drinking in the last-chance saloon", MPs tried to call time yesterday on the worst excesses of the media.

The Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee spent five months taking evidence from ministers, national newspaper editors, lawyers, academics and readers in yet another attempt to tackle the issues of privacy, intrusion and press freedom.

The resulting three-volume, 677-page report includes 159 written submissions from everyone from Lord Donaldson of Lymington, the former master of the rolls, to a publicist for ITV's The Bill. It makes 34 detailed recommendations aimed at improving the system.

BROADCASTING

The MPs say that Ofcom, the media super-regulator, must seize the chance presented by its new structure to undertake a thorough review of how complaints against broadcasters should be tackled. A new code of conduct should be created.

The committee says there are few occasions when the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 or Channel 5 "seriously invaded the privacy of individuals without some justification". But it does single out for criticism the practice of "door-stepping", whereby a film crew wait outside the home or workplace of someone who has refused, often in writing, to be interviewed.

A TWIN-TRACK PCC

The PCC is urged to consider establishing a twin-track procedure that allows it to act as both an adjudicator as well as a mediator. At the moment, the body mediates between complainants and editors. The MPs suggest that for readers who do not want mediation, the PCC should make a simple judgement as to whether its code of conduct has been breached.

PRE-PUBLICATION TEAMS

While wary of the accusation of press censorship, the MPs claim that "there are a number of issues that arise in advance of the publication of a story" that could be tackled by a specialist PCC team. The recommendation is sketchy, but suggests that the team would liaise between individuals and editors. Such teams would work with Ofcom to tackle "media scrums" and transmit "desist messages" from those who do not want to talk to the media.

REVISED PCC CODE

The code's ban on intercepting phone calls should be updated and should include reference to the privacy of e-mails. Journalists should be allowed to refuse an assignment on the grounds that it breaches the code and, if necessary, refer the matter to the PCC without prejudice.

CONSTITUTION OF THE PCC

The MPs said that the PCC would command more confidence among the public if it overhauled its own procedures. It should openly advertise vacancies for its lay, or non-journalist, members. One lay member admitted that she was only asked to join because she was a friend of the PCC director, Guy Black.

INDEPENDENT OMBUDSMAN

The Appointments Commission should appoint an independent figure to implement a procedural appeals process. Such a figure would act as a "backstop" in cases where the complainant was unhappy with the PCC's verdict.

PCC AND THE LAW

Alarmed by the admission by Rebekah Wade, editor of The Sun and former editor of the News of the World, that "we have paid the police for information in the past", the MPs say the PCC should explicitly ban such payments.

THIRD-PARTY COMPLAINTS

At present, the PCC normally does not accept complaints from anyone other than the individual referred to by a story. It should explicitly accept third-party complaints.

ADJUDICATIONS

The text of a PCC adjudication should be clearly and consistently set out to ensure its visibility and easy identification. A prominent "taster" of all judgements should be put on the front page.

FINES AND COSTS

The MPs propose two measures: "one gently punitive and one modestly compensatory". First, registration fees for newspapers should increase according to how many breaches are upheld against them. Secondly, there should be a fixed scale of compensatory awards to be made in serious cases.

PRIVACY LAW

The MPs say that "on balance, we firmly recommend that the Government reconsider its position and bring forward legislative proposals to clarify the protection that individuals can expect from unwarranted intrusion by anyone - not the press alone - into their private lives". They say the move is necessary to satisfy the obligations upon the UK under the European Convention of Human Rights.

Main points

* A privacy law should be drafted by the Government

* Fines should be imposed

* Payments to police for information should be banned

* An independent figure should be appointed to implement appeals and audit the PCC

* Newspapers should be forced to print"tasters" of PCC adjudications on the front page

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