The Press Complaints Commission: The best a press can get

The Press Complaints Commission has its critics, and its chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, admits that there are faults. But he is convinced that any alternative would leave both journalists and readers much worse off
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The Independent Online

After years wandering the world I am, at last, thanks to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), getting to know my own country. Since starting my first term as chairman in 2003, I have kept up a pretty steady programme of visits to editors and proprietors outside London. This has, for instance, taken me to Scotland 14 times and to Newcastle on three occasions.

The PCC, based in London, must not be seen as trapped in a metropolitan bubble. The service we provide is for everybody in the UK. It is still a challenge to get over to people that the PCC does not spend most of its time dealing with privacy complaints from London law-firms on behalf of celebrities. The rich and famous do come to us in substantial numbers, especially those who want a speedy outcome and do not relish the risk of their private lives being exposed in minute detail in open court. But more than 90 per cent of our work is helping people from all over the UK who lay no claim to celebrity at all; and they are mainly bothered not by privacy issues, but those of accuracy.

With privacy, the principle is easy enough. Everyone has a right to privacy. What that means in practice will depend case by case. Attention-seeking celebrities who try to define the terms of their own publicity will obviously have less of a right to privacy than the man or woman on the Clapham omnibus. But how much less? And is the public interest involved? and if so, how is it to be defined? At the PCC we now have a pretty sophisticated set of precedents to guide us in these matters. It is, I believe, a more coherent and useful guide to what is proper to publish than the rather higgledy-piggledy rulings that have emerged recently from the courts on aspects of privacy and confidentiality. While the courts in recent years have dealt only with a handful of cases, we have the advantage of having ruled on hundreds.

After 15 years, the PCC has established a substantial corpus of its own case-law. The pioneering phase is over. The cases that come now to the commission for adjudication can be fiendish in the dilemmas they pose; and the judgments finally reached will frequently be highly contentious.

Making a judgment on what is in the public interest is perhaps the most contentious thing we do. In British society there are widely differing views on where the line between private lives and public interest should be drawn. It is a particularly sensitive matter for us at the PCC because nine out of the 16 clauses of the industry's code of practice have a public-interest exception: namely, that all or part of these clauses can be set aside if the public interest is served in so doing.

We have established a number of key principles, and made a number of landmark rulings, against which a public-interest defence can be tested. This is set out in some detail in The Editors' Codebook. For example, does a story lead to the detection of a crime; expose wrongdoing; protect public health and safety; prevent the public from being misled; or uphold freedom of expression itself?

We do not equate the public interest with whatever the public is interested in. In fact, as in the case of subterfuge, we set the bar high for a public-interest defence. In the case of children under 16, it would take an exceptional public interest to override the normally paramount interests of the child.

More than half the PCC's work as mediator, regulator and general advice bureau is with readers of regional and local newspapers. We have created a PCC roadshow which, twice a year, visits the great cities of the UK. We were in Liverpool in the spring and will be in Glasgow in the autumn. The roadshow has been to Manchester, Belfast, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Newcastle.

The debates we have are very different from those in which we engage in London. The concerns and questions put to us are practical and grounded in everyday life. "Do I have to pay to complain to the PCC?" - No. "Do I need a lawyer?" - No. "How long does it take to resolve a complaint?" - Six weeks on average. "How do I get a correction into a paper?" - We will help you. "Will you help me also with the prominence of the correction?" - Yes. "What can I do if I'm persistently badgered by a reporter?" - Use our 24/7 anti-harassment service and we will stop it... And so on.

It is the stuff also of the e-mails and phone calls that pour in every day. This is the man and woman in the street telling us what they expect from a service which they are now using in record numbers. In 2005, we had more than 3,600 complaints; around 8,000 general enquiries; more complaints resolved than ever before (and more editors than ever before looking for a steer before running a story or photo).

This is the PCC's grass-roots activity. In London, it passes largely unremarked and unnoticed. Yet it is essential context for the debates on press freedom that endlessly swirl around the villages of Westminster and Whitehall - debates, incidentally, that are becoming more complex with the arrival of multi-media platforms and multiple ways of delivering editorial content. There is much that remains to be clarified in the world of blogs, podcasts and audio-visual material on newspaper websites. But of one thing I am certain - that where editorially-controlled content is concerned, we must plant the PCC's standard of self-regulation. To do otherwise is to leave a vacuum which others, some in Brussels, will be only too happy to fill.

Among "opinion formers" our independence from the newspaper and magazine industry is still not well understood. Many are surprised to learn that publicly-appointed lay members form a majority on the commission. There are 10 of them. In 2003 we decided to increase their number by one and to appoint them through a process of public advertising. Half of them are women. None of them comes from the world of journalism. There are seven editors: three are from national newspapers, three from the regions, and one from the magazine industry.

This is the group that not only rules on the tough cases where it has not been possible to resolve the complaint, but also sees all the casework on which the PCC permanent staff submits its recommendations (checking that no breach of the code has occurred or that the publication has offered sufficient remedial action to the complainant).

None of the permanent staff of 14 has a background in journalism. It means that new recruits have a steep learning curve. But that is preferable to any suggestion that they may be beholden to some past employer in journalism.

Some people question the propriety of having editors on the commission. Others would like to see them replaced by journalists of lesser authority in their daily work. I think they are wrong. A fundamental principle has to be that the buck stops with the editor. It flows from the original recommendation of the Calcutt Committee, when it advocated the setting-up of the PCC, in 1990. This was that the editors' code of practice should be drafted by the editors themselves because it would more readily command respect than one imposed from the outside. It seems to me only logical that editors should therefore have a place on the commission, provided they are in a clear minority. Lay commissioners should hear how a case looks from the editor's chair.

In reality, 15 years on, the term "self-regulation" inadequately defines the system. It is self-evidently not journalists sitting in judgment on journalists. It is open to independent, outside scrutiny through the Charter Commissioner and the Charter Compliance Panel, innovations introduced in 2004. Its decisions can be put to judicial review. Of course, in theory, the newspaper and magazine industry could pull the rug from under it tomorrow. But it won't.

A former permanent secretary at the Treasury said to me not long ago that his department retained the nominal authority to interfere at will in the running of the Bank of England. But having given the bank effective independence to set interest rates, it would be politically very difficult for the Treasury to do so. At the PCC we have a similar relationship with our industry.

Churchill once said that democracy was the worst system of government until you compared it to all the others. Something similar can be said about the PCC. We will make mistakes, we have our rough edges and we are never complacent. But regulation by the state or Brussels would mark the beginning of the end of a freedom painfully acquired over centuries.

Sir Christopher Meyer is the chairman of the PCC. A longer version of this article appears in the British Journalism Review, Volume 17 Number 3, available from SAGE Publications, 1 Oliver's Yard, 55 City Road, London EC1Y 1SP. Subscription hotline: +44 (0)20 7324 8701. Email: