Privacy low on list of Press complaints

Readers more concerned about inacurracy and right to reply
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INFRINGEMENT of privacy by national newspapers is a much smaller worry for the public than inaccuracy despite the call for privacy legislation which followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales last year.

Only 12 per cent of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission in 1997 were from people who felt their privacy had been invaded. Instead 56 per cent of the complaints were from members of the public who were concerned about inaccurate reporting or who wanted a right of reply.

Yet privacy issues took up most of the PCC's time last year when it reviewed its privacy code in the wake of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The PCC code now contains a specific right for people to have their privacy respected and it was tightened up to further limit the use of photographs taken in private places. The new complaints code was even re-written to specifically guarantee protection for Prince William and Prince Harry until they leave school.

The PCC undertook the changes to try to head off pressure for statutory limits of the press after public outrage at the perceived role of paparazzi photographers in the death of the Princess. In fact harassment complaints amounted to only three per cent of the total.

The concentration on privacy complaints also means that the PCC has a special privacy commissioner to handle the 368 complaints it received last year.

"The high-profile privacy cases attract a lot of high profile coverage," said Guy Black, director of the PCC yesterday. "But although it is a high profile thing and attracts the public's interest, in fact it doesn't actually happen that often.

"Around 90 per cent of our complaints come from ordinary members of the public and the fact is that privacy infringements are mainly concentrated on public figures. The public is much more affected by inaccuracies."

However Mr Black rejected the suggestion that last year's changes to the code were a knee-jerk reaction to the death of the Princess of Wales or that the code is skewed in favour of the famous. "It is not just about the number of complaint," he said. "We have to be responsive to public and parliamentary opinion. For example we only get a tiny number of complaints about payments to criminals by newspapers, but as the Mary Bell case shows it is something the public feel strongly about."

The PCC dealt with 2,944 complaints last year, double the number it received in the early Nineties, but similar to 1996. The vast majority of complaints were resolved by organising a right of reply, a letter for publication or a correction. In 82 unresolvable cases the PCC conducted an investigation and found for 34 complainants. In 11 cases it forced newspapers to print the full transcript of its adjudication.

Almost half of all complaints concerned stories written in national newspapers, but regional daily and weekly newspapers accounted for one third of the total. Magazines attracted only 4 per cent of complaints.