Press complaints body to rule on bugging devices: Quarterly report of Sir Gordon Downey, the Independent Readers' Representative

IN ITS latest report, published 14 May, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) welcomes a series of measures, proposed by the Press Standards Board of Finance on behalf of the industry, designed to strengthen self-regulation of the press.

Among the measures to be adopted is a change in the membership of the commission so that a majority of its members should come from outside the industry. Similarly, the membership of the appointments commission (which appoints PCC members) will be increased in number and have a clear majority unconnected with the industry.

My own view is that the PCC has shown no lack of independence in the past and that these changes will have no practical effect on its adjudications. However, they may help to reinforce public confidence in the authority of the body.

Other proposed changes could be more important. The present Code of Practice was framed by editors and the PCC was merely asked to enforce it. In future, it will be asked to ratify the code and take final responsibility for it.

This will give it a clearer focus to propose changes in the light of its own experience. It is important that, in the process, the commitment of editors to the code should not be forfeited. But the commission is clearly aware of this and has agreed to the setting up of a joint review committee to resolve any differences over the contents of the code.

Some specific changes are already in prospect. These include provisions relating to 'bugging' devices and long-range cameras; and a new clause covering 'public interest' is under examination.

The PCC is also proposing to set up a telephone helpline for members of the public who fear the code is about to be breached in respect of their own affairs; and to mount a public awareness campaign for its activities. I believe these changes should be broadly welcomed both by readers and by newspapers.

It has, for a long time, been clear to me that legitimate public concern over press behaviour should be addressed by strengthening the present system of self-regulation and not abandoning it for an untried system of statutory control. If the PCC can make itself more available to the public and can exercise its responsibilities wisely, I believe this will provide a way of avoiding many of the problems which are currently perceived.

Most complaints - even the intractable ones which find their way to the PCC - are resolved without the need for formal adjudication. In its latest report, the PCC gives information about 140 complaints considered in the period April-May. Of these, 89 raised no prima facie breach of the code, and 30 were resolved directly by the newspapers concerned. Adjudications were made on the remaining 21, of which eight were wholly or partially upheld.

The Independent has, to my knowledge, always taken the Code of Practice seriously and tries to deal fairly with readers' complaints. There have been no adverse adjudications by the PCC. All departments are required to keep separate folders of readers' complaints and I review these at intervals. For the most part, they are dealt with well.

There are, of course, occasional lapses and readers are regularly invited to write to me if they are not satisfied with the way in which their complaints have been handled. I am happy to look into these and try to ensure that mistakes do not recur.

In short, I remain encouraged by the responsible way in which complaints are tackled. And I see nothing in the proposed strengthening of the PCC which is inconsistent with our approach.