When restraint can turn into censorship: In his quarterly report, Sir Gordon Downey, the Readers' Representative, compares two reviews of self-regulation of the press

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IN A report last November I drew attention to evidence which the Press Complaints Commission had submitted to Sir David Calcutt for his Review of Press Self-Regulation. Since then, Sir David has presented his recommendations to the Secretary of State for National Heritage, and the Government is considering its response. It is interesting to compare the two sets of conclusions.

The Commission was set up at the beginning of 1991 and was seen as the last chance to curb by self- regulation what were perceived as the excesses of the popular press. After 18 months' experience it concluded that there had been a swift and effective shake-up of newspapers up and down the country; that the new code of practice had evoked a more responsible attitude from journalists; and that, overall, 'there is unequivocal evidence that self- regulation is working effectively'.

Sir David reached a different conclusion. Indeed, his overall assessment could not have been more damning. It read: 'The Press Complaints Commission is not, in my view, an effective regulator of the press. It has not been set up in a way, and is not operating a code of practice, which enables it to command not only press but also public confidence. It does not, in my view, hold the balance fairly between the press and the individual. It is not the truly independent body which it should be. As constituted, it is, in essence, a body set up by the industry, financed by the industry, dominated by the industry, and operating a code of practice devised by the industry and which is over-

favourable to the industry.'

As a readers' representative, I find this blanket indictment rather strange. The essence of self-regulation is that it should be regulation of the industry by the industry - with an important input from 'independents' who have a particular responsibility for guarding the public interest.

Having participated in self- regulation over the last two or three years, and having received many letters from readers on the subject, I do not see the Commission as either ineffective or lacking in public respect. This is not to say that matters cannot be improved: but, in my view, there would need to be very strong reasons to justify scrapping the system and starting afresh.

Sir David recommends replacing self-regulation with a statutory tribunal. He describes at length five matters which caused him particular concern. One concerned the alleged invasion of privacy of a private individual by the Daily Sport and its contemptuous treatment of the Commission in not printing an adverse ajudication. Sir David subsequently acknowledged that all adjudication against Daily Sport may now have been printed in full.

The other four matters all referred to the Commission's handling of cases involving the privacy of royalty or politicians. Sir David took the view that although, for the most part, those directly affected did not complain, this might have reflected a lack of confidence in the Commission and the industry's code of conduct; and that the Commission should have investigated anyway. It is possible that the public figures preferred not to have these matters raked over in public.

What is striking about these concerns is their emphasis on privacy, particularly of public figures. The newspapers' code of practice goes far wider. Privacy is only one of 16 articles dealing with such issues as accuracy, the need to distinguish between fact and conjecture, misrepresentation, financial journalism and children in sex cases. Less than 10 per cent of complaints received by the Commission relate to privacy. One wonders whether Sir David has kept these concerns in proportion. He says in his report that 'it cannot, in my view, be said that there has been a serious breakdown of the system which has been put in place, nor that any one publication acted in a maverick way'.

His other main concern, and this must have been decisive, was that the press had failed to fully implement the earlier recommendations of the Privacy Committee (which he had also chaired), relating to the setting up of the Commission. In particular, he felt that the means of apppointing its members were not sufficiently independent of the industry; that it had been wrong to include among its objects the defence of press freedom; and that the code of practice was devised by the industry, subject only to regular review with the Commission.

Sir David concludes that the present system cannot realistically be improved to command public confidence. He recommends that a statutory tribunal should be set up with wide legal powers.

These would include: jurisdiction over publishers, editors and journalists of all newspapers; a statutory code of conduct which was more specific in the matter of privacy; a power to restrain publication by injunction; provision for the tribunal to initiate its own investigators and to inquire more frequently into third-party complaints; powers to impose fines and award compensation, and more oral hearings, with rights of appeal to the courts.

I cannot be alone in thinking that this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut. There may be a case for adding to the independent representation on the Commission. There may also be a case for initiating inquires and considering more third-party complaints. The code may need tightening in some respects - for example on intrusion into shock and grief.

For the rest, I believe the Calcutt recommendations would do much more harm than good. There is a fine line between powers of restraint and censorship. A system of oral hearings, appeals, fines and compensation would seem confrontational. It would inevitably lead to a loss of flexibility and a greater use of legal action which would put redress beyond the means of many people. I cannot see that the problem is that large; or that it cannot be dealt with by building on the present system. From my standpoint, I hope the Government will handle the report with extreme caution.

Readers' complaints should be sent to the Editor in the first instance. Where appropriate, the Editor will refer them to Sir Gordon, the Independent's Readers' Representative. Readers may also write directly to Sir Gordon, particularly if dissatisfied with the initial handling of a complaint. The address is: the Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.