Privacy and the press: No change – yet?

11 July 2007 – In time-honoured tradition the Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee has held back from demanding radical change at the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). In its latest report on Self-Regulation of the Press, published today, the Committee rejects fines for breaches of the Editors’ Code, and for reimbursement for the cost in time and trouble to complainants of setting the record straight.

Nonetheless their Report demonstrates the Committee’s scepticism about the way the industry and the PCC have responded to the three ‘scandals’ that led to their inquiry – the jailing of the News of the World Royal Editor Clive Goodman, the media scrums surrounding Prince William’s girlfriend Kate Middleton, and the Information Commissioner’s revelation that almost 350 journalists from 32 publications had obtained over 3,000 items of personal information by illegal means from one private investigator alone.

Evidence from the News of the World, the Daily Mail, Mirror Group Newspapers and the PCC is described variously as ‘difficult to believe’, ‘highly debatable’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘less than impressive’ and ‘(un)convincing’.

The Report lifts the lid on evidently commonplace techniques used to gather information for headline grabbing stories as newspapers compete for sales if not survival, and expresses doubts about the effectiveness of internal and external (PCC) self-regulation.

Recognising the manifest inaccuracy of the PCC’s claim of “near universal incorporation of the (Editors’) Code of Practice in journalists’ contracts” (see PCC’s most Annual Report), the Committee recommends that the Code should now become a contractual obligation for all journalists and not just for Editors who are responsible for what gets published.

This cannot be a unilateral decision. Working journalists are excluded from the PCC, and have had no say in devising the Code. If they are to be obliged to comply with it on pain of dismissal, natural justice dictates that they should have a hand in its development and policing. Journalists’ organisations should now be demanding a quid pro quo. If the Code becomes a condition of employment, employers should be willing to include a ‘conscience clause’ – to protect those who refuse to go along with editorial directions they regard as unethical.

Editors have given the conscience clause idea short shrift in the past; debating the arguments and resolving the matter with their employees could help to assure the public that the CMS Committee’s criticism of journalistic practice have been taken seriously.

It is perhaps a sign of the times that the BBC Radio 4’s flagship current affairs programme Today concentrated on the Middleton story and completely ignored the more serious breaches of personal privacy flagged up by the Committee. James Naughtie failed to challenge PCC Chair Sir Christopher Meyer about the evidence submitted by the Information Commissioner or the shortcomings of the New of the World management in the Goodman affair. John Humphrys similarly failed to raise these matter when he interviewed Richard Thomas earlier in the same programme.

Small wonder that the Committee, with a nod in the direction of Tony Blair’s farewell speech to the media, has left the door open for more detailed investigation of regulation given the convergence of print and broadcast communications and the extension of the PCC’s remit into online publications.

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise Trust
Visiting Professor in Media Ethics, University of Lincoln

(Bulletin No 139)

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