Professor Pinker speaks out

21 February 2002 – Extracts from a speech by Professor Robert Pinker, Acting Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, at a Regional Seminar of the Commonwealth Press Union in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 21 February 2002.

An academic and a sociologist by background, I have been part of the Press Complaints Commission and its work since it was founded. It is therefore an immense honour – although in the most profoundly saddening of circumstances – to have become the Commission’s Acting Chairman.

Over the last few years, the burden of my own duties in ensuring that tough, independent self regulation works effectively and smoothly has fallen in three particular areas.

First of all, I have spent a great deal of time – in locations all over the United Kingdom – with young students who are training to be the journalists of the future. The experience has been a truly heartening one. For these young people, a commitment to press freedom and to the highest ethical standards – a combination that can only be achieved through effective self regulation – is in the blood. That is enormously good news for the publishing industry – and for the general public.

Second, I have done a good deal of work in countries – such as here in Sri Lanka – where press freedom is not taken for granted, but is something to be striven for and cherished. In so many places, Britain is a beacon of hope – a country with a proud tradition of press freedom and a model of self regulation which has inspired many others across the globe. In so many places I have made clear that freedom of expression – and its manifestation in self regulation – are prizes constantly to be defended, as those who would seek to undermine them are many and vocal.

Third, I have for the past seven years been the PCC’s Privacy Commissioner – taking a special interest in our work in the protection of personal privacy, and the difficult task of balancing it with freedom of expression and the public’s right to know. It has taught me many things – two of which I would highlight above all else:

* that in the last ten years, standards of reporting with regard to personal privacy have been hugely raised on the back of one of the toughest press Codes anywhere in the world – leaving far behind those days in the 1980s where intrusion was the norm not the exception; and

* that the issue of personal privacy – at least so far as the PCC and I are concerned – is not about the rich and the glamorous, the famous and the infamous. It is more than anything else about ordinary people – who make up the vast majority of our successful complainants. For them, our role as mediator and conciliator – the task for which we were established – is what is crucially important because it delivers quick, cost-free justice.

To all those who ask what is the secret of our achievement in conciliating disputes, raising standards and making self regulation work, I say two things. The first is the integrity of the editors’ Code – the rules written by editors themselves and to which they have a binding and resolute commitment. And the second is the unity of support across the newspaper industry for self regulation and the jurisdiction of the Press Complaints Commission – which manifests itself not just in the financial support of publishers, but also in the commitment of editors to dealing with complaints in a quick, straightforward and transparent fashion. Without those two criteria, self regulation could not work as well as it does.

Of course, from time to time there will be criticisms of our system. The press isn’t perfect and neither is the PCC. There will always be those who argue that we should be more ‘proactive’ – although that is, in my view, a path fraught with practical difficulty and philosophical danger. There will be some who say we should conciliate less and adjudicate more – although I fear that would mean we were of less use to the ordinary people who rely on our service the most.

These debates and others I am quite happy to have – as long as they end up strengthening self regulation, not handing ammunition to its detractors, whether they be in Parliament, or the Courts or elsewhere. I have a passionate belief in what we do both because it works for ordinary people and because it is crucial to the proper functioning of civil society. My door will therefore always be open to those who have constructive suggestions to make for its improvement.

During my time as Acting Chairman of the Commission, I look forward to discussing any ideas that any individuals may have about how we can improve our service to ordinary people. I am, of course, particularly interested in the views of those in the newspaper industry: it is their system, after all, and we are doing the job they gave us to do.

Self regulation is always moving forward, rightly in my view, and I want all those with a contribution to make to be part of that ongoing process.

But one point I want to make crystal clear. The thing above all else I am determined to avoid is that the two fundamental tenets of our system of self regulation – the sanctity of the Code and the jurisdiction of a clearly independent body – are in any way damaged. Sri Lanka and others in the Commonwealth countries look to Britain for a lead in how to make regulation work at the same time as guarding the freedom of the press. It would be ironic indeed if they were following our path at the very moment when we were doing our best to undermine it.

(Bulletin No 59)

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