Red faces at the PCC

18 May 2007 – In his recent Annual Report, Press Complaints Commission Chair Sir Christopher Meyer asserted “the near universal incorporation of the (Editors’) Code of Practice in journalists’ contracts”. From his report on News of the World illegal phone-tapping scandal, ‘Subterfuge and Newsgathering’ (published today, 18 May 07), it is clear that this is far from the case.

The rather odd claim that a Code devised by and for Editors is part of ordinary journalists’ contracts has been made by the PCC, and challenged by MediaWise, on numerous occasions.

Working journalists and their organisations are not permitted to be part of the PCC nor the Editors’ Code Committee run by the Press Board of Finance (PressBof) which funds the PCC. What is more, few editors or proprietors have ever been willing to recognise the Code of Conduct to which the National Union of Journalists’ (NUJ) members have been signing up since 1936. And both the PCC and employers organisations have resisted calls to include a ’conscience clause’ in employment contracts to protect journalists who take an ethical stand. To them Sir Christopher’s demand will sound like another stick with which they can be bashed by editors who are ultimately responsible for what is published.

In the past Sir Christopher has been anxious to distance the PCC from ‘industrial issues’. From today’s report it is clear that he expects journalists to face the sack for breaches of the Code. Yet how many editors have been sacked for breaching the Code? Some of the worst offenders have even served on the PCC itself.

If the Editor’s Code is to be included in employment contracts then natural justice requires that journalists and their organisations should be involved in devising and policing the Code, and that a measure of protection should be given to journalists who refuse instructions or assignments that they believe might be in breach of their own ethical standards.

Sir Christopher promises free PCC training and a special seminar this summer as part of his move to reduce the likelihood of improper behaviour by journalists. Elsewhere he has flagged up the possibility of closer engagement with the broadcasting regulator Ofcom now that the PCC has extended its remit to include podcasts and streamed video on the websites of publications. His justification is the enhancement of public trust in journalistic integrity.

This laudable aim will ring hollow with print journalists required to comply with the demands of managements whose primary aims are commercial. Working under extreme competitive and time pressures they are expected to increase sales and advertising revenue by producing stories for print and online editions, and some must even produce moving images. (As Simon Jenkins says in today’s MediaGuardian ‘The British media does not do responsibility. It does stories’.) Some local newspaper reporters are expected live on £12,000 a year – the amount paid out in backhanders by the disgraced News of the World Royal Editor Clive Goodman to his accomplice Glenn Mulcaire, (allegedly without the knowledge of NoW management), in the phone-tapping case that gave rise to today’s PCC report.

If Sir Christopher wishes to spearhead a brave new world of cross-media regulation with tougher sanctions against those who breach ethical codes, he must first properly engage with journalists’ organisations (the 35,000-strong NUJ, and the much smaller Chartered Institute of Journalists, and the British Association of Journalists). Unless he does, his latest earnest entreaty will be seen as adding a new weapon to editors’ formidable armoury, and strengthen the popular belief within the industry that the PCC exists merely to protect publishers from statutory controls.

Mike Jempson, Director, The MediaWise Trust
(Mike Jempson is also a member of the NUJ Ethics Council)

(Bulletin No 138)

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