Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

Does OK! image of dying Jacko breach PCC code?

In Debate on June 30, 2009 at 2:19 pm

OK magazine is reported to have paid $500,000 to purchase an image of Michael Jackson apparently taken whilst he was in a coma on the way to the hospital where he was to be pronounced dead. Or rather OK magazine certainly hope this is the case or else there is a flaw in its exclusive ‘last ever’ picture.

The Daily Express – part of the same stable as the OK magazine – published the image in the masthead of its newspaper yesterday in order to sell copies of the magazine. Sky News pictured the Daily Express frontpage but had blanked out the image from OK magazine. Sky has not responded to requests for clarification of why this was done.

Sky News is regulated by Ofcom, although its website is not. The broadcasting code states:

8.16 Broadcasters should not take or broadcast footage or audio of people caught up in emergencies, victims of accidents or those suffering a personal tragedy, even in a public place, where that results in an infringement of privacy, unless it is warranted or the people concerned have given consent.

Northern and Shell, the owners, come under the auspices of the Press Complaints Commission – although the publisher does not contribute financially to the PCC. The PCC clause on privacy states:

“Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications. Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent” – with an exception for the public interest.

Two further clauses of the code may also be relevant:

5.1 In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. This should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings, such as inquests.

8. i Journalists must identify themselves and obtain permission from a responsible executive before entering non-public areas of hospitals or similar institutions to pursue enquiries.

ii The restrictions on intruding into privacy are particularly relevant to enquiries about individuals in hospitals or similar institutions.

The relevant sections of the public interest definition are:

i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety.
ii) Protecting public health and safety.
iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

The publication of the photograph does not meet any of these requirements.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

Which would be an argument the editor would need to put to the PCC.

4. The PCC will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain, or will become so.

This is unlikely to be relevant, given the sums of money OK magazine paid for the image.

There is not a clear case against OK magazine for publishing the photograph. But there are a number of questions that deserve investigation:

  • Where was the photograph taken? Was Michael Jackson in a public place?
  • Was the photograph taken in a hospital and in which case, by what means did the photographer gain entry?
  • Did a member of Michael Jackson’s family consent to use of the photograph?
  • Did OK magazine consult the PCC prior to publication?
  • If the photograph is in the public interest, on what grounds does the editor justify the photograph?

Debate around the web

In links on June 29, 2009 at 4:09 pm

William Rees-Mogg has written of concerns to the plan to create a statutory regulator for parliament. He writes:

“the Bill could disturb the existing balance of the relationship between Parliament and the courts . . . It might damage the freedom of speech of both Houses.”

The Press Complaints Commission has published a report of its open day last week.

A civil servant has been cleared under the Obscene Publications Act after content on his Girls Aloud blog discussed kidnap and murder of the group. His barrister, Tim Owen QC, argued:

“He had written what he had described as an adult celebrity parody and was only meant to be for an audience of like-minded people . . . This type of writing is widely available on the internet in an unregulated and uncensored form. In terms of its alleged obscenity, it is frankly no better or worse than other articles.” – via BBC News.

Judith Townend has summarised the debate on Media Guardian following its report of the BBC expenses story. From what I could see, the majority of readers did not agree with the Guardian’s prominence of the story or its subsequent explanations.

Paul Waugh uncovers that Michael Gove MP is paid £1250 per hour for his regular column in The Times.

Guido has caught out lots of large media organisations for reporting – and failing to check – a Tweet from David Miliband that was a hoax.

Sarah Ditum on Liberal Consipracy writes about Justice Eady and his reputation in the media:

In an ideal world, privacy law and libel would never have come into these decisions. A robust Press Complaint Commission, for example, might be able to force all newspapers to look on the right to a private life as a default and demand that any breach of that right should fulfil the highest standards of public interest.

But while the PCC is what it is, Eady’s decisions have formed the best line of defence against intrusion, and newspapers are incentivised to go after only those who don’t have the means to sue.

Tom Harris MP writes of the challenges for the print media in covering Michael Jackson’s death.

The Rochdale Observer is publishing a frontpage correction following its coverage of Paul Rowen MP’s expenses – via Press Gazette.

Metro is publishing an apology and costs to a Doctor – via Press Gazette.

Gabriele Marcotti has written of the challenges of Cesc Fabregas responding to questions about Pep Guardiola (one of his idols) without being misrepresented:

“What are you supposed to say? No, screw him, he’s a weirdo with an ugly leather tie? That’s why you either get players saying things which are anodyne, boring and predictable (see Owen above) or players getting themselves into trouble. “Yes, I’d like to play for Guardiola” becomes “Fab: I’m off” and “No, I’m happy at Arsenal” becomes “Fab Snubs Pep”. It’s a lose-lose, unless you hide behind empty cliches.

Debate around the web

In links on June 25, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Guardian readers have reacted angrily to the newspaper’s coverage of the BBC expenses story – in particular the claim from DG Mark Thompson for breaking off a holiday to deal with Sachsgate.

Andrew Mackinlay MP is seeking damages of £100,000 from Newsnight – via Press Gazette.

A senior judge has expressed concern at the lack of court reporting – just days after PCC chair Baroness Buscombe made similar remarks at the PCC open day.

Glen Johnson is suing Mirror Group newspapers for a story that (may have) implied that he might be joining Liverpool in December 2008 and acted inappropriately in doing so. Glen Johnson is expected to become a Liverpool player in the next few days.

Peter Tatchell has expressed concern at the decision on Pink News to no longer produce a physical version of the newspaper.

Peter Oborne is concerned that the move away from the self-regulation of parliament will reduce the accountability of MPs.

The BBFC has received complaints about Judi Dench swearing in a James Bond film and its classification of Batman.

The Daily Telegraph has paid libel damages to an intelligence expert it claimed had leaked information to the media before the Iraq war.

UPDATE: Alastair Campbell has blogged about how an inaccurate claim about him (and Lord Butler) from John Kampfner led to a donation from the Spectator to leukemia research.

Report on the PCC Open Day in Nottingham

In Press review on June 24, 2009 at 1:54 pm

The Press Complaints Commission held an Open Day yesterday in Nottingham. The day is “part of the Commission’s ongoing programme to raise awareness of its role”. I attended the event in order to understand exactly how they worked, how much interest they generated and the sorts of issues that people wanted to discuss.

The event had good billing beforehand with an interview on BBC Nottingham in the morning with PCC chair Baroness Buscombe. She chaired the day and appeared alongside PCC director Tim Toulmin, lay member Vivien Hepworth and Nottingham Evening Post editor Malcolm Pheby.

The Open Day was split into two parts – a surgery for 45 minutes, billed as an opportunity for

“members of the public to have a private, informal chat with a member of PCC staff. We are happy to discuss concerns about individual articles or have a more general discussion about how the complaints process operates.”


I was expecting something like an MPs advice surgery (perhaps because it’s something I’ve got lots of experience of) where various members of PCC staff met with members of the public on a one to one basis to discuss specific concerns about particular newspaper reports. However, the room was already set out for the Q&A session and whilst there were between 10 and 20 people in the room, there were only a couple of people that I could see had particular stories they wanted to talk about.

There was some good literature provided at the back of the room. In addition to the annual reports of the PCC, there was a small A5 booklet ‘How to complain’ which included a helpful flowchart to set out what complainants could expect and some indication of the time it takes to deal with a complaint (the whole process complete in “an average of just thirty five working days”).

Q&A session

The question and answer session was wide ranging, from specific questions about the particular coverage of issues in Nottingham through to concerns about the reporting of inquests and coroners’ courts and wider issues about the privacy of celebrities. The panel answered all the questions in as much depth as possible and allowed questioners to make lots of follow-up points.

I counted 31 people in the audience for the Q&A session, which included some members of the public, communications professionals from the local area, a group of media students and local councillors.

One gentleman clearly disliked self-regulation and asked where the money for self-regulation came from (the press) and what was the highest sanction that had ever been levied on a transgressor of the code. On this latter point, Tim Toulmin explained that the PCC had developed a system for overseeing ex gratia payments which were regularly several thousand pounds, with the highest a £17,000 settlement.

The PCC mounted a robust defence of self-regulation, although Baroness Buscombe doesn’t like the word ‘self’ because it implies self-interest. She prefers to talk of the PCC as a proponent of independent regulation. The panel explained the damage that legislation could do to the freedom of the press, the limits it might pose on investigative journalism and the length of time that complaints would take to solve if lawyers became involved. Baroness Buscombe suggested that health and education policy had suffered because they had become too politicised whereas press self-regulation could remain independent of the government and the industry.


I don’t know if anyone left the session having changed their mind about the PCC but the event was well run and it was an invaluable opportunity for anyone to speak directly to the PCC or their local editor about concerns about the press.

It is never easy to generate a public audience for an event of this nature. I was assured by Vivien Hepworth that they had tried to organise these events in the evening and not necessarily got any more people to attend. But even if the PCC were to hold 3 events like this a year, it would still reach fewer than 100 people – or 1% of the total enquiries it receives each year. Perhaps if the event had been framed around a topical issue it would have generated a more focused conversation which had a more direct impact on the PCC’s thinking, although this may have frustrated those with a specific concern they had to raise.

This is the article in the Nottingham Evening Post with more from the Q&A.

Debate around the web

In links on June 23, 2009 at 6:54 am

The Guardian Readers’ Editor explains that the newspaper decided not to publish the origin of Tweets it used to support its reporting of the Iranian protests in order to protect the Twitter users’ identity – even though it was readily available on other websites.

“The ethical obligation journalists have to protect confidential sources is included in the UK Press Complaints Commission’s code of practice. In addition, section 10 of the 1981 Contempt of Court Act provides a legal shield: a court cannot force authors and publishers to disclose confidential sources unless it is necessary in the interests of justice or national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime.”

Lilly Allen is suing The Sun for an article claiming she called Victoria Beckham a “monster” and The X Factor judge Cheryl Cole “stupid and superficial – via Media Guardian.

“The disputed comments attributed to Allen first appeared in an article in French sports-themed magazine So Foot entitled “Les footballeurs courent après tout ce que je deteste” – which roughly translates to “I hate footballers”. Atkins Thomson has also issued proceedings against the French title.”

Leo Hickman has criticised the Daily Mail’s campaign against wheelie bins.

“The Daily Mail loves nothing better than leaving its readers apoplectic with rage by feeding them a daily drip-feed of stories about bin stealth taxes, computer chips hidden in lids and evil fortnightly collections, but the reality is that we are still producing a huge volume of waste domestically. While we continue to do so, we need a quick and efficient way to remove this waste from our streets. And until someone comes up with a better way of doing so, the wheelie bin remains the best method.”

Adam Boulton has apologised for swearing during a live broadcast on Sunday.

Joshua Kucera points out some of the inaccuracies that were repeated in the media as a result of Twitter reports from Iran.

Drugs charity Release has taken down adverts on London buses which said: “Nice people take drugs”.

A spokesman for CBS Outdoor told the ads were being take down because of an “oversight” by the company when it booked the campaign. He said CBS should have run the copy past CAP – the Committee of Advertising Practice – which offers advice on compliance with advertising codes of practice.

Alex Bainbridge writes about the challenges of reporting on a travel blog after Travel Rants came under pressure to remove various stories / comments about DialAFlight.

“According to Travel Rants a libel suit was launched in the UK high court claiming for considerable damages as a result of a comment that someone had written on a blog post.”

Debate around the web

In links on June 19, 2009 at 2:15 pm

The Conservatives have complained to the BBC Trust about Sir Alan Sugar’s role presenting The Apprentice and advising the government. The complaint would not be permissible under the PCC code which doesn’t require newspapers to be impartial. However, by way of comparison, the Conservatives would not be able to complain (as they are not directly involved in the story) and after the PCC  ruled that there wasn’t a problem, the Tories wouldn’t be able to escalate their complaint in this way.

As an adendum to the newspaper transparency debate over the last few days between Danny Finkelstein and various bloggers, Paul Waugh reports that David Miliband’s decision to end unattributable briefings lasted just seven days.

A judge has ruled that journalist Suzanne Breen can withold details about the Real IRA from the police – via Media Guardian.

The editor in chief of the Open Information Science Journal has resigned after it accepted a bogus science journal – via Media Guardian. “The journal, which claims to subject every paper to the scrutiny of other academics, so-called “peer review”, accepted the paper. Philip Davis, a graduate student at Cornell University in New York, who was behind the hoax, said he wanted to test the editorial standards of the journal’s publisher, Bentham Science Publishers.”

The Guardian has announced that several journalists will be taking voluntary redundancy as the newspaper responds to its financial problems – via Press Gazette.

A number of Twitter users have been organising participants for a poll in the Daily Mail which asks: Should the NHS allow gipsies to jump the queue? – via @pauloCanning.

Debate around the web

In links on June 18, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Closer magazine has been found in “serious” breach of the code after “distorting” an interview with a mother about her pregnancy then standing by its story and providing “incomplete” and “inaccurate” transcripts to the PCC.

Ofcom has announced a crack down on strong sexual content. Media Guardian reports that “In the past couple of years, the regulator has fined a number of babe channels for breaches of the broadcast code.”

Robert Peston comments on the lastest banking regulation debates. “Probably the best argument for giving the Bank of England much greater sway over big banks, in partnership with the FSA. Normally duplicating the activities of regulators is a recipe for waste and even possibly for confusion. But maybe in this case, it would be better to have two sets of big boots wielded by two regulatory bodies delivering swift blows to the tender parts of a mega-bank, to keep that mega-bank in line.

Danny Finkelstein has responded to Guido Fawkes‘ suggestion that Times leader columns are signed. Finkelstein argues “If the leader was signed by the person who wrote, say, the first draft, that would give the incorrect impression that the article reflected their opinion rather than that of the paper. And it doesn’t.” which may be correct, but also appears to be an argument in favour of no article in The Times carrying a byline.

Debate around the web

In links on June 16, 2009 at 4:37 pm

Anton Vowel asks whether the decision by The Times to ‘out’ the policeman behind Night Jack means that the newspaper should reveal its sources.

The Croydonian asks how the Telegraph claimed that “The Turks & Caicos Islands lie at the tip of the Bermuda Islands Chain” despite the 915 miles between the islands.

The Beckham’s have received an apology from a nanny who sold her story to a newspaper. They have also received a payment for an inaccurate article in The People – via BBC News

Robert Peston asks ‘should we trust the regulators?’ in response to proposals by the British and American governments to strengthen the role of financial regulators in light of the credit crunch. asks if the Telegraph failed by keeping expenses process and data to itself whilst Paul Bradshaw calls on every news organisation to have a datastore.

The Mail on Sunday has apologised to Allan Peters after a complaint to the PCC. “Mr Allan Peters complained . . .  that an article inaccurately suggested that he had attended a skiing trip for Royal Protection Officers to Klosters paid for by the taxpayer. He made clear that he was in Klosters on a private skiing trip, which he had funded entirely himself. He retired from the Police service ten years ago.”

Debate around the web

In links on June 15, 2009 at 3:21 pm

The Guardian’s Readers editor has responded to a complaint that the paper ran a video production of Caryl Churchill’s controversial work Seven Jewish Children. The piece highlights the challenges of media convergence. The decision to broadcast the video comes under the remit of the PCC rather than Ofcom but the PCC usually only accepts complaints from people directly involved in the piece. Who would be a legitimate complainant in this case? And did The Guardian provide sufficient opportunity to reply as part of its production?

Stephen Glover has responded in the row over the Guardian’s role in the failed coup against Gordon Brown. The BBC hasn’t yet responded to the accusations over its role.

There’s a dispute in the advertising world about whether Google should contribute to the Advertising Standards Authority. “Advertisers pay a levy – typically 0.1% of their annual marketing budgets – to fund the ASA’s system. However, while the ASA regulates all paid-for online search advertising – the sponsored links that pop up on the right-hand side of a browser window on Google, for example – no levy is paid on the cost of that advertising.”

BBC’s Panorama programme is examining privacy and the press but poses the current libel laws as a challenge for the press rather than its own broadcasts.

The challenges of reforming parliamentary regulation

In Debate, regulation on June 15, 2009 at 9:35 am

Gordon Brown has announced proposals for an “independent statutory regulator” of parliament. The new regulator will oversee the actions of politicians in parliament and remove the self-regulatory arrangements which had overseen the expenses claims regime publicised in the Telegraph.

In his announcement he dismissed as “reminiscent of the last century (a system) where the members make up the rules and operate them among themselves”. However, in the new system, MPs may still have significant influence on the regulator – but is this such a bad thing?

1. Who owns the code of conduct?
Gordon Brown has said that the code of conduct for MPs will be drawn up after consultation with all political parties represented in the Commons. The code will be enshrined in statute, to give it the force of law and the regulator will be responsible for “applying firm and appropriate sanctions”.

Therefore, the contents of the code of conduct still remains under the discretion of MPs. This is important for democratic accountability. But what happens to the code after it has been agreed? It may be desirable, for example, for the independent regulator to have a formal role in proposing amendments to the code. And should parliamentarians have any say in the interpretation of the code? What about if elements of the code are found to be ambiguous (as all laws are)? How and where the distinction between self-regulation and statutory regulation is made will have an important bearing on whether the regulator is seen to be independent.

But the alternative is worse. If the code of conduct was imposed on MPs by the regulator, it could lead to significant problems. No one is better placed to understand the job of being an MP than MPs themselves and no one faces the anger of the people more than an MP who has acted inappropriately. A code which was written by an external regulator would be unlikely to command the respect of MPs, resulting in people following the letter rather than the spirit of the rules.

2. Who determines the sanctions?
The announcement by the prime minister seemed to suggest that MPs would determine the appropriate sanctions for people who break the code – another feature of self-regulation.

“It will codify much more clearly the different potential offences that must be addressed and the options available to sanction.”

It will be interesting to observe how wide ranging these sanctions are: whether they include criminal sanctions for example. But also whether the sanctions suggested by the regulator ever puts MPs in dispute with the regulator. This could damage the legitimacy of the whole process. Advocates of self-regulation say that the harshest penalty is facing an unfavourable finding in front of your peers. Many MPs have shuddered at the prospect of having to make a statement of apology in the House of Commons. But whilst a public apology may be sufficient for misuse of parliament stationery, is it appropriate for buying a duck house on expenses?

3. Who appoints the regulator?
Gordon Brown’s statement didn’t set out who would be responsible for appointing the regulator. In a system of self-regulation, the regulator is usually appointed by an independent appointments commission, with an overview of the whole system. Many regulators are appointed by the secretary of state (eg. the Environment Agency, the IPCC) whilst others are appointed by parliament (Ofqual) or the Privy Council (the GMC) to further safeguard their independence from politics.

It is important to get the right balance in the appointment of a regulator so that the regulated have confidence in their judgment and the public are reassured that the person can act independently.

Changing self-regulation to statutory regulation for MPs is made more complicated by the fact that they are in charge of the legislative process. But it also provides a useful case study to understand many of the challenges faced when reforming regulatory systems.

Independent statutory regulation is not inherently better than self-regulation and does not necessarily inspire greater confidence amongst the public. It is often the process of regulation as much as the regulatory structures which determine whether or not it commands respect.