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Targets for self-regulation

In Debate on September 2, 2009 at 8:45 am

What is a reasonable amount of time to wait for an apology from a newspaper? One or two days is probably reasonable for a small, factual correction where the matter is not in dispute and a few more when the origins of a story need to be confirmed and months when the facts are disputed and the case subject to legal action.

For the ‘he said, she said’ sort of stories that are published in several newspapers, it would be a positive aspects of self-regulation if newspapers were able to resolve complaints quickly and publish an apology – perhaps within a week.

The Evening Standards published a story on 6 August which claimed that Chelsea players had had celebrated Salomon Kalou‘s birthday at a club called Whisky Mist. The report claimed that the festivities had cost £120,000. The emphasis had been on the glamour of the event, and the tone of the piece was described as “generally neutral” by Chelsea fan site, Vital Chelsea.

The club issued a statement in response the very next day (7 August) in which it said: “The club and the players totally deny the facts and implications of these reports. None of the Chelsea players spent these extravagant sums. Whilst many players attended their team-mate’s party, it was in fact hosted and generously paid for by friends of Salomon and even the sums involved have been greatly exaggerated.”

The club continued:
“We are consulting our lawyers on behalf of Chelsea and the players and it is guaranteed that formal complaints will follow”.

Notwithstanding the Chelsea statement the Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Sun all ran similar stories to the Standard the day after, talking about the lavish party. The Observer and the Sunday Times followed on that weekend (9 August).

Vital Chelsea described a change in tone of the reporting:
“In particular there was a piece in the Daily Mirror that used the language of a Class War fanzine, slamming these idle rich from being so profligate at the same time as ordinary people, presumably workers, were having such difficulties paying their matchday tickets in this time of crisis. Bizarrely, the cost of this indulgence rose from £120,000 to £140,000 according to the Daily Mirror, which had no reporter at the scene but somehow manage to increase the budget of the party by £20,000

The Evening Standard apologised first, with a statement published on page five, 15 days after the original story. This was followed by the Daily Mail, five days later on page 11, the Sunday Times (page 4 of the sports section) and the Observer (page 26) on 30 August followed by The Sun on 31 August (page 15) and the Daily Express yesterday on page 18.

Vital Chelsea reported:
“Astonishingly, in the corrections, the actual sums of money that were splashed out for this party were revealed. The total takings for the club that night were £20,000, and apparently Salomon’s birthday party cost … £6,000.

According to the website, the Daily Mirror is yet to apologise for its article.

In some respects the case highlights advantages of self-regulation. There was no limit to newspapers freedom of expression. Although lawyers were involved, the case did not go to court or take months to resolve. There are no reports of money changing hands. But if it takes Chelsea FC 24 days to secure an apology, given their resources, influence and the access they provide newspapers, one wonders how long it would take a member of the public.

There are three particular issues, highlighted by this case, which are central to whether the PCC is part of a self-regulatory system or just a complaints body for those unwilling or unable to seek legal redress:

  • If newspapers run follow up stories without significant extra information and the first newspaper apologises, shouldn’t they all follow suit at the earliest opportunity (the next editions)?
  • The newspapers have not told readers where the original story appeared, meaning that we are unable to assess the prominence of the apology. Wouldn’t this better demonstrate the benefits of self-regulation?
  • Wouldn’t it further demonstrate the benefits of self-regulation if newspapers had a target timescale for the timing of an apology and this target was regularly monitored by the PCC?
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Blogosphere reactions to Nick Davies’ allegations

In Debate on July 13, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Nick Davies’ allegations in The Guardian last week provoked a number of interesting and apparently informed comments in the blogosphere. I’ve selected some of the highlights from The Guardian, Iain Dale’s diary and ConservativeHome (not a representative sample, but I’ve tried to reflect the main perspectives).

Broadly, they fell into the following categories:

  • Failure of self-regulation
  • Critical of News Group
  • Reaction about the political consequences
  • What’s all the fuss about and;
  • Where next?

Failure of self-regulation

stevehill

You are right that the PCC is dead. It always was. Here’s a thought.

After a lot of messing about, it was decided (roughly speaking) that tax accountants wishing to introduce a so-called tax avoidance scheme should pre-clear it with the Revenue, or risk being in the dock themselves for assisting in tax evasion (a crime).

There should be some successor body to the PCC, working 24/7, able to give a pretty quick decision on whether something is or is not in the public interest prior to publication.

Newspapers should be at liberty not to consult such a body if they wish. But they should know that by taking such a course they are betting the company if they call it wrong.

Jonibegood

A good article Simon. The issue about Media Regulation is going to come to the fore one day. Journalists like yourself should push for stronger and better self regulation before a government decides to step it. At that point freedom of speech would really be in jeapordy.

Zerotolerance

As for the PCC, they’ve been a joke for a very long time. Here’s hoping that this story will be the stake driven into the vampire’s heart.

Kerrygold

I remember when he got the PCC job there were jokes going round, in what was once Fleet Street, about how the Press had managed to get Bozo the Clown to head up regulation. They laughed at their colleagues in the City who faced greater scrutiny, as they felt Bozo would be more worried about his priveleges than their ethics.

Critical of News Group

PeterParker

If the 2,000 or 3,000 “celebrities” all sued, I think that would sink the NOTW.

Saying this, if an average member of the public had his phoned tapped, would he/she be able to go court over it as easily as a “celebrity”.

Answer: No.

Live long…

ellis

The real significance of this story is the light it sheds on the enormous influence of the Murdoch empire. It seems that neither the police nor the prosecutors dare to tangle with an organisation which, after all is the Police State’s best friend.

ClaireinOz

Gawd. Even though my (now ex-) husband has been on the Sunday Times for 20 years and I know plenty about the inner workings of a Murdoch organ, these revelations have left me amazed. The extent of the cover-up is quite stunning, even by Murdoch standards. Forget the Queen, it seems it’s King Rupert who is the real ruler of Britain (and presumably the US, Australia and anywhere else his repressive tentacles can reach).

factsstraight

I spent 13 years on the Sunday Mirror, People and NoW variously and ran number plates and names through the police national computer through contacts in the police on almost a daily basis, as did every other hack.I also regularly got phone, bank and medical records.

But such activities were never to obtain stories but to help stand stories up. Otherwise papers would be spending fortunes on complete scattergun approaches.

It’s how redtops have worked, in my experience, since the mid 1980s when I did my first Saturday shifts. I’ve no problem with the way things worked we turned over some real villains and often worked closely with the cops as we could do things (quite legally) that they couldn’t. A system that worked well until cops started arresting people before we went to press scuppering weeks of work.

And there is one notorious paedophile, Roger Gleaves, who is still in prison as a direct result of one on my stories that relied in part on hacking his phone. o is phone hacking in a completely different category? Discuss.

Political reaction

Anonymous

Coulson was at the head of a bugging operation targeting anyone and everybody.

This must be bigger than Watergate. It’s got shit written all over it. He’s gotta go.

Lord Elvis of Paisley

I’m going to make a prediction. This story is not going to feature on the front page of the Sun tomorrow and will subsequently die a death. Methinks the government and it’s media cohorts have picked the wrong fight on this occasion and would have done better to let sleeping dogs lie.

There can be only one winner in this battle and it sure ain’t going to be the Grauniad or the people that are backing it.

Flemingcrag

If they are seen to be in cahoots with the Labour loving Gruinard on this affair the moves by the Murdoch Media group to distance itself from the mess that Labour has become may turn into a full scale stampede.

Invasion of privacy is not the sole provenance of the Murdoch Media group, the trendsetters since coming to power has been this Labour Government, you could say the NoTW was just being fashionable.

Batteredstrat said…

Just read the Guardian story, and it’s poor, thin on facts, and little more than a smear piece.

However, that does not mean that Coulson is totally in the clear.

Did he come into the NOTW at a point where this was already happening? Journos will protect their sources, even inside an organisation and editors have to trust the judgement of their sub editors.

If Coulson came into the organisation at a time when this was already happening, it is quite realistic that the truth was kept very quiet, the investment in technology had already been made, and that individual journalists would claim to have a human source but were economical with the truth.

After all, if you had a new boss, would you tell him that you had been breaking the law for years, and that it was common practice in the firm?

The story regarding Coulson is nothing more than innuendo right now, the Guardian don’t have the absolute truth or the truth is less damning, otherwise they would have printed it!

BTW, amazing how organised the trolls are at the moment, obviously the Labour party is in full election mode.

What’s all the fuss about?

DavidoM

The comentator on sky news said the heat was going out of this story… so that must be true, so move on now as there is nothing to see here.

SirOrfeo

As for the News of the World – what shocks me is why people are so shocked.

Breaking3

Oh, the irony of it.

Government Ministers like Two Jags might have been spied on – the justice of it, I know that two wrongs dont make a right but it makes me smile, if they don’t have anything to hide why worry? – Well that’s the argument they would use against the general public with their spying.

Next steps

ryeats

roy, thank you for this most interesting assessment. what should happen now. should the police investigate this most disgraceful affair. should the editors and their lieutenants be questioned under caution if necessary. how far up does all this go. was mr murdoch himself privy to what happened. did the authorities back away as they were worried they would be taking on a mighty company. political parties require the support of newspapers. did this play a part in the decision to let off the news of the world with a ticking off. if found guilty should such leading people such as mrs wade be dismissed without compensation. the daily telegraph led the way in its stories about members of parliament. now the guardian has reminded us it has a thirst for the truth. if you take off your hat as a professor and resume your former identity as an Editor in the popular press might I ask, did you ever permit your team to acquire information using methods such as those deployed by the news of the world. do you believe news corporation is telling the truth. who is not telling the truth. having worked for the sun did its team ever use such methods. in troubled times like these all of us who value democracy and privacy are grateful for fearless watchdogs such as you.

ahack

In nick davies’ story he mentions that the Guardian’s sister paper also used the services of Steve Whittamore, the private detective used by the NoW. I hope the paper will tell us why ot needed the services of this man, what he did for the paper and whether his employent was snctioned by the editor and indeed the editor-in-chief, alan rusbridger

Phone tapping revelations shows lack of press accountability

In Debate on July 9, 2009 at 1:07 pm

The latest allegations in the News Group phone tapping scandal highlight the chronic lack of accountability in the press.

Not accountable to editors

The editors in the case were keen to assert that they knew nothing of the activities of the individuals involved in phone tapping. Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail (which submitted 952 transactions from 58 journalists through Operation Motorman) told the select committee: “I will be very honest with you, I had not been aware they had been that extensive”.

He went on to say that the practice of paying for data of this sort had stopped and both newspapers and the PCC had ensured proper training so that journalists complied with the law. “I cannot think of more rigorous things we could have done to ensure that all abuses were completely [stopped]”.

The current system of press self-regulation is built on the premise that editors are responsible for the activities of their newspaper. As Peter Hill told the select committee ‘I reprimanded myself because I was responsible’ (for the coverage of the McCann case). However, as Paul Dacre told the committee, “I read the features and the commentary and a lot of the news stories” and “I read more words of my paper than most editors” but it is not possible to read all of the coverage produced by a newspaper.

Not accountable to the PCC

The Press Complaints Commission is not constituted to undertake investigations of this kind. Its constitution establishes it only as a body to resolve and adjudicate on complaints about the code:

“The primary function of the Commission shall be to consider, and adjudicate, conciliate and resolve or settle by reference to the Press Code of Practice . . . complaints from the public of unjust or unfair treatment by newspapers . . .

“It shall also be the function of Commission to consider and pronounce on issues relating to the Code of Practice which the Commission, in its absolute discretion considers to be in the public interests.”

It has a small staff, with no special powers to do this sort of investigation, a small budget (£1.8m) and its purpose is to resolve and adjudicate on complaints against newspapers regarding possible breaches of the code. The PCC was simply unable to investigate this affair with the same rigour as other regulators, even though its investigation was more comprehensive than most of its activities.

Should not be accountable to government

It would be too great a limitation on freedom of expression if government were to regulate the press. The thought of a government regulator being able to fine and jail journalists for investigative reporting is undemocratic. Yet the failings identified in this case give ammunition to those who support more government regulation.

Limited accountability to the law

Everyone is accountable to the law but it is preferable that journalists have as much freedom as possible. The Data Protection Act makes it an offence to gain unauthorised access to confidential databases but carries a public interest defence. However, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (which related to phone tapping) carries no such defence.

Newspapers are already fearful of the growth of media lawyers and the emerging case law around privacy. Any judicial oversight or investigations of newspaper practices could be deeply damaging to fundamental freedoms. The investigation by the Metropolitan Police may be necessary as the law takes its course. However, it is not appropriate for the police to get involved in the business of how newspapers are produced and self-regulation ought to act as a barrier to this sort of action.

As the Media Standards Trust has warned:

“Given the success of recent cases, the legal challenges and precedents will increase, unless the system of regulation is improved to give complainants more effective remedy against invasions of privacy.”

Not accountable to readers

Only two newspapers have independent readers ombudsman, the Guardian and the Observer. No other national newspaper thinks it necessary to appoint someone to represent the interests of the reader to the newspaper. A YouGov poll commissioned by the Media Standards Trust at the end of last year found that 70% of the public believe there are “far too many instances of people’s privacy being invaded by newspaper journalists”. The same poll revealed that 75% of the public now believe ‘newspapers frequently publish stories they know are inaccurate”. Fewer people are buying newspapers each year and few people trust journalists. That would not appear to be sufficient incentive for newspapers to change their behaviour.

Accountable to the profession?

Cases like these are a compelling reason for self-regulation. The difficult balances between privacy and the public interest can be discussed internally, amongst experts and independent representatives. Those in the industry who want to ensure high standards can ensure that all adhere to a clear code of practice. And those that break the rules can be embarrassed in front of their peers. Yet it hasn’t happened in this case. The failure of the industry to hold a newspaper to account weakens the position of supporters of self-regulation.

The importance of reform

The press can continue on the current path of low trust in newspapers with the widespread opinion that journalists do not seek to tell the truth, declining readership, economic crisis and growing intervention from the courts.

Alternatively they can use the opportunity to demonstrate why journalism matters; why the skills of journalism make it more valuable than a opinionated blog; why it’s vital to democracy and why high standards in journalism are essential to being able to entertain, inform and investigate on behalf of their readers.

Self-regulation remains preferable for the press. But it must be made to work or else it will be by-passed by those whose interests are better served by the courts and those who would gladly see a less free press.

What does Peter Hill think of Richard Desmond’s libel action?

In Debate on July 7, 2009 at 9:59 am

The proprietor of the Daily Express, Richard Desmond, is suing investigative journalist Tom Bower for libel. According to Media Guardian the case rests on a paragraph of Mr Bower’s biography of Conrad Black which alleged that Desmond interfered in editorial policy.

Mr Desmond has hired top London legal firm Schillings to represent him in a case that will be heard by Justice Eady.

The culture media and sport select committee will shortly be publishing the findings of its inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel. In particular, the committee was keen to investigate whether the libel laws in the UK were producing a chilling effect on publishers, preventing them from investigating high profile public figures.

Express Newspapers submitted written evidence to the committee and the editor of the Daily Express, Peter Hill, was called to give oral evidence to the committee to assist its inquiry.

Mr Hill told the inquiry:

“You have firms of solicitors now who go to agents of celebrities whose sole object is to run up enormous costs so that they can keep their companies going and celebrities who want to manipulate people’s opinion of them and in many ways create a fake opinion of them.

“We have the most Draconian libel laws in this country and if you do that and it is not true, you are going to get sued. Not only that, you are going to get your Carter-Rucks on the case instantaneously because they have lookouts looking out for this at all times. We do not operate in a situation of impunity. The newspapers in this country have enormous constraints.

Hill proposed that the libel laws should be reformed in order to reduce the restrictions placed on publishers.

“We have the laws of libel which are the most severe in the world . . . If you got to the United States, they have what you could call a free press. We do not have a free press in this country by any means; we have a very, very shackled press in this country. Really you should be looking at means of removing those shackles not imposing more of them, which is what seems to me to be the tone of these discussions. How can we make the press freer? How can we have a free press? A free press is the only bastion that there really is in a democratic society; there is nothing else.”

One wonders then, what Mr Hill must think of his proprietor’s libel action against Mr Bower for defamation.

Is MI6 Facebook story an invasion of privacy?

In Debate on July 6, 2009 at 9:29 am

The Mail on Sunday had a great scoop yesterday – the wife of the head of MI6 had posted family picture on Facebook which, said the Mail, made it possible to identify his family and his London address. It shows how far we’ve come from the days when the head of MI6 would be unnamed, presumably ‘in case the Russians found out’.

This might be really good public interest journalism. If the head of MI6 and his immediate family are indiscreet, the public should know and the relevant disciplinary action should be taken. Without a newspaper to commit the resources to finding out these issues, the story may never have been revealed.

Alternatively, it could be overblown hype, as the Foreign Secretary suggested to the BBC yesterday morning. Yes, the Mail on Sunday managed to find a Conservative MP to support its story, but opposition MPs usually do (of any party, on any issue). The Guardian editorial thinks it is overblown: “the revelations of Lady Shelley surely contain very little that those in search of such information could not find somewhere else in the course of an afternoon.” And it would surely be a matter of some surprise if foreign intelligence agencies were not already aware of his family and London address.

There have been many stories in the past that have come from social networking sites. Prince Harry may have been dumped via Facebook and may now be flirting with a Sky News presenter via the social networking site. If nothing else, these stories are a useful reminder to social networks of the need for a little self-regulation.

But is the Mail’s scoop an invasion of privacy? According to the Mail, his wife had “put virtually no restrictions on her account” but the page is now deleted so we can’t find out what restrictions there may have been. Is it reasonable to have an expectation of privacy for content on social networking sites?

According to research commissioned by the Press Complaints Commission 42% of web users aged 16-24 know someone who has been embarrassed by information uploaded on to the internet without their consent. And 78% of the entire adult online population would change information they publish about themselves online if they thought the material would later be reproduced in the mainstream media.

At the time, then chairman Sir Christopher Meyer said: “That is why I expect our current Code of Practice to be able to handle complaints in this area; and in the process to enable the Commission over the coming months and years to define through its decisions the boundary between the private and the public.”

Since then, the PCC has ruled on three cases regarding Facebook. Twice it did not uphold a complaint about a journalist contacting family members through a Facebook profile page. On one other occasion a newspaper apologised and made a charitable donation for reprinting condolences left by friends and a photograph on a Facebook profile page. So there is still little case law for the PCC to draw upon when investigating stories such as this.

If the story is not an invasion of privacy, justified on public interest grounds, then it is not a great piece of investigative journalism. But it is still better to have the issue out in the open. The alternative may be a world in which newspapers were not allowed to report such a story but it was common currency on internet messageboards.

UPDATE: the PCC has published a further adjudication about the use of material from Facebook. Essentially it says that if the person wasn ‘t in the public eye, or their actions have not brought them into the public eye, then they have a reasonable expectation of privacy, regardless of their privacy settings.

Sheffield Star: Who should be held accountable?

In Debate on July 2, 2009 at 10:57 am

The Press Complaints Commission has resolved a complaint against a Sheffield Star for an article headlined ‘Migrant crime toll rising’. The source of the article was a report by the Chief Superintendent of South Yorkshire Police which said that “It takes approximately three times as long to book in a person who does not speak English as it does an English speaker.”

The complaint was resolved when the newspaper agreed to publish “a prominent clarification and apology”. It also changed the headline of its online edition. That now reads: “Police costs of dealing with non-English speakers rise”.

It appears to have been resolved relatively quickly, with the article appearing on 16 April and the ruling appearing on the commission’s website on 30 June. The clarification and apology appeared on 10 June – too late to reduce any impact it may have had on people’s voting intentions in the European election a week earlier. BNP candidates were standing in the region.

The PCC does not usually resolve or adjudicate against complaints about a headline and usually only accepts complaints from people directly involved in the story. As the media select committee heard, the PCC and editors expect more latitude to be given for a headline. Only three of the last 78 cases resolved by the PCC were directly related to the headline.

This case also highlights the challenges for newspapers and the PCC operating online. The “prominent apology” does not appear on the online version of the article and the headline remains on the site, in the URL: thestar.co.uk/headlines/Migrant-crime-toll-rising. On the article currently you would have no way of knowing that the article was the subject of a successful complaint.

The article carries the name of the journalist, Claire Lewis. She was probably not responsible for writing the headline but is the person who is publicly accountable for the article. The MST contacted her to confirm that she did not write the headline but she passed on the enquiries to the deputy editor Paul License on 30 June. He confirmed that the Star published the correction on 10 June but not who was responsible for writing the misleading headline.

The online reaction to the story is interesting, with a number of people recognising a problem with the article both on the newspaper’s own comment section and on sheffieldforum.co.uk. With the data that the newspaper captures in the comments section, it wouldn’t be too difficult for the paper to contact all of the people who commented and to draw attention to the correction.

This case shows some of the strengths of self-regulation: a successfully resolved complaint, a complaint submitted by a third party, a prominent correction offline and a free service for the complainants. However, it also shows the unresolved difficulties of correcting articles sufficiently quickly, making corrections to stories online, and the problems associated with making sure the right people are held to account.

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?

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.

PCC acts in Susan Boyle story

In Debate on June 4, 2009 at 8:38 am

The Press Complaints Commission has warned newspaper editors not to breach the privacy of Susan Boyle, reports Media Guardian. The Guardian reported that the PCC had been contacted by SyCo, the company behind Britain’s Got Talent (and presumably to whom Susan Boyle is contracted) on behalf of Susan Boyle. The email reminded editors not to breach Miss Boyle’s privacy in relation to her health and treatment, under clause 3 of the code, which reads:

i) 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.

ii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in a private place without their consent.

It’s welcome news that the PCC has acted, particularly in light of some of the coverage over the last few days. On Monday, this blog reported that there were possible invasions of Boyle’s privacy in some newspapers.

It also appears to be a really significant step forward by the PCC. By comparison, following the Alfie Patten story there were no reports that the PCC had reminded newspaper editors of the families’ rights to privacy – only that the PCC had launched an investigation into possible payments by newspapers.

It would be easier for observers of the PCC to understand its operations if they were clearer on their use of precedent. The Susan Boyle warning is not currently available on its website. The PCC could point out similar privacy cases on which it had ruled, to help inform what is and is not acceptable coverage of Miss Boyle. And it is not clear why they acted in this case, and not that of Alfie Patten. One difference between the two cases might have been the inquiry from Syco as a representative of the subject of the story. But we don’t know whether there was a similar inquiry from representatives of the families in the Patten case.

The PCC has often said that much of its most valuable work is achieved pre-publication and that this does not receive the recognition it deserves. If the case is a sign of a willingness on the part of the PCC to be proactive in the biggest news stories of the day, then it should be praised.

Should the PCC investigate Susan Boyle coverage?

In Debate on June 1, 2009 at 9:27 am

Susan Boyle, of Britain’s Got Talent fame has been admitted to hospital under the Mental Health Act after coming second in the TV talent contest final this weekend. ‘Raging Susan’s mega strop’ – the Daily Star reports today.

She rose from a ‘quiet life in Scotland’ to global fame in a matter of weeks but the pressure appears to have been too great. Should the Press Complaints Commission investigate the newspaper coverage of Susan Boyle?

There is a credible case against the PCC investigating the coverage of Susan Boyle. It usually will only accept a complaint from people directly involved in the story. Ms Boyle has not complained to the PCC and may not wish the additional intrusion of an investigation by the commission.

Susan Boyle was aware that she would be in the spotlight when she volunteered for the show. She consistently said that she wanted to win the show and she could have looked at former contestants for an indication of the public profile it would bring.

Much of the coverage of Susan Boyle was positive. There was, of course, lots of coverage praising her vocal talents although a glance through the clippings suggests that a lot of this juxtaposed her voice with her looks. Sometimes this was positive coverage. Many commentators and public figures praised her ‘authenticity’ and suggested she was a new kind of icon for these times of economic hardship.

Some of the newspaper coverage may have been nasty or hurtful – and much of this was focussed on her appearance. . “Susan can be the face of big tummy-tuck pants” declared a headline in The Independent. The Sun provided a step by step guide “if you fancy trying out Susan’s special look”. However, that is no reason for the PCC to investigate. The code makes no reference to taste or decency. And again, Susan Boyle has not complained.

There’s a possibility that some of the coverage did breach the code. The PCC code states:

i) 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.
ii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in a private place without their consent.
Note – Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Under the headline “Susan is the best bra none” The Sun reported on 13 May that “The BGT star’s unsightly pink shirt gaped open when she left home, revealing the side of her breast”. In the Mirror on 6 May, an article by Jody Thompson was headlined: ‘Susan Boyle leaves home with her trousers undone – see the pic’. It may be that being photographed on your doorstep is not private, particularly if you area participant in a TV talent contest.

On 27 April The Sun ran a picture of Susan Boyle visiting her mother’s grave. This may have been taken with her permission, or perhaps the photo was organised by the producers of the show. But a graveyard may be a public place but is also one where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The Susan Boyle story has consumed media coverage over the last month and has not had a happy ending. But it does throw up some key questions for press self-regulation:

  • Is the PCC right to only respond to complaints from people directly involved in a story?
  • Should it pre-emptively investigate some of the possible intrusions into the privacy Susan Boyle?
  • Or should it just guide journalists through the minefield of judging where public interest starts and stops in this case?