Sir Christopher Meyer’s speech in full: plea to publishers to aid PCC

As reported on the main page, Sir Christopher Meyer will tonight urge publications to support the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in its role, which he emphasises is still relevant in light of online developments and recent privacy issues. Here is his speech in full, courtesy of the PCC’s website:

“It is always a pleasure to be in Manchester – a city with a vibrant media which I have visited more than any other in England during my time chairing the PCC. It was in this very room five years ago that I launched the first of our Open Days: public meetings in the towns and cities of the UK aimed at making the PCC as accessible as possible. Then, as now, we were given all possible support by the Manchester Evening News and Paul Horrocks. One of the most respected and innovative editors in Britain, Paul was also an outstanding member of the PCC for four years.

It has always been my ambition to hold a full meeting of the PCC outside London. It is vital to get over the message that we are not a body shut away inside a metropolitan bubble, dealing with the complaints of celebrities, royals (and near-royals), and politicians. The reality is far different. We exist for all the citizens of the United Kingdom; and of the thousands who come to us for help and advice, over 90 per cent lay no claim to celebrity whatsoever.

So, tomorrow’s meeting of the PCC is an historic moment in the 17-year life of our organisation. My colleagues from the board, all/most of whom are present tonight, are the people who take the decisions under the Code of Practice: about where the public interest meets the individual’s right to privacy; what constitutes a significant inaccuracy; when payments for information can be made – in short, on how the UK’s newspapers and magazines should gather and report news in print and online.

The cases that come before us take us from the ethical heights to the nether regions of human existence. I leave it to you to decide in which category to put a recent privacy case involving the Manchester-based Daily Sport. When reporting the conviction of a man for having sex with a goat, the paper published a picture of the victim with its face blanked out – ‘out of respect for its private life’ as the caption said. Who says the tabloid press is out of control?

Tomorrow, when we meet at the City Inn, we will debate issues that are as important as they are topical. For example, how should self-regulation move forward when it must co-exist with a developing law on privacy; how do we exploit further the opportunities presented by the digitalisation of the media?

These are strategic challenges of the first order. They demand a long-term ambition, which must rise above the industry’s balance sheet, however dire the economic circumstances of the moment. This is because the PCC’s response to these challenges will to a large degree dictate whether self-regulation, as it has evolved since its creation in 1991, survives and prospers in its duty to the public. It is a duty for all seasons.

It will be for my successor, Peta Buscombe, who, I think, will be a terrific Chair, to lead the PCC through this exciting and testing time. But, without, I hope, treading on her toes, here are a few personal theses that I would like to nail to the doors of the Manchester Art Gallery.

Privacy has been much in the news lately because of a series of celebrity cases that have come before the courts. The PCC has itself just received a bunch of complaints from Heather Mills. Let’s be clear about one thing. There will never be an absolutely definitive ruling either by the judges or by the PCC that draws a universally applicable line between the private space and the public interest. Of course, the courts and the PCC make their decisions within the framework of their respective case law. But, in the end, it comes down to case-by-case; and a degree of subjectivity is unavoidable. That is why privacy cases, whether judged by the courts or the PCC, will be controversial till the end of time.

The Human Rights Act, of course, gets up the noses of a lot of people, and often rightly so. But it’s a fact of life. It is the basis on which the courts rule when the principles of privacy collide with those of press freedom. Even if the Act were abolished tomorrow, there would remain a corpus of decisions based on it that would remain in force. That includes decisions made by judges which, taken together, have changed the legal landscape and are seen by some as tantamount to a privacy law. That too is a fact of life.

Every now and again you hear cries and whispers, not a million miles away from the newspaper and magazine industry, that perhaps, after all, a privacy law debated and passed by parliament would be preferable to decisions taken by ‘unelected’ judges via the ‘backdoor’.  Well, beware of what you wish for. It may not be a full parliamentary debate; but the announcement last week of yet another hearing into privacy and related matters by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is the next best thing.

Some media lawyers will tell you that it is the courts which are making the running on privacy case law; and that the PCC is being shunted aside. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? There is a minority of lawyers who resent the competition, as they see it, from a body that provides its services free and fast, and in vastly more cases than ever come before the courts. But this is not a zero-sum game; there is a time for the law and a time for the PCC. And they ignore the sheer range of services we offer to those who fear unwarranted intrusion by the press.

One of the developments over the last few years of which I am most proud is our ‘anti-harassment’ service based on ‘desist messages’. People come to us to say that they are being door-stepped or chased down the street by photographers. We pass on messages to our private e-mail list of editors and lawyers up and down the country. We never tell editors in advance what they can and cannot publish – leaving this judgement to their own discretion. But, they know that, unless there is a clear public interest, or the individual concerned has promiscuously courted publicity in the past, they risk breaching the Code and its anti-harassment provisions. As a result, the harassment almost always stops; or the intrusive photo or story does not appear. There are some here tonight who have used the service.

To this preventative work – dealing with problems before publication – I should add the vast amount of stuff we do after publication: the negotiation of published and private apologies; undertakings about future conduct; removal of intrusive material from the internet; agreed follow-up pieces; tagging of archives with legal warnings to prevent repetition; even the arrangement of ex gratia payments occasionally. And we also have our powerful ‘name and shame’ sanction of a critical public admonishment, reproduced prominently and unedited in the offending publication.

We must be doing something right because when I retire next year demand for these services will have roughly doubled since 2003. This is thanks to the dedication and good judgement of Tim Toulmin, our Director, and his team. It is also thanks to the great majority of editors who willingly cooperate with us.

This is a record of which we can be proud. But here’s the rub. It’s not enough. As cases continue to come before the courts under the Human Rights Act, the law of confidence or privacy will continue to evolve. The explosion of online journalism, including moving images and sound on publication’s websites, places ever greater responsibility on the PCC to maintain standards. The government and the European Commission restlessly consider the wisdom and feasibility of regulating some types of internet content. A government minister referred only a few weeks ago to demanding more from self-regulation. Meanwhile, the current architecture of media content regulation in the UK – PCC, Ofcom, BBC Trust – looks increasingly unsustainable in the long term, as the frontiers which these organisations patrol dissolve under the pressure of media convergence.

Take all this together, and the challenge to the PCC and to the press is obvious. We must all raise our game. That means thinking creatively how, in this intensely fluid environment, self-regulation can deliver the goods more effectively. It is not divinely ordained that our system of regulation is here for all eternity. It has its enemies. There are other, competing models.

So, the aim must be to show beyond all doubt not only that the PCC’s model of independent regulation, with its unique ability rapidly to adjust to developments, is the one best suited for the age of on-line publishing; but that also, on matters of privacy, it is, in its mediation capacity, increasingly preferable to litigation.

This puts a huge responsibility on the press itself. The arrival of new-fangled digital platforms does not make respect for the old virtues redundant: fundamental attachment to accuracy, swift correction of mistakes, prominent publication of apologies, sensitivity to people’s grief, ready cooperation with the PCC’s investigations. By and large the press – national, regional, local – is pretty good at meeting these standards. But I have to say that, despite endless exhortation, the willingness of editors to give space to publicise the PCC’s services is patchy at best; and that includes publications represented on the Commission itself. That strikes me as an own goal.

The responsibility placed on the PCC is equally great. Tomorrow we will start turning our minds to these issues: issues that go the heart of our freedom of expression and of our democracy itself.”

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