Tag Archives: Press Complaints Commission

Media Standards Trust poses questions over Northern & Shell PCC exclusion

Following news that Richard Desmond’s publisher Northern & Shell had withdrawn all of its titles – including the Daily Mirror and OK! Magazine – from the PCC’s self regulatory system, the Media Standards Trust has posed the following open questions to Northern & Shell, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and the Press Board of Finance (PressBof). Republished here in full.

Northern & Shell

  • Will you guarantee to offer the same levels of protection to members of the public – such as families who have suffered a suicide – as you did when covered by the PCC code?
  • If a member of the public feels harassed by a journalist claiming to work for Northern & Shell, what should they do?
  • If you discover that a high profile public figure is pregnant before their 12 week scan, will you protect their privacy as other newspapers have agreed, or just publish the story?
  • Will your publications continue to write to the PCC Editorial Code, or is Northern & Shell opting out of all existing codes of self-regulation?
  • How should a reader go about making a complaint about something that is written in one of your titles?
  • When the Media Standards Trust wanted to make a complaint to the Daily Star, it found that the newspaper did not make public the name of its editor or a phone number for anything other than the newsdesk. Will the affected titles now make clear how to contact the editor and/or provide a clear internal complaints system?
  • What motivated your withdrawal and on what terms, if any, would you return to the system overseen by the PCC?

Press Complaints Commission

  • What impact will Northern & Shell’s withdrawal have on the PCC’s overall funding? Given that the amount contributed by national newspapers is kept secret, it is currently not possible for those outside the industry to work out what effect the exit will have.
  • Will the PCC be able to maintain the same level of service on a lower budget?
  • In its statement – and for the first time – the PCC revealed some of the publications not covered by the PCC (i.e. Northern & Shell publications). Will the PCC now publish a list of all those that do subscribe?
  • Was Northern & Shell clear as to what motivated its withdrawal? And, if so, is it clear under what terms it might return to the system?


  • This is the second time in two months that the PCC budget has been hit (the first being the libel settlement and costs in November 2010). PressBof was not transparent about the cost of the first (and did not respond to the Media Standards Trust’s letter requesting further information); will it now be transparent about the cost of the Northern & Shell withdrawal?
  • PressBof has previously refused to provide any assurances on what this means for the PCC’s level of service. Will it now provide assurances that the level of service the PCC provides will be maintained?
  • Given the importance of national newspaper contributions to the sustainability of the PCC, will PressBof now lift the secrecy surrounding those contributions, and publish information on who pays for the PCC and how much each pays?

Martin Moore, the director of the Media Standards Trust, said: “The withdrawal of Northern & Shell raises fundamental questions about the sustainability of the current system of self-regulation. The PCC and PressBof need to reassure the public that they will continue to have adequate avenues of complaint. Northern & Shell needs to be clear as to how it will, in future, fulfil its obligations to its readers and to the broader public.

“The Press Complaints Commission argues consistently that it exists as a better alternative – and deterrent to – statutory regulation. It now needs to explain what impact Northern & Shell’s withdrawal will have on the general public, and what it plans to do to ensure the comprehensiveness and sustainability of press self-regulation.”


The MST reports on its PCC Watch site that the PCC and PressBof have responded to their questions.

PCC is effective but faces ‘massive issues of perception’, says public affairs director

If only people knew more about the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), says its public affairs director Will Gore, they could learn to love it.

The body was set up in 1991 from the ruins of the Press Council, but Gore says that despite having existed for nearly 20 years, there are still “massive issues of perception” around it.

“There are a lot of people who don’t [know how effective the PCC is],” he tells journalism.co.uk. “The encouraging thing is that of the 60-65 per cent that did have a view on effectiveness in the last survey, three quarters thought the PCC was effective or very effective.

“When people know more I think they have quite a positive view.”

Gore, who has worked at the PCC for 10 years, cites the view that it is run by the newspaper industry as one of the most common misconceptions.

“When you actually explain to people that all of the staff here are non-journalists, that the majority of committee members are nothing to do with the industry … they go ‘Oh okay, it’s not quite what I thought.'”

He’s also keen to dispel the idea that the PCC won’t consider headlines or third-party complaints on points of fact, although he admits it used to be “much stricter” on who could complain. Contrary to what its detractors claim, he says, the PCC does make a difference to newspapers’ reporting.

“If you look at newspapers 20 or 25 years ago, the level of intrusiveness into the lives of ordinary people is not as severe as it was, the levels of outright discrimination against individuals is not as severe as it was, the homophobia that was so prevalent and a lot of the racist attitudes have improved,” he says.

One common criticism of the PCC is that it has no power to fine newspapers for serious or repeated breaches of the Code of Conduct, but Gore says that this “massively underestimates” the impact of the PCC’s adjudications on newspapers and editors.

Even if fines were introduced, he doesn’t believe it wouldn’t prevent the worst reporting – after all, there are fines for libel and breaches of Ofcom’s code, but it doesn’t stop the rules being broken.

In fact, he says, the PCC’s option to demand an explanation from a publisher for repeated breaches has led to people losing their jobs, although he’s reluctant to give any details of private disciplinary matters.

Gore is also critical of people who don’t trust the PCC and so refuse to complain to it, saying that “to use that as an excuse to not bother complaining is a bit lame”.

“I’m not saying the PCC is a perfect organisation and I’m not here to sit around and defend the British press, but our view is that we want to encourage people to engage with us so we can engage with the industry and continue to raise standards.”

Newspapers, he says, rarely deliberately print stories they know aren’t true, and claims the “vast bulk are just cock-ups, or when something’s been left out and it changes the meaning”.

“The misconception is that newspapers will run stories to increase sales and it’ll increase sales so much that it doesn’t really matter what happens in terms of adjudication. It’s hard to see that a newspaper would make so much more money out of an outrageous story. If you put on 10,000 in sales and it’s a newspaper that sells for 20p, that’s nothing.”

He admits that the prominence of corrections, particularly for front-page stories, is still an issue, but insists that it’s improved since he started at the Commission.

“When I was first here we did let newspapers get away with an apology on page 36 and that has absolutely changed.

“We have had a number of occasions where there has either been an apology or a trail on the front page. Things are going in the right direction.”

Staunch opponents of the PCC are unlikely to agree, but Gore is adamant that, despite criticism, self-regulation remains the best system of accountability for the press.

“There will always be occasions when people make complaints to us and are absolutely convinced they’ve got it right and we don’t uphold it and people will then say ‘This just shows the PCC doesn’t deal with headlines or doesn’t deal with photos’.

“I think actually the system we currently operate is effective.”

Jamie Thunder is a student on the Investigative Journalism MA at City University London. He runs the blog http://exclarotive.wordpress.com/ and can be found on Twitter @jdthndr.

PCC: Express Newspapers did not breach code in G20 payment

The Press Complaints Commission has decided that a payment made by Express Newspapers in April 2009 to Nicola Fisher, who had claimed she was assaulted by a police officer during the G20 protests, did not breach the Editors’ Code of Practice.

According to the PCC, following an interview with Fisher the Daily Star and Daily Express published articles where Fisher outlined her allegations in detail and she was paid for her involvement in the story. At the time of publication the police officer had been suspended, but not arrested or charged with any offence. Later in the year he was charged with common assault, pleaded not guilty and was cleared of the charge in March this year.

The PCC launched its own investigation into the matter and announced in its adjudication that there had been no breach of Clause 15 (Witness payments in criminal trials) on the grounds of sufficient public interest.

At the time of the interview – while Ms Fisher had already spoken to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) whose investigation was in its preliminary stages – proceedings against the officer were not active, not least because his identity had yet to become known. The CPS had been made aware of the payment to Ms Fisher – who would not have agreed to the interview without remuneration – through her representative. There was no question of her evidence being embellished (as she had already given her statement to the IPCC before her interview). In addition, the trial took place before a District Judge rather than a jury.

The newspapers said that the police tactics and conduct during the G20 protests was a matter of legitimate public interest: the IPCC had received over 270 complaints about the actions and Metropolitan, City of London and British Transport Police during the demonstrations. Given the actions of the police, including their controversial practice of ‘kettling’ and the death of Mr Tomlinson, it was right and proper that Ms Fisher’s account be published. The footage of the incident had been widely disseminated on the internet and, at the trial, the officer did not deny the assault; rather, he defended his actions on the basis that he had used reasonable force in all the circumstances. While he had been acquitted of the charge, the decision had come in for some considerable public criticism.

Press Complaints Commission: Sunday Times columnist breached Editors’ Code

The Press Complaints Commission has upheld a complaint from television broadcaster Clare Balding against language used in a television review by AA Gill, published by the The Sunday Times in July.

Balding complained that a reference to her in the article as a “dyke on a bike” was a pejorative reference to her sexuality, irrelevant to the programme and a breach of Clause 12 (discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The newspaper had defended its columnist on grounds of freedom of expression and said the word “dyke” had been reclaimed as “an empowering, not offensive, term” by two “Dykes on Bikes” organisations. But the PCC said in this case the term was used in a “demeaning” way.

In this case, the commission considered that the use of the word “dyke” in the article – whether or not it was intended to be humorous – was a pejorative synonym relating to the complainant’s sexuality. The context was not that the reviewer was seeking positively to “reclaim” the term, but rather to use it to refer to the complainant’s sexuality in a demeaning and gratuitous way. This was an editorial lapse which represented a breach of the Code, and the newspaper should have apologised at the first possible opportunity.

See the full adjudication here…

Media Standards Trust: watching the PCC

A relatively new blog has been set up by the Media Standards Trust to provide regular scrutiny of the work of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and press self-regulation in the UK.

As the allegations of phone hacking against the News of the World rumble on, PCC Watch could become a regular read. The Media Standards Trust has been critical of the PCC’s investigation into the practice in the past and has already blogged its views on calls for the body to launch a fresh inquiry.

PCC director speaks out over Lord Puttnam’s criticisms of regulatory body

The director of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) Stephen Abell has come out fighting in an article on Index on Censorship after Labour peer Lord Puttnam said earlier this week that the regulatory body should be shut down.

Speaking in a speech on parliament and young people on Tuesday, Puttnam said the PCC should be scrapped if newspapers failed to improve their behaviour within a year. In comments made to MediaGuardian, he said the PCC should work to prevent “the slow reduction of politics to a form of gruesome spectator sport” and “ensure the general representation of young people is more representative of reality”.

Abell says Puttnam’s remarks were not based on “well-informed and considered comment” about the PCC’s role and work, but says they are a starting point for debate:

Lord Puttnam is keen to assert that the PCC “cannot” instruct newspapers to be nicer to politicians and young people (two items on his wish list) without pausing to ask the question: should it? There must be the argument that if any body – even a self-regulatory body like the PCC – were to dictate the tone of political coverage, or suggest that there should be more positive stories on youth issues, the result would be a very significant restriction on freedom of expression.


However, and this is very important, he is right that the PCC must be active agents in maintaining newspaper standards. The coverage of politics, or of issues affecting the young, are two important areas. The PCC must ensure that we hold editors to account for what they report and how they report it. We must ensure that inaccuracies are corrected, intrusions and distortions prevented.

Related reading on Journalism.co.uk: Stephen Abell’s first interview as the new director of the PCC.

PCC defends phone hacking report: ‘We can’t do things that the police can do’

The Press Complaints Commission yesterday denied it had mishandled its report into phone hacking, even though the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee found the body’s findings “simplistic and surprising”.

Speaking to journalists at the launch of its annual review for 2009, its director Stephen Abell, and chair, Baroness Peta Buscombe defended the report that was condemned by the Guardian and the Media Standards Trust.

Where the self-regulation body had failed, Stephen Abell said, was in explaining its function and what its powers could achieve.

But he said it had done what it set out to do: to investigate whether it had been misled in 2007 and whether incidents of phone hacking were ongoing.

“We have to be extraordinarily careful,” said Buscombe, “not to do anything that would interfere with other investigative powers, i.e. the police … we’re very careful not to tread on other toes.”

The Guardian’s allegations in July 2009, however, concerned activity in 2006/7, a point Journalism.co.uk put to the PCC’s chair, Peta Buscombe and director, Stephen Abell.

“It was reported, there were claims that it was ongoing,” said Abell, with which Buscombe agreed.

“It was also a suggestion that it was ongoing at the time, it was certainly reported that way and we made clear in 2009 that’s what we were interested in,” he said.

The inquiry launched in 2009 was responding to “notions” made to the PCC that it was ongoing, said Abell.

“I have been very clear that on my watch if it was happening, if there was a whiff of it we would be onto it straight away but we would have to be exceedingly careful,” argued Buscombe.

“We can’t do things that the police can do, if we were to do that we would have to be regulated by the state, which I think is a very bad path for the press to go in,” she said.

But did the PCC consider it had been misled, considering the subsequent court settlements – with Gordon Taylor – for example?

“Were we materially misled in the context of what we were trying to do in 2007? It wasn’t the function of the PCC to duplicate the police investigation in 2007,” said Abell.

“What we did in 2007, was look prospectively not retrospectively,” he said.

Would the PCC act upon any new allegations, such as more recent ones made by the Guardian? If there was “material evidence,” said Stephen Abell. It was important not to go off “speculation,” added Buscombe.

Independent: PCC would act on ‘a whiff’ of new phone hacking

“In the advertising world I never felt this beating up of the regulator that I have felt here,” chairwoman of the Press Complaints Commission and former chief executive of the Advertising Association Peta Buscombe tells the Independent.

In the interview, Buscombe explains the PCC’s role in the inquiries into allegations of phone hacking at News of the World, for which the commission was criticised by Guardian reporter Nick Davies and the Media Standards Trust:

“One of the lessons is that we have to be crystal clear in the way we explain our remit. There was an expectation that we would be able to do more than we felt able to do at the time,” she says. “I can tell you now that if we got a whiff that it was happening again, we would act, there’s no question about this.”

Buscombe also says she’d like Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, to return to the code committee, from which he resigned in November.

Full interview at this link…

Will sorting out the press help push through libel reform?

There was a central conflict at last night’s Frontline Club debate addressing English libel and privacy law and super-injunctions.

How do you relax legal mechanisms, while preventing tabloids and privacy-intruding publications reaping the benefits?

Echoing comments made by Mr Justice Eady in a talk at City University London last month, Carter-Ruck senior partner Nigel Tait claimed that super-injunctions were mainly used in celebrity privacy cases, to protect medical records and former lovers’ revelations, for example.

Carter-Ruck, he said, had issued about 12 injunctions in the past year (shockingly, no central record of the number issued exists).

To let up on these would be an invitation to the tabloids, seemed to be the implication.

David Leigh, head of investigations at the Guardian, finally put his finger on it: there is a problem in his own trade, he said, exemplified by the tabloid treatment of the McCanns.

“Unless we put the newspaper houses in order, it’s very difficult to move the debate about libel reform further forward,” he said.
“We’ve got to reform the newspapers.”

As he’s indicated in the past, Leigh believes self regulatory body the Press Complaints Commission to be “a fraud”.

A television producer in the audience added that he’d like to see a press complaints commission “worthy of its name”.

But science writer Dr Simon Singh, still fighting a legal action pursued by the British Chiropractic Association, doesn’t think this conflict needs to be a huge problem.

In fact, making libel law costs cheaper, he said, will allow more people to sue – forcing tabloids to think twice about the things they write about non-celebrities.

I spoke to  Simon Singh afterwards. He said:

“All of the changes we’re talking about do not affect an individual’s right to protect their reputation.”

“Nobody would want to encourage salacious gossip or tittle-tattle,” Singh said. Their reforms address statutory public interest, libel tourism and preventing big companies suing bloggers and individuals.

“If you drive down costs massively, what that means is that not only can celebrities sue to protect their reputation but that the ordinary man and woman in the street can sue to protect their reputations.

“We’re talking about extending justice and fairness to people, rather than making it an exclusive game for the rich and powerful.”

“At the moment a tabloid could defame an individual and perhaps take a risk that person wouldn’t be able to afford to fight back. If you drive down the costs massively, tabloids would actually have to think twice.”

PCC upholds complaint over Rod Liddle’s Spectator post; first ever blog censure

Just in from the Press Complaints Commission: its first ever magazine/newspaper blog censure – for Rod Liddle’s 92 word Spectator post on 5 December 2009, that claimed an “overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community”. A reader’s complaint of inaccuracy was upheld.

“This is a significant ruling because it shows that the PCC expects the same standards in newspaper and magazine blogs that it would expect in comment pieces that appear in print editions,” said PCC director, Stephen Abell.

“There is plenty of room for robust opinions, views and commentary but statements of fact must still be substantiated if and when they are disputed.  And if substantiation isn’t possible, there should be proper correction by the newspaper or magazine in question.”

[Update: Listen to PCC director Stephen Abell discuss the ruling on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme at this link]

Here’s the PCC’s statement:

The Press Complaints Commission has upheld a complaint about an entry by Rod Liddle in his blog for the Spectator.  This is the first time that the PCC has censured a newspaper or magazine over the content of a journalistic blog.

The piece in question was published on 5 December 2009 and claimed that “the overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community”.  A reader complained that the statement was incorrect.

In concluding that the article was indeed in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, the PCC recognised the magazine’s argument that the nature of a blog post is often provocative and conducive to discussion.  It was certainly true in this case, for example, that a number of readers had taken issue with Mr Liddle’s claim and had commented on the blog.

However, the Commission did not agree that the magazine could rely on publishing critical reaction as a way of abrogating its responsibilities under the Code.  While it had provided some evidence to back up Mr Liddle’s position, it had not been able to demonstrate that the ‘overwhelming majority’ of crime in all the stated categories had been carried out by members of the African-Caribbean community.

Nor could it successfully argue that the claim was purely the columnist’s opinion – rather, it was a statement of fact.  As such, the Commission believed that “the onus was on the magazine to ensure that it was corrected authoritatively online”.  In the absence of such remedial action the Commission upheld the complaint.