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Privacy and Media Intrusion

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Posted by CPBF

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Submission by the Campaign For Press and Broadcasting Freedom to the Culture Media and Sport Committee of the House of Commons in relation to their inquiry on ‘Privacy and Media Intrusion’ (7th February 2003.)


1. The Campaign For Press and Broadcasting Freedom has been the UK’s most prominent independent campaigning group on questions of media ethics since it was established in 1979. It has either written and, or, promoted a series of Right of Reply Bills, such as those presented to the House by Frank Allaun MP, Ann Clwyd MP, and Tony Worthington MP in the 1980s. It was pressure from this activity, plus the manifest failure of the Press Council, which led to the establishment of the two Calcutt inquiries and the ultimate demise of the Press Council. The Campaign also worked closely with Clive Soley MP in producing and piloting his 1992 Press Freedom and Responsibility Bill.

Constitution and Performance of systems of complaint

2. It is now fifty years since the Press Council (1953-1990) was established. Its successor the Press Complaints Commission has presided over much the same territory. The system has made sure that 70-80% or more of public complaints never reach adjudication. Indeed in its 2001 Annual Report the PCC admitted that only 41 out of 3,003 complaints received went to adjudication, of which only 19 were upheld. This appalling ‘wastage’ of complaints is entirely in line with the record of the PCC as surveyed in the most recent full study of the Press Council and the Press Complaints Commission. These two bodies have never had the power to make their judgements stick. They have both acted as little more than lightning conductors, taking the strain when press behaviour has provoked the public and politicians to despair.

3. We are not aware of any independently generated evidence that exists which shows that the activities of either the Press Council or the Press Complaints Commission have materially improved the standards of accuracy in the press or of the tendency of the press to indulge in needless intrusion into privacy and grief. The Committee may wish to consider that its current inquiry is just one more episode in a cycle of inquiries that date back to the 1940s, almost all of which have either criticised self-regulation or called for its replacement.

4. Self-regulation in the press has manifestly been devised to protect the proprietors from independent regulation of standards. This political purpose has been well documented, most recently in the details contained in the Press Complaints Commission’s official history-cum-celebration published in 2001. The Culture Committee should appraise itself of the history of self-regulation, so as to avoid succumbing to the immense political power of the PCC which, once again, will be exercised to protect the proprietors from proper independent scrutiny.

5. The most important problems with the PC and the PCC have related to their lack of independence. These bodies have relied almost exclusively since the early 1980s on monies from the newspaper proprietors. They have therefore never acted in a manner which is truly independent of the interests of those proprietors. Again the Committee should be aware that this lack of independence has been exhaustively documented. So too has the fundamental weakness of self regulation, that is the PCC’s unwillingness to develop a system of penalties that will make its judgements meaningful. The Press Complaints Commission has survived because of the political power that the press wields over politicians, not because it is impossible to devise a workable alternative.

Regulation and Media Freedom

6. The case for statutory regulation of press standards is built on the premise that properly devised measures designed to promote press freedom and high standards in the press do not constitute pre-publication censorship. Allowing the public to have redress after publication allows the publisher to decide in advance whether the material should be published, therefore it does not constitute censorship. Nonetheless the proprietors and some editors will doubtless produce this red herring yet again during this process, and the Committee would be well advised to press home a strong set of criticisms on this issue.

OFCOM and the Complaints System

7. The Communications Bill states that OFCOM is meant primarily to promote economic competition in the media. It is designed to allow as much self-regulation by the media as possible. Why? Because positive regulation costs the industry money! OFCOM is to be run by a tiny Board, which has been appointed rather than nominated by public bodies, such as the Scottish Parliament of the National Assembly of Wales. It therefore represents no one except the interests of those people who have been appointed to it.  There is less representation for Wales and Scotland on OFCOM than there was on the former regulators.

8. To place press regulation under OFCOM would be to move responsibility from one unrepresentative body to another. It will also simply be a move from one proprietor-oriented body to a one whose express purpose, as stated repeatedly by the Secretary of State, is promoting economic competition in the media.

Our proposals

9. Were the government to listen to the extensive public concern about OFCOM and to restructure it so that it was primarily designed to promote the public interest and was run by an elected Board with a remit to be accountable to the public, then there might be a case for harmonising press regulation within that body. However, as OFCOM is currently constituted, the body which is responsible for key decisions about media ownership and media standards should not be the body which deals with complaints. This simply repeats the problem of the PCC, which is so tied up with proprietorial interests that it cannot act in the interests of the public. In fact the Broadcasting Standards Commission emerged in its first guise, as the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, in the early 1980s in order to establish a degree of independence from the BBC and ITV companies in the complaints procedure. There thus seems no good case for including either the BSC or the PCC under OFCOM.

10. We need separate legislation. A statutory right of reply to factual inaccuracies should be supervised by an elected body made up of members of the public and workers in the industry. A Press Freedom Law, enshrining rights for both the public and journalists, as against the privileges of government and big business, would be an essential feature of such a settlement. Models for this legislation already exist in the UK and elsewhere in Europe and have been extensively canvassed.


11. The Committee should be concerned with establishing a complaints procedure which is independent from both the owners and the present regulators of the media industries, one which is representative and which, in the context of stronger provisions for media freedom, has real powers to promote, and if need be, to enforce, higher ethical standards in the media.

12. We hope that the Committee will use this opportunity to put press regulation on an independent footing for the very first time, and to ensure that any complaints procedure for broadcasting is kept out of OFCOM, unless the primary aims and the composition and method of appointment of its Board are restructured in the public interest. Ends

DATELINE: 25 January, 2010