"fast free fair" - The motto of the Press Complaints Commission in Britain

Suppose a British newspaper or magazine publishes a story about you that is untrue or misleading, or they spy on you in your home, threaten your neighbours to get your secrets, and harass your children. What can you do? Well, you can go to court, using the British libel laws, the right of privacy enshrined in the Human Rights Act, and any legislation about breach of the peace, trespass, etc, you can think of. This will cost vast amounts of money, and may take months or even years.

Alternatively, you can call the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), a body funded by the British newspaper industry: you will not need to pay legal fees and your complaint should be resolved in a month or two. Here I attempt to answer some questions about taking the latter course of action.

(Note that below I generally talk about "newspapers" only, and most discussion of the PCC and its more important decisions focus on newpapers. However the rules apply to magazines too and omitting the word "magazine" does not change this, so you may like to add "and magazines" when reading.)

What is the PCC?

The PCC, or Press Complaints Commission, is a body funded by the newspaper industry which exists to address readers' complaints about unfair treatment in newspaper and magazine articles. The PCC is governed by a chairman and a board; the chairman and 8 board members have no connection to the newspaper industry, while 7 board members are editors or editors-in-chief of British newspapers and magazines. A panel of British newspaper editors have drawn up a code of conduct setting out what they consider to be acceptable practice, and the PCC board base their decisions upon this code.

What can I complain about?

The PCC handles complaints about most newspapers and magazines in Britain. It mainly concerns itself with complaints from people who feel they have been misrepresented by inaccurate reporting, or have had their privacy unduly invaded. It also addresses some other aspects of newspaper behaviour, such as payments to criminals and witnesses in criminal trials.

However, it will not address complaints about advertisements and promotions (go to the Advertising Standards Authority) or mail-order companies (see the Mail Order Protection Scheme and Trading Standards). It also doesn't consider questions of political bias (which is not regulated in newspapers) or taste and decency (regulated by obscenity and blasphemy laws).

How do I complain?

In the first instance, the PCC recommends you contact the editor directly, and only bring in the PCC if their action is inadequate. Complaints to the PCC must normally be made within a month of publication. You should send a letter to the PCC outlining your grievance, together with a cutting of the article. Applications may also be made at the PCC website (see end).

What happens if my complaint is successful?

The main aim of the PCC is conciliation, not confrontation, and it seeks to negotiate with newspaper editors to find an acceptable way of correcting the mistake. The PCC cannot impose fines or other penalties on newspapers and magazines. The main method of redress it offers is a prominent apology or correction to be published in the offending journal. The commission cannot compel newspapers to obey it, and has no legal ability to impose sanctions, so it depends on the goodwill of newspaper editors. It only acts retrospectively so it cannot prevent publication of stories.

What is the PCC code?

The PCC's code, drawn up by a panel of newspaper industry figures, attempts to set out standards of behaviour for reporters and editors. It governs a number of areas of behaviour. In terms of truth of reporting, it specifies that newspapers should avoid "inaccurate, misleading or distorted material including pictures", and facts should be clearly distinguished from opinion.

It also governs privacy and press intrusion. Journalists should not obtain stories by harassment or intimidation, should show discretion when dealing with the bereaved, should not use bugs or surreptitiously recorded telephone calls, should not lie about their identity without good reason, and should respect the confidentiality of sources. Photographers should not use long (telephoto) lenses to photograph people in private places (which include private dwellings and other buildings such as churches where people have an expectation of privacy). Privacy is particularly emphasised with respect to victims of sexual attacks and children, and moreso children who have suffered sexual attacks. Also the code explicitly prohibits the publication of photographs of famous people's children without good reason.

The code bans payment to convicted criminals for their stories unless it is in the public interest to obtain their story and payment must be made to obtain this. It also bans payment to witnesses in criminal trials once the trial is underway, and states that payments previously made should be disclosed to the prosecution and defence.

Other regulations include a code of ethics for financial journalists, guidelines for the behaviour of reporters in schools and hospitals, a prohibition on sexist, racist and other discriminatory language, and a requirement for newspapers to provide corrections and opportunities for reply (vaguely defined). The code allows an excuse of public interest, which can be used to break many but not all of the rules, defined as:

  1. "Detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour"
  2. "Protecting public health and safety"
  3. "Preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation"
The last case is essentially a license to expose the hypocrisy of public figures.

Why was the PCC set up?

The Press Complaints Commission was established in 1991. It replaced the Press Council, an earlier body which was established in 1953 but by the late 1980s had proved ineffective in curbing the misbehaviour of tabloid reporting. In 1990, a government enquiry produced the Calcutt Report, which called for a new regime of press self-regulation and was the main impetus for the newspaper industry to form the PCC. Since then, the PCC has remained a powerful force in the newspaper industry, despite the continuing misbehaviour of many newspapers, and Tessa Jowell, the government minister in charge of the media, is committed to maintaining press self-regulation.

How can it be independent and unbiased?

The majority of the PCC board are not newspaper industry figures; however the PCC is funded by the newspaper industry, its chairman is chosen by the industry, and the code of practice is drawn up by newspaper editors. Aside from industry members, the rest of the board is made up of assorted figures from the great and good (see below), the same kind of people who make up many other unelected public bodies in Britain, from the Arts Council and health trusts to the House of Lords. Many of them have little experience in journalism or of the effects of misreporting and press intrusion (it would be interesting if the PCC featured more figures such as Victoria Beckham with first-hand experience of press attacks).

In its favour, the PCC points to a rapid and cheap complaints procedure (complainants need little more than the price of a stamp or phone call). They claim complaints are resolved on average in 32 working days. If the complainant is seeking nothing more than a correction or apology, the PCC offers that facility, but where financial compensation or punishment are required, legal action will be necessary.

What are the alternatives to the PCC?

Press regulation is a contentious issue: the freedom of the press is a central right in democratic societies, essential for allowing the population oversight of the government. However, this function depends not only on an active and energetic press, but on a truthful and honest press which has respect for its readers and sources and which does not interfere with the legitimate operations of the police or the courts. Against this beneficial role of the press, many people think that newspapers and magazines spend too much time pandering to prurience and idle curiosity, while ruining the lives of public and private figures and their children.

A government-appointed press ombudsman has been suggested by some members of parliament to oversee the press, either in conjunction with the PCC or as a replacement. Similar figures already regulate a number of utilities and business sectors (e.g. financial services) in the UK. However, having a politically-appointed figure adjudicate on the contents of newspapers is anathema to almost anyone committed to the freedom of the press.

The next alternative is the courts. British libel law allows a far wider range of claims than US law, and despite the cost of bringing a claim, payouts can be very sustantial. Britain does not have a privacy law as such (unlike countries such as France), but the 1998 Human Rights Act which came into force in 1999 gives people a basic right to privacy. The full extent of this is yet to be determined by the courts. The main argument against relying on the courts to regulate the press is the time and cost involved in raising a legal action, which puts justice out of the range of the poor.

A few British newspapers, following the example of the Guardian, have established the post of Readers' Editor, an editorially-independent position at the newspaper held by an experienced journalistic figure who acts as a champion for the paper's readers, investigating accuracy, publishing corrections, and attempting to guide newspaper policy with regard to journalistic practices and taste and decency. Such a system requires a commitment from the newspaper, and even with full support it is insufficient to correct serious mistakes.

So who are the PCC board?

As of October 2003, the chairman is Sir Christopher Meyer, a former diplomat and press secretary to John Major during Major's government. The remaining members are:

How are the chairman and board chosen?

The chairman is appointed by the newspaper industry but cannot be an employee of the industry. The rest of the board is divided into press members and public members to ensure that non-press members have a majority. There are seven newspaper figures, representing both national and local press.

Members other than the chairman are chosen by an appointments commission, again with a majority of non-press members; as well as the chairman of the commission, at the time of writing the commission comprises: the chairman of press agency PA News Sir Harry Roche; former Conservative politician Lord Mayhew; the chairman of Prudential David Clementi; and Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill the chairman of Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

What notable decisions has the PCC made?

Some of the most newsworthy complaints have concerned the British Royal Family. Right at its inception in 1991 the PCC upheld a complaint about The People newspaper publishing an unauthorised photograph of Princess Eugenie, daughter of the Duke of York. Since then it has helped to adjudicate in many areas of royal privacy, helping draw up a code governing reporting of Prince William and Prince Harry during their childhood and university education.

The PCC was also called in following a topless photograph of Sophie Rhys-Jones, now the Countess of Wessex, in the Sun in 1999. Prince Charles won an apology from the Sunday Times in 2000 after it claimed he was planning to re-marry in Scotland. Prince and Princess Michael of Kent have also been assiduous complainers, but have seen fewer decisions in their favour.

In the world of celebrities, one landmark case was in 1995 when Lady Victoria Spencer was depicted in the News of the World leaving a clinic for eating disorders; her husband complained and the paper was forced to apologise. George Michael won a complaint for invasion of privacy against the Sun in 1998 when it published a map and photograph of his new house. Coronation Street star Jacquline Pirie successfully complained about a breach of privacy in 2000 when the News of the World published accounts of her sexual appetites by her ex-fiance. Carol Smillie won against Scottish newspaper the Sunday Mail over intrusive reporting into her grief following Smillie's mother's death the same year.

Recently the issue of payment to convicted criminals and witnesses in criminal trials has become controversial. In 2003 the PCC has ruled in favour of the Mirror paying over GBP 100,000 to convicted killer Tony Martin on the basis that that payment was necessary to obtain his valuable opinion on the topic of shooting burglars. It also acquitted the News of the World for paying GBP 10,000 to a witness crucial in the collapsed Victoria Beckham kidnap trial, a witness whose testimony was subsequently found in court to be highly unreliable. However, it found against the Guardian for paying a prison inmate (who was also a published writer) a much smaller sum for exposing the inaccuracies in Jeffrey Archer's prison diaries.

Sources (the PCC website includes its code of conduct and adjudications).

  • "Mirror Cleared over Martin Deal". BBCi. October 2, 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/3157274.stm
  • Ciar Byrne. "Government blanks calls for privacy law". The Guardian. October 14, 2003. http://media.guardian.co.uk/pressprivacy/story/0,7525,1062764,00.html
  • Caroline Furneaux and Lisa O'Carroll. "The press complaints commission's greatest hits". The Guardian. February 7, 2001. http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0,3858,4132829-103690,00.html
  • "Adjudication by the Press Complaints Commission". The Guardian. July 11, 2003. http://media.guardian.co.uk/presspublishing/story/0,7495,995835,00.html
  • PCC Website. Press Complaints Commission. http://www.pcc.org.uk/ (October 23, 2003)

Note: I am not a lawyer, and if anyone with greater legal knowledge or knowledge of the PCC can see any mistakes in this article, I would be grateful if you would tell me.

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