The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is the self-regulatory body that deals with complaints about the editorial content of newspapers and magazines and their websites. It enforces a Code of Practice which sets the benchmark for editorial standards in the industry. Commonly known as the Editors’ Code of Practice or just the Code, it is drafted by editors representing the national newspaper and magazine industry. The vast majority of newspapers and magazines in the UK subscribe to the Code and are bound, voluntarily, by its terms.
The Committee of Editors responsible for drafting and periodically amending the Code produces the Editors’ Codebook, which is the official handbook to the Code. The Codebook brings together the case law developed through its adjudications and provides guidance on the interpretation of the Code and its application.
In January 2011 the Code was amended to introduce a new rule on accuracy concerned with the prominence of corrections. At the same time a new edition of the Editors’ Codebook was published.
The new rule
Going forward, where the PCC has been involved with a complaint then the prominence of any subsequent correction must be agreed in advance with the PCC. The Codebook explains that this change is intended to codify what has increasingly standard but informal practice in the industry.
The new rule requiring the PCC’s advance approval applies only to corrections and the change does not apply to apologies, or to agreements reached where the PCC is not involved; so, for example, the PCC will not be involved in approving any wording published as part of a settlement of libel claims.
The accompanying guidance in the Codebook explains that the PCC will take into account all the circumstances of the original publication to decide whether the prominence given to a correction, clarification or apology amounts to an adequate remedy. The Codebook is at pains to point out that due prominence does not mean equal prominence but that the PCC will expect the positioning of apologies or corrections to reflect the seriousness of the error, and that will include the front page where appropriate.
The Codebook 2011
The Codebook also provides some helpful guidance on the PCC’s evolving approach to privacy, particularly on issues flowing from the use of social media and the protection of children.
Its new briefing on photo-journalism reiterates the two-fold test to be considered by editors prior to the publication of photographs: (1) do you have consent to publish the photograph or (2) can the publication be justified in the public interest.
The guidance on children is particularly strict. Children under 16 cannot be photographed on issues involving their own welfare or the welfare of another child without the consent of a custodial parent or guardian, nor can they be photographed at school in the absence of the school’s consent. Payment should not be made to children or their parents for a child’s image unless it is in the child’s interest (this is consistent with the guidance on payments for information about a child). Even where images are obtained legitimately, care must be taken not to identify children whose welfare is affected, or who are involved in sex crime or, the Codebook notes, who are featured only because of their parents’ crime or notoriety (the extent to which parents keep children out of the limelight should be taken into account).
Exceptional circumstances are required to justify the publication of a photograph of (or information about) a child in the public interest – such as to over-ride the normally paramount interests of the child. Even where the very high threshold is met, the intrusion must still be proportionate and the publication of the picture must be strictly necessary.
In an updated section on social networking and websites, the PCC stresses that material published without consent can raise privacy concerns, even if freely available online. Republication of ‘publicly available’ personal information is not inherently justified. Journalists are advised to consider: how personal is the information; how accessible the material was to third parties and what steps the individual had taken to restrict access to an online profile; whether the individual knew that the material was being used more widely; whether the person was responsible for uploading it; and what public interest there is in publishing it. Where there is a risk that sensitive information or images concern a child under the age of 16, the PCC has ruled that the responsibility is on the publisher to establish the age of the person involved, and if necessary to obtain consent. In 2010, the PCC ruled that the publication on a paper’s website of an email from a girl, whom it incorrectly assumed to be a sixth-former, in which she made reference to her own sexual health, fell foul of the standards expected of the paper. The girl was 14 and her father complained that she had not sent the email and that her account may have been hacked (Mr Ravin Soobadoo v Wanstead and Woodford Guardian).
Finally, of particular interest as the European Court considers Mr Mosley’s submissions on the adequacy of privacy protection in this jurisdiction, the Codebook states that although prior notification of subjects is desirable, it should not be obligatory. In the PCC’s view, it would be impracticable, often unnecessary, impossible to achieve, and could jeopardise legitimate investigations. Care must be taken to establish the truth of a story but where there is no doubt about the truth it is unlikely that a failure to notify will lead to a breach of the Code.