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    A law unto itself

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    Campaign joint chair, Julian Petley, sees dangers in the PCC's exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. In this Guardian article, published in February 2005, he argues the case for removing this exemption.
    7/8/05: Journalists have been at the forefront of those calling for a Freedom of Information Act, and are rightly concerned at the catalogue of  obfuscation and evasion which requests for disclosure under the new Act have encountered. And yet the body which regulates their profession, the Press Complaints Commission, looks set, with the connivance of the DCMS, to evade the Act altogether.

    Last year, a working group within the Department for Constitutional Affairs was set up to determine which private organisations could be considered as exercising "functions of a public nature" under Section 5 of the Act. It drew up a list of criteria that could be used to identify such bodies, and a list was proposed by government departments.

     

    The PCC is conspicuous by its absence. However, one of the working group's papers makes it clear that the PCC could be defined as a public body for the purposes of the Act. Firstly, it suggests that bodies may perform public functions "if they regulate commercial and professional activities to ensure compliance with proper standards", deploying techniques such as rule-making, adjudication and other forms of dispute resolution. Step forward the PCC's Code of Practice. Swiftly followed by its Annual Review 2003, which announces that "much is rightly made of the commission's success in resolving disputes.

     

    The commission recognises that there will be some cases where only an adjudication is appropriate, but on the whole it believes that its role is to negotiate amicable settlements to cases where possible". QED.

    Secondly, the document notes that the courts have recognised a non-statutory regulatory body as exercising a public function, if, "but for the existence of the body, the government would inevitably have intervened to regulate the activity in question". As Geoffrey Robertson and Andrew Nicol argue in Media Law: "The PCC is exercising a recognised public adjudicative function, as a government-brokered alternative either to a Calcutt-devised complaints tribunal or to a privacy law introduced by an act of parliament." Here again, it is the PCC itself that has provided the grounds for considering it a public body for the purposes of the Act. For example, its aims and objectives set out in its first annual report in 1991 include: "to secure support from the public, parliament and the press for maintaining self-regulation of the press". And shortly after his appointment as chair of the PCC, Lord Wakeham told Press Gazette in 1995 that "it's the task of the PCC and the industry to make [the] system of self-regulation so successful that nobody can seriously want to pursue the statutory option".

    The advantages of the PCC being considered a public authority are obvious. I recently brought together a number of accounts by dissatisfied complainants to the PCC, and a recurrent criticism was that it was a highly opaque organisation. Many complainants particularly disliked the way it stitched up behind-the-scenes deals with offending newspapers and then presented these to com plainants on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Were the PCC to be considered a public authority in this context, then complainants unhappy at their treatment could ask to see all correspondence relating to their complaints in order to find out what the PCC had been up to on their behalf. The same option would be open to any journalists dissatisfied with the PCC's handling of a complaint against an article by them.

    On the other hand, the disadvantages to the PCC are clear. To apply the FOI to the PCC might reveal evidence of brief and unsatisfactory consideration of cases, conflicts of interest, and communications with newspapers which have not been divulged to the complainant. It might, for example, reveal the private communication between Lord Wakeham and St James's Palace as it attempted to "protect" princes William and Harry from the press.

    Nor is the PCC likely to welcome a measure which would make it easier for its critics to gather further evidence of what they see as the unsatisfactory way in which it handles complaints. Given the considerable energy expended by Lord Wakeham in trying to exempt the press from the Human Rights Act, one suspects that his successor, Sir Christopher Meyer, has assiduously lobbied the DCMS to ensure that the PCC is Freedom of Information-proof. However the department denies having any dialogue on this. Thus the only course of action now is to make a request for disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. One can almost hear the shredders whirring ...

    The reality is probably that the PCC is not a public authority for the purposes of the Act because the DCMS has refused to propose it as such. To suggest that allowing complainants to find out how the PCC has dealt with their cases is a form of state intervention that might imperil democracy is to stretch the bounds of credulity. The PCC was worried that, were it considered a "public authority" for the purposes of the Human Rights Act, then, as Richard Shannon says in his history of the Commission, A Press Free and Responsible, the courts would ultimately be able "to confer upon it disciplinary powers and thus make it into their definition of a truly effective regulatory body".

    And so one suspects the real reason for the PCC's exclusion from the list of public authorities lies in the government's desire to avoid a row with the press in the run-up to an election. Thus dissatisfied complainants to the PCC are denied an opportunity to cast light on its murky workings. Still, openness and accountability in a press organisation - that would never do, would it?

     

    Julian Petley is joint chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom



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    Last modified: Sunday, August 7, 2005


    Previous free speech & censorship stories


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    Open the Books!
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    IFEX handbook on free expression campaigns
    A message from the McLibel two
    Using FoI
    Freedom At Last?
    Congratulations
    Lobbying, FoI and News International
  • Notices

    Events & Announcements

    Miners strike - Thatcher's lies and still no justice


    DATELINE: 25/3/14
    When the 1984 Cabinet papers concerning the miners strike of 30 years ago, were released this January, a gripping account was laid bare of the secret steps taken by Margaret Thatcher to break the strike, and the lies told to the nation. As the then Prime Minister micromanaged the government's authoritarian response to the strikers, including the brutal police responses, and hiding the truth surrounding the planned number of pit closure, a new book reveals there's still no justice.
    » Read on


    You are invited to a screening of Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary,


    DATELINE: 4/4/14

    A film by STEPHEN VITTORIA (Documentary/USA 2012.Wednesday 30 April 2014 at 6 p.m.School of Law, University of Westminster, 4, Little Titchfield Street, London W1W 7UW.The documentary follows the extraordinary journey of the journalist and revolutionary Mumia Abu- Jamal, who was imprisoned in solitary confinement on death row in Pennsylvania, USA for 30 years.The screening will be followed by a panel discussion and Q & A.The event is free but RSVP is required. Please RSVP Nicola Laing at N.Laing@westminster.ac.uk  


    Public Meeting Tuesday 29 April


    DATELINE: 31/3/14
    Revealing Truths - Just how free is the press today?
    7.30 pm- 9.00pm
    Friends Meeting House, Mount Street, Manchester.
    Speakers: Granville Williams (CPBF)
    Stephen Kingston (Salford Star editor)Free entry.
    Organised by the Mary Quaile Club
    http://maryquaileclub.wordpress.com
    email: maryquaileclub@gmail.com 
    » Read on
    Diary date Saturday 21 June


    DATELINE: 10/3/14
    CPBF Annual General Meeting
    10am – 12.30pm NUJ HQ, 308 Gray's Inn Road
    London  WC1. (Tube/trains Kings Cross/St Pancras.)
    Election of national council, report on activities, debates.
    Deadlines - Nominations for the national council 6 June.
    AGM motions 13 June. Further details CPBF office.
    Email freepress@cpbf.org.uk 
    » Read on
    DOWNLOAD FREEPRESS NOW

    DATELINE: 26/3/10
    Download Freepress in PDF, ePub or mobi format. Issues 197 and 198 are now available in PDF format only.
    » Read on
    MEDIA FOR ALL CONFERENCE

    DATELINE: 26/3/10
    Papers from the Media for All Conference


    MEDIA MANIFESTO

    DATELINE: 26/3/10
    The media’s job is to inform and entertain us but we rely on them too to tell us what our rulers and representatives are up to. In the run-up to the Iraq war the government used spin and disinformation in the media to create panic and mislead people. The truth is coming out now, but we need stronger, more independent media to be able to scrutinise governments and make informed choices.
    » Read on

  • Previous stories

Extras

Campaign blogs:

The Miller's tale

posted by: Jonathan Heawood


DATELINE: 5/4/14
Maria Miller (pictured) has been found culpable by an MPs' committee of over claiming expenses on her London home, and of failing to co-operate with the committee's inquiry. She has been asked to apologise to the House of Commons and she has duly apologised, albeit tersely. Her political fate hangs in the balance....

» Read on


London Live goes live

posted by: Jonathan Hardy


DATELINE: 31/3/14
London's new local television channel, London Live is due to launch on the 31st of March. Its owner also owns the city's largest circulation local newspaper and two national newspapers. University of East London's Jonathan Hardy discusses the implications for media plurality arguing that the key question is how the new service will be regulated....

» Read on


Still settling scores

posted by: Granville Williams


DATELINE: 31/3/14
It is always educative to get out and about a bit. I've certainly been doing that this month promoting my new book Settling Scores: The Media, the Police and the Miners' Strike (http://www.cpbf.org.uk//) published for the 30th anniversary of the miners' strike....

» Read on


Newspapers exploit Lawrence case

posted by: Brian Cathcart


DATELINE: 16/3/14

We could be forgiven for thinking it was a default procedure these days at the Daily Mail: when an editorial writer gets to the final few paragraphs about almost any subject, he or she strains to find a way to blame it all on Sir Brian Leveson....

» Read on


Absent voice of Arthur Scargill

posted by: Nicholas Jones


DATELINE: 7/2/14
Margaret Thatcher's cabinet papers for the 1984-5 miners' strike have raised as many questions as answers - not least about the behaviour of the South Yorkshire Police - but once again a missing voice has been that of Arthur Scargill....

» Read on


Euro-electorate in the dark

posted by: Granville Williams


DATELINE: 28/1/14
As the European Elections loom on 22 May 2014 how well-informed will the UK electorate be when they put their crosses on the ballot papers? Not very, I’m afraid....

» Read on


A Pantomime of Deceit and Disinformation

posted by: Julian Petley


DATELINE: 16/12/13
By rejecting the Royal Charter, the majority of the British press has  done exactly the opposite of what it claims it wants to achieve: keep  politicians out of press regulation......

» Read on


Journalists in the dock

posted by: Justin Schlosberg


DATELINE: 6/12/13
A little over two months ago, the Daily Mail ran an editorial describing the leader of the Labour Party's father as 'the man who hated Britain'. Although that article was widely criticised in the broader media and by politicians of all colours, it is difficult to imagine that Keith Vaz would have posed his question had that article never appeared....

» Read on


Justice and journalism both on trial

posted by: Nicholas Jones


DATELINE: 29/11/13
Independent front page October 2013As the prosecution continues to present its evidence at the Old Bailey in the case alleging phone hacking and the bribing of public officials, it is becoming increasingly clear that not only is British justice on trial but also journalism itself....

» Read on


Lobbyists: seven key myths

posted by: Tamasin Cave, Spinwatch


DATELINE: 20/11/13
This month's Lords debate on the Lobbying Bill included a statement by Lord Wallace for the government on why it is refusing to introduce a more comprehensive register of lobbyists....

» Read on


How Twitter tames the Mail

posted by: Nicholas Jones


DATELINE: 29/10/13
While the Daily Mail's editor Paul Dacre continues to lick his wounds after a mauling at the hands of what he derides as the "Twitter mob", his headline writers have had no alternative but to accept the power of social media....

» Read on


When Harry Met Rupert

posted by: Barry White


DATELINE: 28/10/13
Rupert MurdochOn 22 October I went to hear the House of Lords' Communications Comm- ittee take evidence on media plurality from Sir Harold Evans, former editor of The Times and Sunday Times. He was followed by representatives from the Media Reform Coalition and the internet campaigning organisation Avaaz....

» Read on


"How much?" "What's it worth?": Murdoch's local news legacy

posted by: Nicholas Jones


DATELINE: 21/10/13

Across the country local press reporters will have every reason to reflect on the long-term impact of Rupert Murdoch's forty-year stewardship of some of Britain's most popular daily and Sunday newspapers....

» Read on


Digital audience for local press heralds a financial 'tipping point' in advertising revenue

posted by: Nicholas Jones


DATELINE: 14/10/13

After a decade or more of cuts and job losses a growing digital audience is holding out the prospect that local newspapers might soon be reaching a tipping point when online income outweighs the loss of print advertising....

» Read on


Did 'fact finder' Lord Justice Leveson overlook cash payments for news stories?

posted by: Nicholas Jones


DATELINE: 11/10/13
In one of the tetchiest exchanges during a select committee hearing before MPs, Lord Justice Leveson refused to get drawn into the way some tabloid newspapers continue to promise pay for information for news stories – a practice which represents one of the starkest ethical divides among British journalists....

» Read on


McBride's willing accomplices escape scrutiny

posted by: Nicholas Jones


DATELINE: 7/10/13
All too many political journalists were as complicit as the ex-spin doctor Damian McBride in helping to propagate his smear stories about the ministerial colleagues and opponents of the former Chancellor and Prime Minister Gordon Brown....

» Read on


The enemies within at the BBC

posted by: Victor Noir


DATELINE: 22/9/13
The name of the operation is Rock the BBC. Bother them, get them on Prozac, looking over their shoulders all the time. MPs and government and rival media are at it all the time....

» Read on


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Events & announcements


You are invited to a screening of Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary,


DATELINE: 4/4/14

A film by STEPHEN VITTORIA (Documentary/USA 2012.Wednesday 30 April 2014 at 6 p.m.School of Law, University of Westminster, 4, Little Titchfield Street, London W1W 7UW.The documentary follows the extraordinary journey of the journalist and revolutionary Mumia Abu- Jamal, who was imprisoned in solitary confinement on death row in Pennsylvania, USA for 30 years.The screening will be followed by a panel discussion and Q & A.The event is free but RSVP is required. Please RSVP Nicola Laing at N.Laing@westminster.ac.uk  


Public Meeting Tuesday 29 April


DATELINE: 31/3/14
Revealing Truths - Just how free is the press today?
7.30 pm- 9.00pm
Friends Meeting House, Mount Street, Manchester.
Speakers: Granville Williams (CPBF)
Stephen Kingston (Salford Star editor)Free entry.
Organised by the Mary Quaile Club
http://maryquaileclub.wordpress.com
email: maryquaileclub@gmail.com 
» Read on
Diary date Saturday 21 June


DATELINE: 10/3/14
CPBF Annual General Meeting
10am – 12.30pm NUJ HQ, 308 Gray's Inn Road
London  WC1. (Tube/trains Kings Cross/St Pancras.)
Election of national council, report on activities, debates.
Deadlines - Nominations for the national council 6 June.
AGM motions 13 June. Further details CPBF office.
Email freepress@cpbf.org.uk 
» Read on
DOWNLOAD FREEPRESS NOW

DATELINE: 26/3/10
Download Freepress in PDF, ePub or mobi format. Issues 197 and 198 are now available in PDF format only.
» Read on
MEDIA FOR ALL CONFERENCE

DATELINE: 26/3/10
Papers from the Media for All Conference


MEDIA MANIFESTO

DATELINE: 26/3/10
The media’s job is to inform and entertain us but we rely on them too to tell us what our rulers and representatives are up to. In the run-up to the Iraq war the government used spin and disinformation in the media to create panic and mislead people. The truth is coming out now, but we need stronger, more independent media to be able to scrutinise governments and make informed choices.
» Read on