Online complaints and the PCC
In February 2007, the remit of the PCC was extended to include audio-visual material appearing on newspaper and magazine websites. The PCC was already responsible for the regulation of the editorial content of publications’ websites (and has been since 1997), and the remit extension was a logical step in ensuring that the set of standards for audio-visual material were the same as for other editorial content.
The PCC has now been receiving complaints in this area for a little over a year. This presents the opportunity for the Commission to draw together its experience in online regulation, primarily in regard to audio-visual content, but also more broadly than that.
It is notable that in 2007, for the first time, the PCC received more complaints about online versions of articles (56%) than hard-copy versions (44%). This may be due to the fact that it is more convenient for readers to complain online and provide a link to the article under complaint. Furthermore, in 2007, newspapers – with the Commission’s encouragement – have increasingly advertised the PCC’s services online, providing clear signposting for those making a complaint.
Since February 2007, the PCC has only received a handful of complaints about audio-visual material. However, they generally conform to a particular pattern: they relate to the area of privacy; and they comprise video taken and submitted by non-journalists, which is employed to illustrate stories about individuals’ conduct.
Almost invariably, such material has raised possible breaches of Clause 3 (Privacy) or 6 (Children), as it has been published without the consent of those who feature in it. The test for the Commission – as it should for editors – has often come down to whether there was a sufficient public interest to justify any resultant intrusion.
The Hamilton Advertiser ran a video supplied by a pupil, who had filmed her unruly maths class on her mobile phone to explain her poor results to her parents. This video identified other children in the class without consent. While the subject matter of the story – that classroom discipline was allegedly so lax it was affecting pupils’ performance – was clearly in the public interest, it was not so great as to override the rights of the other pupils in the class. The Commission considered that the newspaper, if it wished to use this material, should have taken steps to conceal the identities of the children or obtained proper consent. The decision to upload the video to the website in full raised a breach of the Code.
The Mail on Sunday illustrated a story, about the conduct on holiday of the family of the Duchess of York, with a video clip of the Duchess taken by a fellow-guest inside the place where she was staying. The newspaper resolved the complaint, donating money to charity and ensuring the material would not be republished.
In A Man v Northwich Guardian, a father complained that the newspaper had carried an uploaded video, taken from YouTube, which showed youths (including his son) throwing fire bombs at a freight train and setting it alight. His son was under sixteen, and the complainant regarded publication as an intrusion. The Commission took the common-sense view that exposing serious antisocial behaviour of this nature was in the public interest and a legitimate journalistic exercise. The newspaper was entitled to run the full footage, and identify the perpetrators.
The overarching points that arise from these complaints are: the Commission expects editors to examine the full extent of any footage supplied to it, taking into consideration the manner in which it has been obtained; they should then ensure that any intrusive element can be properly justified in the public interest, or removed before publication.
The PCC has only received one complaint about AV material that has been commissioned by a newspaper (and supplied by working journalists). This appeared in The Guardian, and was a Reuters report on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The complaint related to the accuracy of one of the terms used in the report. The Commission found no breach of the Code.
As is clear from the above, the primary area of AV complaint relates to material provided not by journalists but by readers. The Commission’s policy is that, as soon as an editor makes a decision to publish material, he or she is assuming responsibility for its content and the manner in which it was obtained. This places a responsibility on the editor to make appropriate checks on material before it is placed online or in the paper.
However, comments by users – which now appear at the end of many articles – cannot often be pre-moderated in this way. The PCC is able to rule upon complaints about user comments only if two conditions are met: the online editor or moderator is made aware of any problems and then exercises “editorial control” by allowing the material to remain online; the complaint raises an issue under the terms of the Code.
While the PCC has received around 50 complaints over the year about users comments, a tiny percentage have fallen within its jurisdiction. Most relate to issues of taste and decency, rather than the Code, and most are resolved by the take-down procedures of the websites. It is possible, though, that an editor – by allowing material in breach of the Code to remain published, having been informed of its existence – could fall foul of the PCC in this area.
The Commission recognises that newspapers’ archives form an important resource of information and represent a historical record dating back several years. They also represent a large body of material that is being contemporaneously published in the present.
As a result, it has made clear that it is possible to complain about material that is freely available on a newspaper’s website, even if the piece was not originally published within the last two months. However, the Commission will have regard for the length of time that has elapsed between the original publication of the article and the complaint. This is because complaints are most appropriately investigated while circumstances remain fresh in the minds of those involved. Indeed supporting evidence – such as reporters’ notes – is less likely to be available when it relates to a matter that took place a long time before a complaint has been lodged.
A long delay will therefore have an impact on the extent to which the Commission can reach a finding on the merits of the case. It will also affect the possible action necessary from a publication to resolve the complaint appropriately. The Commission will take into consideration the circumstances accounting for the delay being lodged (including whether a complaint was possible at the time of original publication).