Meet the Charter Commissioner - Sir Brian Cubbon
Sir Brian Cubbon has been the PCC's Charter Commissioner since the role was instituted in 2004. Rather like an ombudsman, he investigates complaints about the PCC's handling of cases and reviews its standard of service to the public. Such scrutiny adds an important layer of accountability to the Commission's work.
What kind of issues have you found in your investigations?
Overall, I have found that the PCC and its Complaints Officers handle the large number of complaints they deal with very well. However, as with any service organisation, there are always a few points that can be improved. Last year, out of a total of 47 complaints I received, I found 6 which required the PCC to undertake further work.
For example, in one case the editor had not given an adequate reply to all of the points raised by the complainant. Having sought further information from the editor, I was able to give a fuller reply to the complainant. In other cases I was able to give a fuller explanation of PCC practice; eg the practical objections to admitting complaints from third parties. These might sound like quite small matters but they are of course very important to those directly affected by them.
What has been your most challenging case to date?
A couple of years ago I dealt with a very complicated case about a report in a newspaper which had stated that the father of a South American politician had been wanted for extradition to the USA before his death. The newspaper had relied partly on a confidential source, who claimed to have seen the warrant of arrest for extradition. This was denied by the complainant who produced at a very late stage an official US government denial of the story. The complaint involved wading through a terrific amount of factual analysis and correspondence, which suggested that the denial had not been fully taken on board. I asked the Commission to revisit the matter and the newspaper subsequently published a clarification. Complaints about high-level political matters are definitely some of the hardest to deal with.
Part of your work involves making recommendations about handling issues to the PCC Board. How responsive have you found the Board to be to this and to your role in general?
As I am effectively auditing the Commissioners' work, it is important that I have a good relationship with them. Every recommendation that I have made since I started this job in 2004 has been accepted by the Board, so that is a good sign! I present my findings to Commissioners on an annual basis, which is a useful way of getting ideas for further areas to audit. I think the Board recognises that my role brings an important dimension of accountability to the PCC, which can only enhance its reputation as a decision-making body.
What about editors - to what extent do you think they are learning lessons from complaints dealt with by the PCC and the Charter Commissioner?
Overall I do think that editors are learning from their mistakes - certainly the industry has changed dramatically over the past 10 years, and editors are now much more willing to hold up their hand and admit their mistakes.
The new ‘focus' reports in the PCC newsletters about patterns of resolved complaints are an important way of highlighting particular areas of concern to editors; and of course the PCC does more hands-on training with editors and journalists than ever before. But there are many hundreds of editors up and down the country and to ensure that industry standards are as high as possible, more could be done to ensure that every editor is up-to-speed with PCC decisions and rulings.
How do you think the role of Charter Commissioner compares to similar roles at other regulatory organisations?
I'd say we are ahead of the game. By its very nature, any kind of audit process which deals with ‘service' as a concept can be tricky, as decisions end up coming down to personal judgment. Whenever I talk to people outside the industry about my role, they are always impressed by the PCC's commitment to this kind of scrutiny and to publishing verbatim my annual reports. The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee last year highlighted my role as one of the PCC's strengths.
What are the areas that the industry still needs to tackle?
Our current audit has shown up two main areas: headlines and photographs. More and more, newspapers are publishing ‘illustrative' photographs, where shots of ordinary members of the public - unaware that they have been photographed - are used to depict specific situations. Inevitably, this can lead to dissatisfaction if the caption implies some sort of involvement in the story. I understand that newspapers need photographs, but they have to be presented and interpreted with care.
On headlines, the PCC has sensibly always said that they need to be read in conjunction with the accompanying text rather than taken on a stand-alone basis. However, there are occasions where they can give a misleading impression not borne out by the story itself. Such instances can upset readers greatly.
You are also Chairman of the Charter Compliance Panel. Could you explain what that body does?
The Panel also carries out an audit function. However, instead of responding to individual complainants, it works by identifying specific areas of the PCC's work to assess. This involves auditing the files of all adjudicated complaints; plus a selection of files chosen either by clause of the Code of Practice or type of decision. I am joined on the Panel by Harry Rich, Chief Executive of Make Your Mark, a campaign to promote enterprise. On the basis of recommendations we have made, the PCC has introduced several new practices and drills, which is very positive.
Lastly, how would you define good regulation?
Clear principles which can be explained easily; promptness; dialogue with the complainant; flexibility; and a good relationship with the industry.The Charter Commissioner and the Charter Compliance Panel publish annual reports. These can be accessed via the PCC website here.