Baroness Buscombe - Chairman

Baroness Buscombe
Chairman

 

 

About Peta Buscombe
Baroness Buscombe took up her position as Chairman of the PCC in April 2009. She is a barrister and has acted as legal adviser and counsel to various organisations including Barclays Bank International, New York and Barclays Bank Plc, London. Most recently she was the Chief Executive of The Advertising Association.

I am delighted to pen this opening to the Annual Review. 2009 was a big year for the PCC and 2010 has continued at an even more hectic pace.

I'd like to use this opportunity to take stock, reflect on what the PCC is and what it is for and plot my vision for the future. I began my role at the PCC in April last year and I have to say my first impressions were of a dedicated hardworking staff supporting a diverse and diligent Commission. Neither staff nor Commissioners get the recognition or appreciation they should in performing work crucial to industry, society and the public. The onus is therefore on us to increase understanding and recognition of the work we do, to demonstrate our credibility in performing a valuable public service.

It was a fascinating first year. To listen to and read most coverage of the PCC, you would think it was completely and utterly dominated by the ongoing Select Committee inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel, and controversy over a notorious article by Jan Moir which concerned the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately. Of course, these were both big issues but we were extremely busy handling thousands of other complaints as well.

The Jan Moir judgment was a difficult but important case for the Commission to deal with, not least given the large number of complaints we received: over 25,000 from concerned members of the public, in addition to a complaint from Stephen Gately's civil partner Andrew Cowles. At the heart of this story was the tragic death of a young man which had affected a large number of people, and the PCC considered that the newspaper had to accept responsibility for the distress it had caused. However, while it acknowledged the depth of public feeling, the Commission had to consider the complaint in the wider context of press freedom, which is a fundamental component of a working democracy.

In the end, the Commission considered that newspapers had the right to publish opinions that many might find unpalatable and offensive, and that it would not be proportionate, in this case, to rule against the free expression of the columnist's views on a subject that was the focus of intense public attention. This was a difficult decision to make but I believe we made the right one. The price of freedom of expression is that commentators and columnists will say things with which other people may not agree, may find offensive or may consider to be inappropriate.

Let me turn to an issue arising from the Select Committee inquiry, that of phone hacking. Since the issue first emerged in 2006, the PCC's role has been to seek to ensure a change in practice at the News of the World and establish best practice for the industry as a whole. We have publicly emphasised that we strongly deplore this form of subterfuge, and I am happy to do so again. Our intention has been to make sure that proper processes and structures are in place to help militate against its recurrence. Rest assured that, should material evidence appear of ongoing phone hacking, the PCC will act promptly.

It is worth me saying that much more of the PCC's time in 2009 was devoted to the meticulous, thorough and time-consuming handling of complaints, whether they came from celebrities, politicians or – perhaps most importantly – from ordinary members of the public. The PCC is very much a public service, and I want to take this chance to outline how the system works.

Each complaint which falls within the remit of the PCC is handled by a dedicated complaints officer. They attempt to settle the complaint by mediation and assiduously contact editor and complainant to reach a resolution. If it proves impossible to resolve the complaint, the Commission evaluates the case. It decides whether there has, in fact, been a breach of the Editors' Code of Practice. If the Commission concludes that the Code has been breached (and the breach has not been – or cannot be – remedied) it upholds the complaint in a public ruling. The newspaper or magazine is obliged to publish the critical ruling in full and with due prominence.

There are two fallacies about this process which our critics raise again and again. The first is that the PCC does not act in regard to many complaints. Critics claim that we only uphold 1 complaint in every 250 cases, or some other similarly large number. As our Annual Review shows, this is a misleading statistic. The PCC receives thousands of emails and letters every year, but many do not raise substantive issues and cannot be taken forward. It would be wrong to use these as the base figure for any comparison. Last year we made over 1600 individual rulings. In those cases, we required remedial action or criticised the editor over 40% of the time. The real figure that matters is 2 in 5, not 1 in 250.

The price of freedom of expression is that commentators and columnists will say things with which other people may not agree

The second fallacy is that the PCC is toothless. An upheld complaint is a serious outcome for any editor and puts down a marker for future press behaviour. Parliamentary Select Committee inquiries have concluded that standards of reporting have risen markedly since the PCC was established in 1991. This is because the PCC develops and raises press standards by ruling on strict criteria of inaccuracy, intrusion, harassment and so on and by establishing case law and the acceptable boundaries of practice. The precedents that have been laid down over the years act as a practical guide to editors in newsrooms across the country.

Editors are held accountable for their actions. The fact that breaches of the Code can lead to public criticism means that editors have to consider the key ethical issues before publishing. We see this happening every day when calls for advice come in from editors to complaints staff at the PCC. We regularly hear about stories that are not published, intrusions that do not take place, thanks to the terms of the Code and the decisions of the PCC. And we go out and spell out the key principles to those in the industry: from students at the beginning of their careers, at whose courses we lecture, to the working journalists who come to our regular seminars.

The PCC was set up to show – and has shown – that non-statutory self-regulation can work effectively. There have always been numerous laws which apply to the press, such as libel, contempt of court, copyright and so on; and these have since been joined by countless others. A free press is a central component of a healthy democracy, and the undesirability of a statutory press regulator is very clear. For good reason, therefore, it was left to the press to create an independent body to balance the public's right to know against respect for individuals' privacy. There was, and is, an understandable reluctance on the part of politicians – as shown by the recent Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Report – to empower a State agency to decide what sort of information should be published or discussed in a democracy.

Of course there is room for improvement and that is why we welcome constructive suggestions from the Select Committee to improve the PCC system. We are certainly not complacent: one of my first acts as Chairman, several months before the Select Committee reported, was to set up an independent review of the governance of the PCC. We await that Review's findings with interest and pledge to do everything we can to strengthen the PCC, its structures and processes. We will also continue dialogue with the Select Committee and recognise our shared goal of an effective self-regulatory system resulting in improved media standards.

The PCC will embrace commercial and technological change and react to it creatively, imaginatively and flexibly. It is clear that globalisation and digitalisation of media are powerful forces favouring self-regulation. So our priority is to do all we can to reassure politicians, opinion-formers and – most importantly of all – the public that we are robust enough and responsible enough to be trusted.

Above all our commitment is to transparency, openness and accountability. While there is a strong element of confidentiality to the work we perform as an organisation, we want to become as accountable as we can. We will. While we currently feel it would be inappropriate for the PCC to release personal information and be subject to the Freedom of Information Act (because we deal with cases relating to individual privacy), we can adopt the spirit behind the provisions of the Act. In that spirit too we are now publishing minutes of Commission meetings. We have a good story to tell and I look forward to telling it in as much detail as we can without compromising individual privacy.

One can't help but notice that the principle of self-regulation has taken a knock recently in reporting of the Parliamentary expenses scandal and the banking crisis. It would be wholly wrong, however, to draw lessons from those unfortunate episodes for regulation of the press. That is because self-regulation (self-imposed restraint on the part of editors) is philosophically the right way to tackle difficult cases which will impact on freedom of expression. Statutory regulation would be too heavy handed; anarchy too dangerous. So the buy in, self-restraint and quality that the PCC system brings should not be underestimated. It also brings commercial advantage to newspaper and magazine publishers, who can demonstrate to readers their adherence to a set of standards.

I hope that the next year will see the service adapt and improve further. I hope too that we will see greater understanding and appreciation of the public service the PCC provides.


Baroness Buscombe
Chairman

 

www.pcc.org.uk

For requests for interviews with Peta Buscombe please contact the PCC's Director of Communications Jonathan Collett on 020 7831 0022 or by email: jonathan.collett@pcc.org.uk

Press office: 07740 896805

How to complain

You can make a complaint simply by filling in the complaints form on our website. For more information about the complaints process please visit:
www.pcc.org.uk/complaints/process.html

Complaints have to be judged against the Editors' Code of Practice. Before making your complaint we strongly advise that you consult the Code, which you can find at:
www.pcc.org.uk/cop/practice.html

The PCC publishes its ruling on every complaint that is upheld (and on some that are not). To see what the Commission has previously considered to be a breach of the Code please go to:
www.pcc.org.uk/cases/adjudicated.html

Useful information

Our address: Press Complaints Commission
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2010 Press Complaints Commission