Report of the Charter Commissioner 2010
Annual Report of the Charter Commissioner
by Lt Gen Sir Michael Willcocks KCB CVO
- 2010 marked my first full year in the post of Charter Commissioner for the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). Although there was discussion of the limits of this role in the context of the Independent Governance Review of the Commission, which I cover below, my function has remained that of considering those instances where complainants, having received a decision from the PCC, were dissatisfied with the way in which the Commission had handled the matter.
- This year has seen a marked increase in the number of complaints I received compared to last year: 63 as opposed to 35 in 2009. This total represents approximately 1.8% of those cases that fell within the PCCs remit to consider (1% in 2009). Once again, although complainants invariably cited "handling" as the cause of their grievance, in only five cases was this absolutely so: all the remaining 58 mixed complaints over handling matters with those of the Commission's decision itself. In every instance I was able to study the full case file and to discuss the issues raised with the Director and staff of the PCC where necessary.
- In 15 cases, the complainants sought clarification of the PCC's decision. In those cases where it was simply a matter of lack of familiarity with, or misunderstanding of, the Commission's composition, procedures, or powers, I was able to clear up the issue myself. There were three cases, for instance, where I was able to explain the Commission's stance on third party rulings. Where, however, a complaint involved seeking a better understanding of the Commission's reasoning behind its decision, then I referred it back to the PCC for it to elaborate directly with the complainant. The Director of the Commission invariably agreed to do so in such cases.
- There were a worrying number of cases, 11 in all, where serious delay was incurred before the complaint was brought to the Commission for resolution. These delays, running sometimes into weeks, were almost invariably caused by the newspaper or magazine, against which the complaint had been made, failing to respond to the PCC's request for answers to complainants' concerns or for additional information. It is made quite clear to the editors that a response time of no more than seven days is sought for this process but this is frequently ignored, despite repeated prompting by the Commission. There are, of course, sometimes valid reasons for the delay, but I recommend that the PCC continues to stress to Editors the need for timeliness of reply.
- In many instances complainants sought reassurance that all the views, concerns and information that they had provided were indeed seen in full by the Commission before it reached a decision on their case. There were, in addition, four direct accusations of bias by the PCC towards the industry. Having full access to all the correspondence and information in a case and the having the ability to track the deliberations of members of the Commission, I was able to assure complainants of the absolute impartiality of the PCC and the thoroughness with which it considers every case. Indeed, I am constantly struck by the efforts made by the PCC to reach satisfactory outcomes for complainants.
- There were five occasions where aspects of the handling of a case by the PCC were at fault, and in every instance the complainant received an apology or an explanation which satisfied them. I had only once, at the request of a complainant, to seek a legal view on a PCC decision, which subsequently was upheld.
- The Independent Governance Review of the PCC, which reported in July 2010, recommended that my title be changed to that of the Independent Reviewer. I welcome this re-naming, which became effective on 1st January 2011, as I believe it will make my role clearer to the public. The Review also recommended, whilst agreeing with my view that a single individual cannot be allowed to overturn the decisions of 17 Commission members, that the process of accountability as embodied in the role should be strengthened, allowing the function to be augmented to be able to assess objections about substance as well as process. This was an important recommendation, but one that needs to be applied with care.
- I believe it to be essential to make it clear that the Independent Reviewer is not tasked with overturning PCC decisions. Currently, however, whilst considering the handling of all complaints brought to me in detail, I do also recommend that the Commission might re-consider cases where I believe there are grounds for so doing. In 2010 this concerned seven cases only. The Commission has responded positively in every instance and, although none have resulted in a change to the Commission's findings, the complainants do feel that their concerns are being fully and sympathetically considered: they often receive further clarification of the logic behind decisions, and sometimes an apology. I am content, therefore, that my current modus operandi works to the benefit of complainants without exceeding the limits of my role.
- The most unsatisfactory issue that I faced this year was a complaint against the Daily Express which was long delayed, again by the newspaper's failure to respond to the PCC, and then was unable to be dealt with because of the withdrawal of the Northern & Shell Titles from the press self-regulatory system. This was most unfortunate, but it remains a structural issue for the industry outside my remit.
- Finally, once again, I wish to record my thanks to the members of the PCC and particularly their staff for their unfailing patience, courtesy and helpfulness in dealing with my many queries and demands over the course of 2010. I continue to be impressed by the work that goes into ensuring that complaints to the Commission are fully, properly and sympathetically considered. I look forward to continuing to ensure that any cases brought to me are, as I hope my new title makes clear, indeed independently reviewed.
Sir Michael Willcocks
04 April 2011