Broadcasting and Media Law

"One of the main deficiencies of the print media is its inability to control the publication of materials likely to be damaging to members of the public. Indeed, the absence of any strong regulatory and punitive measures is a clear indication that the print media have a licence to print what they want" A member of the public may have a valid complaint against the press; however such a complaint may come without redress from the law. Alternatively, the individual may have certain protection under the law, however this may prove to be too expensive and therefore court action would be an unsuitable form of seeking redress.

For a while, there has been a need for regulatory bodies that 'overlook' and regulate the actions of the press, without the need for government to intervene, a body that can act as a mediator between the disputing parties. This would provide a cheaper and quicker form of settling a dispute whilst keeping the matter away from the courts. However, this has not come easy, a self-regulatory bodies has been scrutinised over the years by the general public and the government. There are constant threats to the introduction of statutory measures in order to overcome the bodies incompetence in resolving matters and protecting the public from the 'intruding press' and other unacceptable activities.

There was a need for press complaints regulatory as a result of the misbehaviour of the press. Once, every ten years, there have been attempts to regulate the press complaint procedures, in order to tighten up the activities of the industry. The first self-regulatory body of the press came in 1949. However, the press disliked the idea, its effectiveness was questioned and so they introduced a private members bill in 1953, which would impose control from outside the press. The press subsequently acted swiftly in response to this and set up the General Council of Press. However, the General Council had not reached the standards set out by the Royal Commission to 'Administer the Code of Conduct in Accordance with the highest professional standards'.

This generally came about as a result of a lack of funding into the Council, the absence of lay membership and a general lack of relief and enthusiasm in the system. In 1962 an independent chairman was appointed with additional funding and a twenty per cent membership after serious criticism in the system. However, this was not good enough and in 1977 the Royal Commission criticised the Press Council and subsequently made recommendations to the fact that the Council was in desperate need for more lay persons and better funding. Declarations were also laid down on principles concerning privacy and payments, and defined the limits of the press behaviour. Nevertheless, in 1988-89, two Member Bills were introduced into Parliament to address the issue of privacy and the right to reply. The press finally admitted that a complaints commission was needed.

A committee was set up to: "… consider what measures (whether legislative or otherwise) are needed to give further protection to individual privacy from activities of the press and improve recourse for the individual citizen." The press was subsequently given, as a result of the report, one more chance to ensure that a complaints procedure effectively dealt the right to privacy and general complaints. If this was not satisfied within twelve months, then the press would most certainly face legislative controls. The Calcutta Recommendations recommended that the Press Council should be disbanded and the Press Complaints Committee be set up to:

All complaints are dealt with under the Code of Practice. The procedure will go no further if there is no cause of complaint under this code. The objective is to achieve a fast and effective resolution to the matter, thus complaints will only be usually dealt with if they have been lodged within one month of the publication. The complaint must be lodged with the aggrieved and not a third party to the matter. However, those involved in the article may be called upon to comment on the complaint raised. A complaint will not be dealt with if it is currently in the process of litigation.

The press has a certain Code of Practice and Code of Conduct to adhere to. Therefore, editors are responsible for the actions of their journalists employed by their publications. Editors are also expected to co-operate with the PCC as swiftly as possible. Accuracy: Newspapers should take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material; whenever it is recognised that a significant inaccuracy has occurred it should be corrected promptly; an apology should be published whenever appropriate; a newspaper periodical should report accurately the outcome of any action of defamation it is party to.

Opportunity to reply: A fair opportunity to reply to inaccuracies should be given when reasonably called for. Comment, Conjecture and Fact: Although newspapers should be free to be partisan, it should clearly identify what is a comment, fact or conjecture. Privacy: Intrusion and enquiries into an individual's life without consent, whilst they are on private property is not generally acceptable unless it is in the public interest. Private property is defined as any private residence, garden, hospital, hotels etc…

Listening Devices: Journalists making enquiries at hospitals or similar institutions should identify themselves and obtain consent before entering into non-public areas. Misrepresentations: Journalists should not obtain information or pictures through misrepresentations; unless in the public interest, documents should only be removed with the consent of the owner; Subterfuge can only be justified when in the public interest and only, when informed, cannot be obtained through other means. Harassment: Journalists must not obtain information or photographs through intimidation or harassment. Subsequently, unless in the public interest, journalists should not take photographs of persons on private property without their consent, persist in telephoning or remain on property once asked to leave.

Payment of Articles: Payments should not be made for documents to witnesses or parties to criminal proceedings to people engaged in crime including friends or family unless it can be shown that it was in the public interest to do so. Intrusion into Grief or Shock: Where a particular case involves personal grief, enquiries should be made with sympathy and discretion. Innocent Relatives and Friends: Unless it can be shown that it was in the public interest, the press should avoid identifying family and friends of persons convicted or accused of a crime.

Children: Journalists must not interview or photograph children under the age of sixteen on subjects involving personal welfare in the absence of a parent of guardian or without their consent. Similarly, children should not be approached or photographed whilst at school without the permission of the school authorities. Children in Sex Cases: The press must not identify children under the age of sixteen who are involved in cases concerning sexual offences whatsoever. Court restrictions also apply and the journalist may be held in contempt under the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

Victims of Crime: the press must not publish anything that would identify a victim of sexual assault, unless they are free to do so by the law. Discrimination: The press should avoid discrimination in their reports. Financial Journalism: Journalists must not use financial information for their own profit in advance of the general public and should, therefore, refrain from writing about shares in which they or their family have significant interest in.

Confidential Information: Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential information. The PCC is not a statutory body and, therefore, does not have the power to impose fines on those who are in breach of the Codes. However, it is argued that adjudications are far more effective and are most certainly quicker and cheaper than the alternatives. If the PCC were empowered to impose fines it would mean statutory intervention, something that the press have avoided to date. Additionally, if fines were used as a means of punishing the offender, it is argued that this will have limited effect as most large newspapers would prefer to pay the fine rather than not publish the offending article. Whereas, having to publish an apology causes the editor embarrassment and potential loss of earnings through advertising.

One of the central benefits of press self regulation is that it combines high standards of ethical reporting with a free press. Statutory controls would undermine the freedom of the press – and would not be so successful in raising standards. A privacy law, too, would be unworkable and an unacceptable infringement on press freedom. It would be of potential use only to the rich and powerful who would be prepared to use the Courts to enforce their rights – and would be misused by the corrupt to stop newspapers from reporting in the public interest. Self regulation has none of the problems of the law – yet still provides a system in which editors are committed to the highest possible ethical standards.