The press complaints commission

 

That is a sign not of the weakness of self-regulation – but its strength. All those which were critical of a newspaper were published in full and with due prominence by the publication concerned. As well as dealing with complaints, the PCC deals with a substantial number of calls from members of the public about our service and about the Code. In 1999 they dealt with over 4,500 telephone inquiries. This was an encouraging sign of the accessibility of the Commission to members of the public.

The success of the PCC continues to underline the strength of effective and independent self-regulation over any form of legal or statutory control. Legal controls would be useless to those members of the public who could not afford legal action – and would mean protracted delays before complainants received redress. In their system of self-regulation, effective redress is free and quick. The Right Hon Lord Wakeham FCA, JP is the chairman of the PCC. He was Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords from 1992 to 1994.

He was the Secretary of State for Energy from 1989 to 1992, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 1988-9, and finally Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons 1987-8 Government Chief Whip 1983-7. There are 16 members in all: the chairman, 8 Public Members and 7 Press Members. Neither the Chairman nor the Public members are allowed to be connected to the press business. The Press Members must be experienced at senior level. Another interesting fact is that the PCC is funded by the Press industry.

1999: Tony and Cherie Blair v the Mail on Sunday Complaint: A front page headline – Parents’ fury over Blair’s in school place row – claimed that the prime minister’s daughter had unfairly gained a place at the Sacred Heart high school in Hammersmith at the expense of other children. The prime minister and Mrs Blair were not poor, the leader commented, and could have paid for private education instead. Verdict: The complaint was upheld, as there was no evidence of special treatment in her favour. In breach of clauses on accuracy and on children.

1997: The press v the PCC on Princess Diana The code of practice was tightened after the death in 1997 of Princess Diana. Guidelines on long-lens photography banned the paparazzi from private property, including restaurants and churches. It was the first time the PCC had defined precisely what constituted private property. Lord Wakeham made it clear that celebrities bathing on public beaches could not expect to be off limits, hence the continuing use of paparazzi pictures of celebrities such as Michael Winner and Sir David Frost displaying their paunches on the seashores.

New controls on doorstepping were also introduced, stopping hordes of journalists (and particularly TV cameras) camping at private addresses in the hope of getting an interview. 2000: Prince William v OK! Magazine Complaint: The publication of photographs taken of the prince in Chile during his gap year despite the PCC’s ruling in the wake of Princess Diana’s death. The editor argued that the jungles of Chile were a public place and thus the photos were not taken as a result of persistent pursuit. Verdict: Upheld.

The PCC deemed that Prince William was not in a place where photographers would normally have been and must, therefore, have been followed there by foreign paparazzi. 2000: Prince of Wales v the Sunday Times Complaint: Prince Charles took the unprecedented step of objecting to a story after the newspaper claimed that he planned to marry Camilla Parker Bowles. The offending article claimed that he and Mrs Parker Bowles were in secret discussions with the Church of Scotland about a possible wedding in Scotland.

The Church of Scotland permitted divorcees to marry in church. Verdict: After an intervention from the PCC, the Sunday Times climbed down and printed a correction and page 2 apology. The paper said: “The story was based on information from a source close to the Church of Scotland. Following assurances from St James’s Palace that there was no foundation to this story, we acknowledge that the story was inaccurate and are happy to set the record straight. We apologise for the error. “