Opinon: when will the Press Complaints Commission wake up?

On Friday, the Daily Mail splashed with a story headined “England Star’s Gagging Order”. The story concerned an unnamed member of the England football team who had used the courts to stop a story about him from being published.

It was the second such injunction granted in a week, the Mail reported. The injunctions were granted by a High Court judge on the grounds that the stories would breach the players’ right to a private life.

For Liberal Democrats, such injunctions will be seen as a worrying development.

Our party’s constitution emphasises that we must “defend the right to speak, write, worship, associate and vote freely.” That cannot happen if those who can afford expensive lawyers can gag the Press by using the courts.

But we also have to ask ourselves why, when the UK media is supposed to be a regulated industry, are these injunctions being sought and granted? What is going wrong when the only recourse against media intrusion, for those who can afford it, is the courts?

After all, the Press Complaints Commission is a body specifically set up to regulate the media and intervene when journalists breach the Editors’ Code of Practice.

Article 3 of the Code makes it clear that –

Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications. Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent.

The Code states that exceptions to this clause may only be made in cases of clear public interest, such as exposing crime, protecting public health and safety or preventing people from being misled.

So in principle, unwarranted intrusions into the private lives of individuals shouldn’t be happening at all. And if they are, they should be in the public interest – so applications for injunctions should nearly always be turned down.

In practice though, as we all know, media intrusions – into the lives of celebrities in particular – are often not in the public interest. Take the story a couple of weeks ago about the England footballer Peter Crouch.

This story, first published in the News of the World, “revealed” that Crouch had had sex with a prostitute. According to the NOTW report, the young woman, who spoke little English, was working in a Madrid nightclub when she was introduced to Crouch by “public relations staff”. A deal was set up by third parties, the paper reported, which resulted in the 19-year old selling herself to the footballer for £800. Her story later appeared, along with studio photographs, in the News of World.

Are we really expected to believe that the girl was operating alone? Isn’t it more plausible that a local journalist or news agency spotted the unsuspecting Crouch in the nightclub, and used the girl to approach him and then sold the ‘package’ (story and pictures) to the highest bidder on Fleet Street?

Operating in this way clearly breaches both Article 3 of the Code (Privacy), and Article 10 (Clandestine devices or subterfuge), which states that

Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest.

Yet the PCC appeared to make no effort to investigate these apparent breaches of the Code.

What followed was that two legal injunctions were sought and obtained by other England footballers, leading to a row over press freedom and renewed calls for a privacy law.

If this isn’t a wake up call for the Press Complaints Commission, then what is? Surely they must see that if people do not trust the Commission to enforce its own rules, the PCC makes itself irrelevant.

Worse still, they risk becoming a regulatory fig leaf for an industry that is basically untouchable, except by the super-rich and super-powerful (such as newspaper proprietors).

Every time the PCC fails to investigate or regulate breaches of the Code, public support for an illiberal privacy law grows. And more rich people with something to hide will be heading to the courts.

Joe Taylor is a Truro City Councillor and is proposing a conference
motion about reforming the PCC.

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5 Comments

  • But there is clearly no public interest case for publishing details of someone’s sex life just because they happen to be famous.

  • Benjamin – that depends. If you have a politician or celebrity preaching “family values” or equivalent whilst having it away on the office table, then to me it is completely within the public interest. So if a footballer had frequently used the pages of “Hello” or “OK” to give the image of a devoted couple – as Crouch did – then there is a strong case for publication. It’s an even stronger case when it’s a politician, IMO.

    But if there’s been no such comment, or the person has been trying to live their private life in private – and I’m thinking of David Laws had he not made his mistake with expenses, or Joe McElderry (X Factor winner almost outed earlier this summer) – then there’s no public interest at all.

  • david thorpe 24th Aug '10 - 2:12pm

    As a practicing journalist I agree with Joe.
    Britains libel laws are ion drastic need of reform, and so are the body which oversee the press.
    a professional footballer makes a big chunk of their income from endorsements and promotions, trading on the fact that they are role models.
    a role model commiting a crime is in the public interest. But the point is more general, should a super injunction ever be allowed? is it a matter that those injunctions are valid in some cases but not others? The PCC is not an effective arbiter as it is presently constructed

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