Third Party Complaints and Leveson

National newspapers, their editors and others have raised concern that Lord Justice Leveson has made recommendations in relation to third party complaints that are either unreasonable or unworkable. (A third party complaint is one where the complainant is not personally affected by the issue.) The impression is given that what he recommends is a departure from precedent and would leave a future regulator under the obligation to address all complaints, including ones from pressure groups, cranks and bodies determined to foist political correctness on newspapers.

None of this is correct.

Summary

  • The PCC currently handles third party complaints without problems, although it does so inconsistently.
  • The requirements of Leveson go no further than the existing arrangements at the PCC, though they provide additional clarity.
  • Third party complaints are important. They are the only way to deal with problems about general accuracy, where incorrect information is published but there is not necessarily a single party that is directly affected.
  • The judge does not require that a future press Code should include a clause relating to discrimination (as the existing Code does), though he does recommend that this should be considered after a new body is up and running.
  • Editors and proprietors have been manoeuvring for some time to place greater hurdles in the way of third party complaints. These efforts have intensified since the publication of the Leveson Report. If the editors have their way, an important means of correcting and curtailing inaccuracy in the press will be removed.
  • The PCC already handles third party complaints

    The PCC takes third party complaints on matters of general accuracy – the sorts of things that campaigning organisations from the Countryside Alliance to the Refugee Council may raise, where there is no first party as such. The independent fact-checking organisation Full Fact provided 80 pages of examples in their evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.

    The PCC also voluntarily takes complaints from representative groups:

  • Cl. 5 (intrusion/suicide reporting – April) The Samaritans, Mind, Rethink Mental Illness, Sane and PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide v The Sun which led to a meeting with the paper and training on suicide reporting
  • Cl. 1 (accuracy – March) Scottish Refugee Council v Scottish Daily Mail, which led to a correction to figures about legal costs incurred by refugees
  • Cl 3 and 10 (privacy and intrusion – June) Dale Farm Solidarity v The Sun, which led to nothing because the PCC rejected the complaint that putting journalists into the travellers’ camp under the guise of legal observers breached the code.
  • It is clear that the PCC and the industry are capable of receiving and dealing with third party complaints under all parts of the code, and of making decisions on them which are accepted, both for and against.

    They are also well capable of filtering complaints. Over the past couple of years, the PCC has reached conclusions in respect of around one quarter to one fifth of complaints. Others were multiple complaints, outside the remit, or otherwise unable to be taken forward. This is normal for complaints handling bodies: the Advertising Standards Authority’s latest annual report shows they filtered out a similar proportion of complaints.

    The Leveson requirements are no more than the status quo

    The Leveson Report proposes that:

    1. In the case of third party complaints the views of the party most closely involved should be taken into account.
    2. The Board (of the independent press self-regulator) should have the power (but not necessarily in all cases, depending on the circumstances, the duty) to hear complaints whoever they come from (whether personally and directly affected by the alleged breach, or a representative group affected by the alleged breach, or a third party seeking to ensure accuracy of published information).
    3. The Board should have the power not to look into complaints they feel are
    a. Without justification
    b. An attempt to argue a point of opinion rather than code breach
    c. Simply an attempt to lobby
    d. But they should as a matter of principle, have the power to take up any complaint that is brought to them

    All this is where we are now with the PCC.

    What Leveson said about discrimination and equalities legislation

    Where Leveson discusses the Code of practice of the new self-regulator, he does not stipulate any requirement for any provision about discrimination. He writes instead:

    ‘Consideration should also be given to Code amendments which, while protecting freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, would equip that body [the self-regulator] with the power to intervene in cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting and in so doing reflect the spirit of equalities legislation.’

  • This is addressed only to the new regulator, and is not meant to be part of the law.
  • It only asks the regulator to give consideration to the question, and so is not binding.
  • And it would be considered by a Code committee which would include serving editors.
  • It is worth noting that the existing PCC Editors’ Code contains the following (Clause 12):

    ‘The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability. Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.’

    The PCC, the Hunt/Black proposals and Leveson’s view

    It has been clear for some months that the industry wanted to seize the opportunity of the Leveson Inquiry to curtail, rather than broaden, the range of complaints to be entertained by its regulator.

    Under the Hunt/Black plans (presented by the industry to the Inquiry in January, and rejected in the report) the new regulator envisaged by editors would deal with a complaint only if there was a ‘substantial public interest’ – a point Leveson himself picked up on in the oral hearings:

    ‘[B]ut with respect there has to be a significant breach of the code, not just a breach. There has to be a substantial public interest — not merely a public interest — and even then, that’s in the discretion of the head of complaints. I’m not sure how different that is from the present system, which merely says, “We normally accept complaints only from those who are directly affected by matters about which they are complaining,” but which obviously admits of the possibility that you’re prepared to go further. And indeed, it’s been said that the PCC is prepared to go further. I’m not sure you’ve changed anything’ (Lord Justice Leveson, oral evidence, 9-7-12, p.12).

    Lord Hunt and Lord Black were indeed trying to change something: they were trying to make it harder to complain.

    And it is clear that the editors haven’t given up: leaked notes from the editors’ Delaunay breakfast meeting last week, when they considered how they would react to the Leveson recommendations, show that beside point 13 – ‘Board should have power to hear complaints wherever they come from, including representative groups and third parties . . ‘ – appear the words ‘Not acceptable’. There follows a restatement of the Hunt/Black criterion of ‘substantial public interest’.

    Once again, what Leveson says, and what editors and their friends claim that he says. are seen to be quite different. And once again, editors can be seen to be placing their own interests before the public interest.

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