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    Thursday, 28 June 2007

    Regulatory window-dressing?: PCC announces revision to Code

    The Press Complaints Commission has announced that there has been a series of revisions agreed to the Editor's Code of Practice against which it assesses the behaviours of much of the UK press (1,2,3). The move comes in the wake of the Clive Goodman royal phone-tapping scandal and concerns raised by the Information Commissioner, and follows on from the more specific guidance published by the PCC in May after its review of the case.

    In particular, the amendments involve the insertion of explicit reference to the prohibition of accessing digitally-held private information without consent (paralleling or perhaps extrapolating from the pre-existing references to the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs), or engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge by agents or intermediaries. Further changes to the Preamble emphasis the centrality of the Preamble itself and the public interest exceptions to the proper interpretation of the Code, and reflect the exclusion of user-generated and non-edited online material from the regulator's purview.

    Strangely, these amendments were reported in MediaGuardian under the headline "PCC tightens code to ban phone hacking". The first paragraph continued, "the Press Complaints Commission has agreed to explicitly ban the use of phone hacking and intercepts in its code of practice in response to the Clive Goodman royal phone hacking scandal". This isn't what has happened. The ban on phone hacking, which was already covered, remains subject to the public interest override just as before. To my mind, it looks like the PCC (or rather, the editors' committee) has simply been engaged in a process of tinkering to make its pre-existing positions more evident, or in its words "for the avoidance of doubt". I wonder whether the PCC intends to correct the Guardian in order to avoid any suggestion of 'misrepresentation by agent'...

    1 comment:

    Andrew Scott said...

    Greenslade has commented on this and has made a few interesting points not highlighted here - see: Sensible code changes ban 'arm's length' reporting.

    The first is that the reference to agents / intermediaries closes a possible loophole whereby journalists might have claimed that they weren't themselves responsible for the 'misdemeanour'.

    The second is that there is a continuing distinction between what is permissible under the Code, and what is premitted under the law (at least on its bare face - ie before its admitted that there may be a discrepancy between what the law says and what enforcers of the law do).

    Finally, he highlights the fact that 'fishing expeditions' should effectively be precluded. In order to rely on the public interest defence, journalists will presumably have to be in a position to demonstrate that they were seeking out something specific. Luck or happenstance that might see them stumble on something big while generally 'rooting around' won't, or at least shouldn't, be enough. Otherwise, the intrusions attendant on access would simply continue as the (unquantified) iceberg under the surface.

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