Code Committee Chairman's Report 2007-8

I believe passionately and profoundly in self-regulation as the best way to protect both the freedom of the press and the concerns of the readers it serves. The Editors' Code is at the very heart of that, balancing the rights of the individual and the public's right to know. I was honoured and delighted therefore when the Code Committee invited me to be its Chairman.

Les Hinton, formerly Executive Chairman of News International, had guided the Committee through nine years with a beguiling combination of deft charm and steel. They were crucial years in the development of self-regulation and the industry owes him a great debt as it does to his predecessor, Sir David English.

I joined the Committee midway though another important year. The self-regulatory system had emerged with credit from a searching inquiry by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, but the press faced challenges on several fronts. The Information Commissioner was calling for two year jail sentences for journalists and others who breached the Data Protection Act. And there were public concerns over the reporting of suicides following the tragic deaths in Bridgend and over paparazzi intrusions on public figures such as Kate Middleton.

The threat of custodial sentences under the Data Protection Act was particularly worrying because of the effect it would have had on press freedom by inhibiting investigative reporting. Such sentences would also have meant that Britain would have been one of the only countries in the civilised world to jail journalists trying to do their job. To its credit, the Government was persuaded to hold back and allow the industry and self regulation to demonstrate what it could do to prevent breaches.

The Code Committee had, in fact, been the first to act on this issue. The Code was amended in 2007 to make clear that, unless in the public interest, the rules on use of clandestine devices and subterfuge also banned hacking into computers to obtain confidential information. And it made clear that these rules applied to information supplied not only by journalists, but by informants or agents such as private detectives.

It cannot, however, end there. The industry itself must now show to the Ministry of Justice, which is overseeing the relevant legislation, that it is treating the matter extremely seriously. This means educating its staff in the application of the Data Protection Act and the Code rules, and demonstrating publicly the various mechanisms it has introduced collectively and individually in-house to ensure compliance. In particular, we need to explore using other means - such as The Editors Codebook, and the new Code Committee website - to increase awareness of the rules, and reinforce industry guidance and the PCC's adjudications on them.

At my very first meeting as Chairman, I found the Code Committee ready to play its full part in that. But more than this we must again examine the Code to see if the rules need to be tightened still further and I shall report back on this in the future.

The media coverage of the appalling series of suicides in South Wales raised issues far beyond the Editors' Code, and quite properly they became the subject of some debate. This is the most contentious of areas where Editors are faced with hugely difficult challenges in balancing the public's right to know against the due sensitivity needed in handling individual cases. While there was criticism in some quarters, the evidence so far is that the Code, whose rules covering suicide reporting were (following consultations with the Samaritans) amended in 2006, performed well and that many of the complaints were directed at foreign news organisations and broadcasters. Nonetheless, this is an issue that must be further considered in the light of the PCC's review of the Bridgend experience, which is still ongoing.

On another front, we need to be similarly vigilant over the public's concerns about the activities of the paparazzi. The long-delayed inquest on Diana Princess of Wales in bringing the subject to the fore again was also a reminder of how much the industry has changed in the decade since her death. We once again examined the strictures introduced then to prevent harassment, and remain of the belief that they are among the toughest in the world. The 'desist' rules are now followed not only by print journalists but also by broadcasters which must be judged a success for the PCC. It should be stressed, however, that there is no room for complacency. We have to ensure that these rules are followed as the Code requires. There can be no let-up and there is still work to do.

The great strength of press self regulation is that it can react swiftly to changes in circumstances. Amendments can be introduced and be effective within months. The 2007 rules on audio-visual content, for example, have rapidly introduced a new, and pioneering regulatory dimension to the digital age.

Last year, the Code Committee launched its website - - which has increased the speed with which we can communicate to the industry and the public. It means that publications such as The Editors' Codebook, the handbook to the Code, can be updated quickly to keep pace with new rules and with the PCC's adjudications on them. The Codebook, launched in 2004, has already been updated online to reflect Code changes since then, and will be revised later this year to embrace the latest case law. The website is likely to becoming increasingly important in developing the authority and effectiveness of the Code.

As a new Chairman, I am determined that the Code should remain the result of a team effort by the Committee members. They represent the whole of the industry - national and regional and local newspapers and magazines - but work as a single, dedicated unit. I thank them for their time and effort. Our thanks are also due to Lindsay Nicholson, Editorial Director, of The National Magazine Company and Peter Wright, Editor of the Mail On Sunday. They have left to join the PCC, and we are grateful for their contribution to the Code Committee.

I am also pleased to welcome June Smith-Sheppard, Editor of Pick Me Up and Editor-in-chief goodtoknow, representing the Periodical Publishers Association, who joined me as the latest recruit to the Committee.

As ever the Committee owes huge gratitude to the wisdom and hard work of our Secretary Ian Beales to which I would like to add my own special thanks.

Paul Dacre
Chairman, Editors' Code Committee,
Editor, Daily Mail; Editor-in-Chief, Associated Newspapers
Photograph of Paul Dacre

Paul Dacre:

"We must always be
vigilant on the
public's concerns"