Code Committee Chairman's Report 2008-9

In the era of 24-hour rolling news, it is not just the press that does not sleep. Our critics too have wakeful nights dreaming up new and more ingenious ways to constrain the media. As a result, the Open Society is constantly under threat.

We can count among the principal offenders: an authoritarian Government with an increasing desire for secrecy; judges with an incomprehension of and an animus against the popular press creating a back-door privacy law under the guise of Human Rights legislation; no-win, no-fee lawyers charging monstrous fees that make it almost impossible for many newspapers to defend actions; Parliamentary Select committees with their seemingly ceaseless inquiries; and axe-grinding politicians and a supporting army of quangocrats and often self-appointed "protectors" of society. Individually, any of these can be contained. Together - especially in a period when much of the press is fighting for its commercial life - they demand greater vigilance than ever.

This leaves the media challenged on two fronts. First, to combat those who threaten the vitally important role the media plays in a healthy democracy and, with it, the public's right to know. Second, we must ensure that our own defences are sound, that the press's house is in order and that, in judging the competing freedoms of the right to know and the right to privacy, we have the balance right.

The roles of the Editors' Code of Practice Committee, which sets out the rules for achieving that balance, and the Press Complaints Commission - which ensures the rules are observed and that there are adequate remedies for breaches - are key to this.

As Code Committee Chairman, as a former Commissioner on the PCC and, of course, as an editor, I know how difficult it is to achieve that balance. We in the media all walk that tightrope every day. Sometimes we get it wrong - and in The Editors' Codebook, which we revised and relaunched during the last year, are cases that will make all good editors and journalists wince. They remind us that there is never room for complacency. We must learn by our mistakes. Where there are legitimate public concerns, we must respond to them. Indeed, getting that balance right is a constant theme that runs through the Codebook and demonstrates how the Code committee has listened to and responded to criticism.

On the protection of personal data, for example, the Code Committee has confronted the Information Commissioner's concerns about wholesale breaches of the law - and, indeed, of the existing Code. We have strengthened the rules to explicitly ban hacking into digitally-held private information unless there is a demonstrable public interest. We have also expressly barred the use of agents or intermediaries, such as private detectives, to circumvent the rules.

At the same time, the PCC has issued comprehensive guidelines and conducted seminars on investigative journalism. The industry too has produced its own guidance on Data Protection compliance and is conducting a survey of the measures - such as contractual obligations on staff and tighter auditing processes - introduced in- house by publishers to combat abuse. To underline the message, the Codebook has drawn all these actions together in its own Briefing note.

This has been a considerable commitment by all concerned and it is now imperative that the industry, if it is to safeguard itself from tighter legal penalties, continues to demonstrate its dedication to compliance with both the law and the Code.

The reporting of suicide was another area that provoked some criticism, especially following the series of deaths of young people in South Wales. By any standards, this was a tragedy of national importance and media coverage reflected that. But though it was a legitimate subject to address, issues of insensitivity arose. We have also addressed those in the Codebook, with important new guidance that highlights press activities that can cause unintentional distress and shows how editors can avoid this not just by following the Code but by discretionary measures, too.

Harassment is an issue that can also get the media a bad press (though we should never forget there are double standards at work here and that some celebrities who complain of the media's attention actually seek it to promote themselves). The media scrum that closed in on Prince William's girlfriend Kate Middleton when there was speculation on an impending engagement was a subject for concern. Although that was resolved very quickly, the Code Committee investigated to see if it indicated a deeper problem.

We concluded that the Code's rules on harassment - among the strictest in Western Europe - were working well. This is where people who do not wish to be pursued alert the PCC, which passes on the request to editors.

As I have stressed, the new Codebook shows that there is no cause for complacency on the par t of the newspapers but, equally, it has important lessons for our detractors. First, it shows that we are in the business of learning - why else, for example, would a constantly revised Codebook exist? Second, it demonstrates that the self-regulatory system is genuinely responsive to public concerns. And third, I hope it kills the myth that the balance that we attempt to strike is a shabby compromise between individual rights and a self-serving media waving the flag of press freedom.

Indeed, the words press freedom appear nowhere in the Editors' Code of Practice. What is mentioned is freedom of expression and the public's right to know, neither of which is the exclusive preserve of the press. Certainly, the balance between that public right to know, on the one hand, and the rights of the individual on the other, lead to genuine tensions, but they are inherent in any truly free system. A democracy as a whole, not just the media, has to get the balance right. Go too far in either direction and it is members of the public - collectively or singly - who suffer. And constantly at risk is the Open Society itself.

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

Paul Dacre:

"The Open Society
is at stake"