Privacy and the PCC: where now?

The PCC has today published findings from its survey into privacy, social networks and the press.


Key figures include:

  • 80% of social networkers would think twice about what they post if they knew the media might use this information.
  • 40% personally know people who have been shamed by content in social networks.
  • 49% believe it is wrong for the media to use their information without consent.

But what can we expect by way of action on the back of these findings?


The PCC is an industry-funded, self-regulating regulator.  It’s Code of Practice incorporates an interpretation of privacy legislation, but how is its regulation enforced? 


Here are some quotes from the PCC FAQ:

The Commission cannot instruct newspapers and magazines to withhold publication of an article;

The Commission has no formal powers to negotiate compensation on behalf of complainants. If you are seeking money you will need to take legal advice.

…the Commission does not have the power to impose fines, which would inevitably entail lawyers for complainants and legal powers for the complaints handling body.

…it is essential to the workings of self-regulation and to the power of adjudication that, if found against, the editor of a publication must admit publicly that the rules to which they have contributed and by which they have agreed to abide have been broken.

So basically, if you’ve been wronged by a newspaper in the UK, you must either seek out redress through the courts (via your own pocket), or you must go through a system which cannot prevent publication, which cannot negotiate settlement, which has no power to impose fines, and which relies on the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ of an editor in acknowledging his own wrongdoing, if you are to get anywhere at all.


Then if you’re lucky you’ll get a disproportionately small apology or retraction squirreled away at the foot of the racing pages the following day.


Given that the press regulate themselves, it’s worth bearing in mind where some key figures in the media stood on the issue of Privacy law, prior to  its’ introduction via the Human Rights Act in 1998.  Here’s a telling quote from the most powerful publisher in the UK:

“Privacy laws are for the protection of people who are already privileged,” he said. “They are not for the ordinary man and woman. The talk of privacy laws is to see if we can get a new privilege for the already privileged, and that should be resisted by journalists and all people involved in publishing and television the world over.”


Privacy laws only shield the elite, claims Murdoch, Telegraph 8.10.97

This opposition should come as no surprise – anything which interferes with a scoop is bad for the front page, and even worse for the balance sheet.


Murdoch’s corporate interests are represented on the Code Committee in the shape of Neil Wallis (News of the World), and John Witherow (Sunday Times).   These are the people who decide what our privacy means today.


So given the thinly-veiled contempt for our privacy shown above, how should we feel about the PCC’s attempts to address our privacy concerns going forward? Sure, there’s no shortage of evidence where the PCC have taken action in the past, but what about future definitions of privacy (which will be determined by employees of Murdoch)?


Self-regulation of the press would have made sense in the mid- to late- 20th Century, where tyrannical governments intent on bending the media to their will were still fresh in the memory (and near to home).


But today we live in a world where large corporate organisations represent just as much (if not more) of a threat to our liberties than government. 


Where in the last century it was the secret services phone-tapping us, today it’s the News of the World.  If this is evidence of the PCC’s way of dealing with major, root-and-branch issues, then we should be worried indeed.


And it’s with this in mind that scrutiny should continue to focus on the PCC, whatever new territories it moves into in the name of our privacy.


UPDATE: the PCC has spoken – it’s somebody elses’ fault.


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