The Office of Communications (Ofcom) controls the statutory regulation of commercial television and radio stations in the UK. It is the regulating body which deals with who owns these organisations, how the programmes are transmitted and also programme content (including journalism).
Ofcom’s powers include fining media organisations for breaching regulations and closing down illegal ‘pirate’ broadcasters (and even commercial broadcasters).
The Ofcom Broadcasting Code provides ethical rules which broadcast journalists must adhere to or face sanctions from their employers. The BBC is amongst those media organisations that are subject to Ofcom’s regulations but its BBC Trust also sets out an ethical code for BBC journalists in their BBC Editorial Guidelines.
One crucial requirement of both Ofcom and the BBC’s ethical code is that all broadcast journalists must produce politically impartial content although, of course, does not require them to be politically impartial themselves.
Such statutory regulation of broadcast journalism is in place due to what politicians have seen as its power to influence, offend or harm the public in some way. Important examples include distortion of the facts to manipulate the public’s view of the news, encouraging any form of violence or tension and transmitting pornographic material to children (hence watersheds).
In terms of statutory regulation, there is no equivalent to Ofcom for print journalism. Therefore, except anti-monopoly legislation, they have been left to self-regulate and it is for this reason that they may express strong political views without sanction.
The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is the self-regulatory body for the print journalism industry, created and funded by newspapers and magazines themselves. It does however retain some independence from the industry, which is necessary for obvious reasons. Its main role is to determine adjudications in the event of complaints about content in newspapers and magazines. The PCC also takes into consideration the activities of journalists as part of their information gathering.
The Editor’s Code
The Press Complaints Commission Editors’ Code of Practice, or PCC Code as it in incorrectly known, is the print journalist’s guide to ethics. It is drawn up by a committee of editors and used by the PCC in their adjudications. The PCC does not have the power, like Ofcom, to shut down media organisations but it can force an editor to publish an adjudication against their newspaper or magazine promptly and with a PCC headline. The shame of such a situation for the editor and staff is thought by the PCC to be a powerful deterrent but this is the limit of the commission’s powers. That said, a journalist who breaks the Editor’s Code time and time again would be at risk of being fired from the newspaper or magazine.
The Editor’s Code, as ratified on 1st August 2007 can be summarised as follows. The Code must be applied to both printed and online versions of publications. It is up to the editors and publishers to ensure that not only editorial staff but all external contributors to their publication (including non journalists) observe the code.
Clause 1 on Accuracy includes the statements:
- The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
- A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.
- The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Clause 3 on Privacy includes:
- Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications. Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s life without consent.
- It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in a private place without their consent. A private place can be public property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Clause 4 on Harassment includes:
Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on their property when asked to leave and must not follow them.
Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.
Clause 10 on Clandestine devices and subterfuge includes:
The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held private information without consent.
Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.
Clause 14 states:
- Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.
The Public Interest
The Editor’s Code aims to protect the rights of the individual and the public’s right to know. For this reason, many clauses (on Privacy, Harassment, Children, Children in sex cases, Hospitals, Reporting of crime and Clandestine devices and subterfuge and Payment to criminals) are covered by exceptions on public interest.
The public interest includes detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety, protecting public health or safety and preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
It is not limited to the above examples though; for instance the code states that there is a public interest in freedom of expression itself. The PCC’s job is to decide whether the public interest was served and the extent to which the material is in the public domain, or would become so. It is up to the editor/s in question to fully demonstrate evidence of these considerations if they invoke the public interest to explain their journalistic activities or content.