Regulation and self-regulation of the media

Broadcast Journalism

The Office of Communications (Ofcom) controls the statutory regulation of commercial television and radio stations in the UK, and alsothe BBC. It also regulates video-on-demand and the airwaves over which wireless devices operate.

Ofcom regulates how the programmes are transmitted and programme content (including journalism).Ofcom’s powers include fining media organisations for breaching regulations and closing down illegal ‘pirate’ broadcasters, and commercial broadcasters where necessary.

The Ofcom Broadcasting Code, the latest edition of which covers all programmes broadcast since 3 April 2017, provides ethical rules which broadcast journalists must adhere to, or face sanctions from their employers. One crucial requirement of the Ofcom Code is that all broadcast journalists must produce politically impartial content although, this does not require them to be politically impartial themselves.

Ofcom’s objective is to protect consumers and citizens from, for instance, distortion of the facts to manipulate the public’s view of the news. It also seeks to protect from encouraging any form of violence or tension and transmitting pornographic and other unsuitable material to children, for example, by imposing a watershed.

The Code also reflects Ofcom’s duty to prohibit the broadcast of material that is likely to incite crime or disorder, and its responsibility in respect of religious broadcasting.

Print journalism

There is no equivalent to Ofcom for print journalism. Except for anti-monopoly legislation, and civil and criminal laws, print journalism is not subject to statutory regulation and is, instead, subject to self-regulation. This is mostly in the form of journalistic codes of practice.

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, but cannot impose penalties for breaches. The PCC’s 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 PCC’s Editor’s Code of Practice is the print journalist’s guide to ethics. It is drawn up by a committee of editors and used by the PCC in its adjudications. The PCC does not have the power, like Ofcom, to shut down media organisations but it can require 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 consistently breaks the Editor’s Code may be at risk of being fired from the newspaper or magazine.

The Editor’s Code can be summarised as follows. The Code must be applied to both print and online versions of publications. It the responsibility of both editors and publishers to ensure that both editorial staff and 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 the public exception. This 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. For instance, 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.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.