PCC stats show efficiency but how effective are their remedies?

The PCC has today released its annual report for 2004. The level of complaints stood at 3618, slightly down from the 3649 for 2003 but still a 40% increase over 2004. The bulk of complaints related to accuracy 56.2% (of the 333 cases raising a possible breach of the code, all but 6 were resloved) and privacy 11.4% (with 218 investigations resulting in 127 possible breaches of the code, with 125 thereof being resolved).

Commenting on these figures and the underlying work behind them, the PCC said it was living up to its claim of being 'fast, free and fair' and was the preferred forum for resolving privacy related issues. While we've seen high-profile disputes battled out in court, from the epic Douglas v Hello to the House of Lords ruling in Naomi Campbell's battle with the Mirror and at a European level the judgment in von Hannover v Germany, the PCC still handles the majority of complaints. Privacy is not just the preserve of the rich and famous and over 90% of the complaints handled by the PCC for 2004 concerned people who had not previously been in the public eye.

While the court cases mainly concerned photographs, the wider crop of complaints handled by the PCC concerned a more general breach of one of the 9 parts of the PCC code that deal with privacy-related issues.

In the wake of the von Hannover and Campbell cases there is still debate as to the scope of not necessarily where but importantly, when one might enjoy a 'reasonable expectation of privacy'. The PCC thinks its cracked this and points to two rulings.

First, in the wake of the celebrated Blunkett and Kimberly Fortier affair, the PCC rejected a complaint about the publication of a picture taken of her walking along a street in Los Angeles stating that "it did not generally consider that the publication of photographs of people in public places breach the Code."

However a qualification was added to this stating that "Exceptions might be made if there are particular security concerns, for instance, or in rare circumstances when a photograph reveals something about an individual's health that is not in the public interest".

So when it came to the second case concerning Allegra Versace who had complained that pictures in a magazine indicated something about her health, the PCC upheld the complaint and the magazine published an apology.

The problem remains - and the Beckhams recent failed bid to gag former nanny Abbie Gibson highlights - that whether its pictures or a story, there is still some trade-off when it comes to the expectation of privacy. It would appear that the more public one's life, the less privacy one may be entitled to. The difficulty relates to interpreting 'the public interest' in relation to publication. The PCC's own code provides a caveat in its definition of public interest whereby public interest may be established where publication relates to something that prevents the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation.

Beyond the provisions and context of its code the PCC does not have the remit or power to give full effect to the Human Rights Act and underlying Convention rights relating to privacy on the one hand or freedom of expression on the other. So those seeking to debate the reasonableness of their expectation of privacy have less of a forum and no recourse to remedies beyond the publication of an apology or promise not to republish.

Fact remains, if you want the PCC Code to bite, you need to go to court. For it is in court that one can direct the judge to the provisions within section 12 of the Human Rights Act that allows the court to balance the competing rights between individual and press with reference to 'the relevant code'. The other important point to consider is that when it comes to privacy, much of the litigation is aimed at preventing publication in the first place. Once published, the damage is done so an injunction is always going to prove more useful than an apology.

When it comes to policing its code, the PCC has again provided us with proof that its fast, free and fair service works well. When it comes to prevention and shaping the law, it will still be litigation that prevails over self-regulatory scrutiny.

PCC Annual Report
PCC Press Release
Media Guardian comment

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