The PCC turns a deaf ear to complaints about press coverage of Alfie Patten

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 3 April 2009

As a result of my blog post last week about the Alfie Patten case, I found that another related issue cropped up regarding the PCC, and the self-regulation of the British press. I received a comment from 'Pat H', who had written to the PCC to complain about The Mirror's apparent breaching of the initial reporting restrictions.

Needless to say, since she is not directly involved in the story, her complaint was, as usual, dismissed out of hand. Just like my complaint that online readers of the Daily Mail should not be able to call a named and pictured 13 year old girl "a slut".

I let my complaint drop, but 'Pat H' has written back to the PCC over the '13 year-old father' story, and copied the message to her MP. PCC rules say that they may accept third-party complaints if there is an over-riding public interest. Pat put forward this argument:

"I believe the normal rules should be waived in this case. [The children] are minors and cannot complain on their own behalf, and circumstances suggest they are not safeguarded by carers who would reasonably complain on their behalf.

...

I would argue that there is an exceptional public interest involved in ensuring that children are not brought into the limelight and personal details of their lives be made headlines in this fashion, and in this particular instance that it is to the extreme detriment of the welfare of [the children] that results of DNA tests for parentage should be made public. The Daily Mirror have flagrantly flouted the spirit of an earlier legal order which prohibited further reporting of this case.

How can [the children] live in any semblance of a normal childhood in their school or local community? Surely this is precisely what items in Section 6 -Children- of your code refer to. Not to take a complaint against the Daily Mirror in such a serious matter would be to fail to give a strong message that headlines and articles such as this are completely unacceptable and bring the press into disrepute' "

It astounds me that we currently have a system of regulation which means that a person can write to the PCC and say "I think that one of the publications covered by your code has breached a legal court order and is in contempt of court" and the official response is not "Of course we will take your complaint seriously, look into that, and keep you informed about what happens". Instead, the official response is: "It doesn't concern you so mind your own business"

In our converged media landscape it makes a stark contrast to the workings of Ofcom. Today they fined the BBC over an incident which on transmission only attracted 2 complaints, but which was whipped into a storm by the press printing transcriptions and linking to audio clips online of what Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross said, which drove that total up to 44,790 complaints. The Mail On Sunday coverage just this week won 'scoop of the year' for that story.

Yet, in the Alfie Patten case, with the very real welfare of children at stake, the press regulatory system can simply turn around to the public and say we are not interested in hearing your complaint.

As I've written before, the last thing I want is some kind of tax-funded quango supervising the press. but changes in the way that media is distributed are really stretching our existing mechanisms of self-regulation. I truly believe that the PCC must move towards allowing third-party complaints to be investigated as the rule, rather than as the exception.

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