PM's private call published by The Sun, but PCC has no interest in a 'public interest' debate

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 10 November 2009

The news agenda has been dominated today by debates about Gordon Brown's eyesight, his conduct over our war dead, and The Sun's reporting of his contacts with Jacqui Janes.

For me, it brings with it another interesting question about press self-regulation.

<snip>Removed some out of date info about Oftel</snip>

The PCC recently issued a finding over the use of 'phone-tapping' at one particular newspaper. The PCC code is clear. Clause 10 states:

"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;"

So what is the justification for the obvious breach of these rules? Well, Clause 10 of the PCC code can be over-ridden in the 'public interest'.

I've no doubt that the contents of the call were of interest to the public, but it seems to me that one side of the phone call is someone attempting to make an apology for their visual disability causing them to have poor handwriting, in a phone call they had every expectation at the time of being private. It would have been possible for The Sun to report on the conversation without publishing a transcript, and it would certainly have been possible to report on the story without publishing a recording of the call in full on the paper's website.

I'm sure The Sun's legal team will be confident they can defend their actions, and who knows what deal may have been done behind the scenes about the publication of the recording.

However, I think these are issues that should be discussed and debated by an effective regulatory body.

I wrote to the PCC this morning, setting out why I thought the publication still breached Clause 10 of the code, despite the provision of the 'public interest' defence. I don't think it unreasonable that the press regulatory body might care to investigate the contents of the call, and the issue surrounding publication. I think there is a healthy public interest to be had in having that debate.

Their response?

Well, you know the drill - 4 hours after submitting my email, I got the usual canned response saying words to the effect of: "You are not personally Gordon Brown. Therefore there is no case to even consider investigating, let alone answer".

Update - 11/11/09

I have replied to the PCC's rejection of my complaint:

"A newspaper has, for the first time ever, made public over the Internet a recording of the serving Prime Minister in what he clearly believed at the time to be a private phone call to a private individual. I am sure that The Sun would argue that their clear breach of Clause 10 of the code here is in the 'public interest'. Surely it is therefore also of interest to 'the public' whether this defence has been correctly invoked?

In my view, the editor of the paper may have a 'public interest' defence for reporting the contents of the conversation, and I would not argue with that, however the digital distribution of the entire recording over the Internet was unnecessary and gratuitous. This digital distribution marks new territory for newspapers, and as such I believe the PCC should investigate whether using the 'public interest' defence here is ethical.

Even from the point of view of gathering statistics about the effectiveness of the code, surely it would be beneficial for the PCC to be able to judge whether the editorial judgement of the paper in this case was in step with the public's own perception of what the 'public interest' is?

Your response as a regulatory body that the public are not allowed to complain about an issue of 'public interest' is simply unacceptable."

6 Comments

How many times must the PCC remind you Martin - you are *not* the prime minister! (yet!) :)

I have tried to complain to the Information Commissioner about this clear breach of the data protection act, but I keep getting a stupid error message about using:
<, >, %, ~, & or ^
when I haven't.
Stupid website ...

Ugh - Gordon Brown. Don't get me started on him.

After many attempts, I finally got the ICO website (it has the world's most awful form) to accept my complaint that there had been a breach of the data protection laws.

So we'll see whether they are interested in investigating where the PCC isn't ...

Martin,

Didn't the PCC recently breach its own ban on 'third party complaints' when it accepted the need to investgate the Jan Moir affair? In which case, can they now re-impose the ban?

Great post....not a big fan or Mr. Gordon Brown though lol.

Keep up to date on my new blog