Why the PCC is broken - a case study in trying to complain

 by Martin Belam, 11 February 2009

So there has been a debate this week about whether the PCC in this country needs reform.

PCC logo

Here is a little case study.

On Monday, the Mail Online published an article “Pupil reduced to tears after teacher tells her: That short skirt makes you look like a slut and does nothing for your cellulite”.

The story is accompanied by a picture of the named 13 year old from a named school, modelling the skirt in question. Here are some of the comments left below the picture by the Mail’s online readers:

“What on earth is wrong with this country? The child DOES look like a slut”

“None of this would have happened if the student had done what the teacher said. By the way, with that short skirt, she does look like a slut”

“Well, the skirt is far too short for school and does make her look slutty and dumpy too.”

“Actually, she does look like a slut with her skirt so short.”
Daily Mail pupil article

Section 6 of the PCC code of conduct says this:

"6: Children
i) Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion. "

Quite how publishing pictures of a named 13 year old in her school uniform and inviting readers to discuss whether she looks like a slut or not squares with this clause of the PCC code of conduct I’m not sure.

And given the usual UK press zero tolerance towards activity that might encourage paedophiles, I think it is pretty reprehensible behaviour to name and locate the school of the child in question. The story could have easily been covered without revealing those precise details. You can Google her and find her on Bebo now for example.

And, seeing that the whole story is about how distressing she found it to be called a ‘slut’ by a member of teaching staff, I can’t imagine that she is thrilled at being called a ‘slut’ by dozens of Daily Mail readers online, and that the Mail’s moderators then passed those comments as fit for publication.

So I complained yesterday to the PCC that this piece clearly breached article 6 of the code of practice, and put those points to them.

The response?

“Dear Mr Belam,
Thank you for your email.
I should emphasise that the PCC will normally only consider complaints from people who are directly affected by the matters about which they are concerned. Indeed, only in exceptional circumstances will the Commission consider a complaint from someone not directly involved.
In this instance, an initial examination of your case suggests that you are a third party to the complaint.”

So there you go - they don’t even look to see whether the article breaches the code, my complaint is just discounted at the first hurdle. I’m not her or her parents, therefore I am not qualified to judge whether I think this article and the published comments contravene the industry’s own self-regulating standards. Because of the lack of transparency over their data, I’m not sure whether this counts statistically as a ‘resolved complaint’ for their records - or if it even counts as a complaint at all.

Yet Sir Christopher Meyer seems surprised that anyone could possibly even begin to think that there was something wrong with this system...


I don't understand one single reason why they won't take the complaint from a third party.

Did you see the Daily Mail saying: "Unfortunately, because Andrew Sachs has not personally complained to Ofcom about Brand and Ross, we are unable to report this story any further"?

The PCC seems so embarrassed about it that it doesn't even attempt to justify its ludicrous and incompetent stance.

I used to be disappointed by the PCC and its irrelevance. Now I get angry.

I wonder if it would be possible to raise the funds to set up an independent body to monitor and manage complains about the news media on issues such as this.

Undoubtedly the press would try to ignore/silence the new body, but over time it could gain the necessary "public authority" to effectively take over from the largely toothless PCC.

The thing is, I'm not even particularly meaning to pick on the Mail here. It is just that the PCC system drives me crazy. If 29 people complain about the Virgin Atlantic advert, ASA rules on it, and the press report 29 complaints as news. Yet, a hundred people could complain about this particular article to the PCC, and they would all just be dismissed out of hand.

The fact that the girl was clearly very happy for the story to be told is presumably relevant? The PCC codes on privacy obviously only applies when the subject didn't want coverage.

Indeed Rav, the self-publicity is an issue here. But did the girl know that the full length picture and the close-up of her thighs would be used? Or that the Mail would let readers call her a slut in the comments? The story could have been reported using an assumed name and just identified the county where she lives. Her face could have been obscured in the picture. And clause 6 can be ignored if there is an "over-riding public interest", and you might argue that there is in this case. But, none of this discussion will be had by the PCC because they simply say that I have no grounds to even raise a question with the PCC about the editorial decisions here.

@ianvisits It'd be great to hear your views. I was working on a similar proposition but mine wasn't a particularly good proposal.

Some of Martin's ideas on here are better!

The Daily Mail is a newspaper that never fails to find new lows. Their 'journalists' are like predators looking for the vulnerable to throw to their mob of right-wing professional haters.

The Daily Mail, the only paper that can make the Sun look good.

Surprised at the PCC clause you highlight, when there would be an even more transparent breach of 6ii: "A child under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on issues involving their own or another child’s welfare unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents."

The Mail may do lots of bad things, but I'd be amazed if they would allow such a transparent breach, which makes me think her mum - who is quoted - consented.

That is exactly why the PCC generally won't investigate from third parties - if the people involved are happy, they are under no compulsion to help the investigation.

You write that: "I'm not her or her parents, therefore I am not qualified to judge whether I think this article and the published comments contravene the industry's own self-regulating standards" - well exactly. You really aren't qualified, because you weren't involved.

The PCC does accept third party complaints on accuracy where facts, but not opinion, are at stake.

The Ofcom comparison is a red herring. Ofcom regulates broadcast medium where there is limited spectrum available - the airwaves are treated as a public resource and so there is general detriment to the public good when they are misused.

If you don't like the Mail you aren't compelled to pay for it - unlike the BBC - and you are free to set up a rival competitor - unlike traditional broadcast media.

I've no doubt that either the girl or her mother signed a legal document or release form to allow the Mail access to the photos and the family to report the story. However, James, your argument only holds up if you think that parents only ever act in the best interests of their children. I'm guessing that whatever document they signed, they were not expecting the Mail's comment moderators to allow a barrage of abuse aimed at the girl to be published.

And I'd happily accept if the PCC didn't uphold my complaint because they'd investigated it. But to just shut it down because I'm "not directly affected" is ludicrous, and I'm surprised you are trying to defend it.

I think publishing pictures of 13 year old girls in their school uniform and inviting semi-anonymous adults on the Internet to call them a slut isn't healthy for society, regardless of whether their mother thinks it is good publicity or not. And generally we consider that things that are not 'condusive to the public good' affect everybody.

If it had happened in an advert or a television show or a radio programme or in the cinema I would have recourse to complain to a regulatory body that would accept my complaint and investigate it. What makes the press so special?

It's also rather alarming that each of the comments insulting the girl is recommended by hundreds, whereas those criticising the teacher are given the thumbs down by hundreds.

I wonder if hundreds of readers have spent time giving every comment they agree with the thumbs up and every comments they disagree with the thumbs down.

I find with the Daily Mail, that they will only publish comments that agree with the journalists views. If heaven forbid you should disagree, they simply do not publish your comments. or certainly allow so few negative comments through that they appear to be in the minority. At no time were the refused comments abusive, no use of foul language, no slanderous comments .. but not published because they disagreed with the article!! This was not in connection with this particular article, but have no doubt it happened here too :(

I have just made a similar complaint to the PCC regarding the Mirror's publication of the DNA results despite an earlier court order banning further publication of details about the children involved in this matter. I too got the standard response from their Mr Yip, verbatim as yours, about third parties. This was my reply, copied to my MP

"Dear Mr Yip

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.

Your rules say 'In addition the PCC has an absolute discretion about whether or not to investigate any complaint. If, therefore, there appeared to be an exceptional public interest in accepting a complaint from a third party concerning a named individual, then it would do so"

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 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'

I await a reply, and also a view from my MP

Just spotted this via the "related posts" bit on another of your pieces. I would argue that the PCC is in dire need of reform. Too many complaints are dismissed or are resolved by the sending of a private apology - public errors (i.e., distorted, misleading or inaccurate reporting) should be acknowledged publicly.

Sorry, but I really must side with James on this one.
In the current exhibitionist culture people will go to enormous lengths to get themselves in the public arena under any circumstances.

I personally find the article disgraceful and the girl is clearly inappropriately dressed ... but that's my personal opinion.

The PCC is there to protect individuals from abuse by media organisations against their will. It seems to me that the child and her parents are complicit in this whole sorry saga. If they didn't realise that submitting to this story being published would unleash public derision and disgust in equal portions, they want their collective heads examining.

You might also complain about the pathetic injustices done to individuals on Big Brother, people who will literally do anything (however distasteful) to get their few minutes of "glory". Well that's really up to them - I don't have to watch it but, well, whatever floats your boat....

I can understand James' argument, but at the same time I also understand Martin's point that the PCC presumes that the parent is acting in the interest of the child, so they do not have to act on or consider any third party complaints. This is a dangerous precendent that perhaps needs to be challenged, should the parents have really allowed their child to be pictured in such a way, in particular the large image on the Mail website, which was just begging a hoard of negative comments by mysogynistic Mail readers who just happen to hate young people.

I certainly would not thank my parents for exposing me to ridicule at the hands of the Daily Mail and its readers. At 13 she is too young to have sex, smoke or drive, because she is not considered emotionally mature enough to do so, so why is she considered emotionally mature enough to sign over her image and name to the Daily Mail to be published?

When the Mail editor works for the PCC you know you have a system that is corrupt and ineffectual.

Very interesting to stumble across these comments as I've just submitted a complaint to the PCC about a piece written on the MailOnline by Janet Street-Porter about Michael Jackson. Of course I got the exact same response as above from Mr Yip about their 3rd party policy blah blah blah.

However, I wrote back saying that Ms Street-Porter is clearly in breach of the PCC Code of Practice as she says in her article 'Michael Jackson was a self-centred paedophile and that is a FACT'. Well, the FACT is that he was acquitted of the charges against him so she is just expressing her OPINION. According to the Code of Practice, journalists must make it clear whether they are expressing an opinion or a fact. They should also take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information!

Several of us from an MJ fanclub have submitted comments following the article obviously disagreeing with JSP's nonsense and NONE of these comments have been published. The MailOnline have only published the 3 comments which support her views, so clearly Emma C is correct with her observation above.

I await a response to my complaint but I'm not holding my breath. As Uponnothing rightly points out, not only is the editor of The Mail on their governing commission - but infact 7 out of their 16 board members are editors of newspapers or magazines!

It's a farce!

"Pupil reduced to tears after teacher tells her: That short skirt makes you look like a slut and does nothing for your cellulite" are you serious, did this really happen, this is outragous!

Am I the only one who thinks this friction has been going on for a longer time? It probably wasn't the first fight between the teacher and the student. It's just hard to understand going from a class to the local news just because a teacher called someone a slut. I mean, you don't simply go to a student and say these words. You try to explain first what she did "wrong". Then again, this is how the world works. Someone must be the offender when actually both parties hold some blame.

Another situation dealt wrong by the teacher, student and the media.

This is unbelievable. The excuse they gave you for not investigating it further was completely unacceptable. And I thought the USA was the only country with such problems....

I don't disagree that the skirt is a little too short. However it is none of her teachers business what the girl wears.

Very good post by Martin, backed up by well-argued responses to comments.

I linked my way here from one of Martin's lists of most popular posts. The toothlessness of the PCC is an ongoing issue, and I wonder just how long the current situation can be sustained. I rather like IanVisits suggestion above about setting up an independent body - it might not even cost too much if it was done via web 2.0 means, with perhaps feeds and periodic pdf mailouts to relevant bodies. I'm already licking my lips at the prospect of the Annual Awards of Shame.

Rav commented that the girl 'was clearly very happy for the story to be told'. She was 13! At that age she shouldn't even be able to give sole consent even if she wished to. Much older and more experienced people than her have agreed to a story and been misled about how it would be presented, as may well have happened here. The journalists gave the story a slant which encouraged those comments.

The PCC's current composition and operating mode is a licence for predatory and unethical behaviour by some journalists, defended under the guise of preventing censorship. If the PCC could even bring itself to keep to its own Code of Practice, it would be progress.

In the meantime I suggest Google Sidewiki as a way of getting round DM moderation. You can install it without the google toolbar, but a google account is necessary.

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