This a post I’ve been thinking about for a little while. Since I’ve got jury service starting soon, which will cut heavily into my free time for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to put it up now.
The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is the watchdog in charge of dealing with complaints about the press. Unlike Ofcom, its broadcast equivalent, the PCC is entirely self-regulating – it is, ultimately, run by the press to moderate the press. Plenty of people have questioned this arrangement, and MPs have called the organisation “toothless“. So how effective is it? Well, nothing will tell us like cold, hard stats.
Firstly, the PCC doesn’t step into most cases. The majority of complaints (63% in 08/09) are not even investigated by the PCC, on the grounds that they were outside the commission’s remit (issues of taste, for example, or advertising content), submitted by a third party, or the complaints were informal – fair enough, really. Another chunk (18%) are not considered since no case was made under the Editor’s Code of Practice. The Commission’s website divides cases in which a case was made into two categories: “Resolved” – ones in which the paper and the complainant were able to come to an agreement – and “Adjudicated” – ones that the commission was forced to step into.
Just to make things awkward, the data provided on complaints is in a horribly user-unfriendly PDF, divided by month, which even Adobe’s PDF to HTML converter is flummoxed by. Luckily, most of this data is junk – i.e. people making complaints that were clearly not in breach of the code – and a lot is heavily duplicated (the thousands of complaints about the infamous Jan Moir article massively skews the data, for instance) and the really useful stuff (the resolved cases and the adjudicated cases) are online in a nice HTML format.
So. The PCC lists 4141 cases in its site (including magazines and local papers), of which 3569 (86%) were resolved (cases, I should point out, are de-duplicated – all complaints about Jan Moir’s article for instance are rolled into one case). Of those that were left, 260 (6.3%) complaints were upheld, 273 (6.6%) were not upheld, and in 28 (0.7%) cases, the PCC decided that the newspaper’s original response had been adequate. There are also 9 cases where the PCC returned no finding on the grounds that it was a matter for the courts, and 2 missing adjudications.
That, in itself, doesn’t really tell us much. Luckily however we can see which national newspapers were the most complained about – and then it gets a lot more interesting.*
|Total cases||Res.||% Res.||Adj.||Upheld||Not upheld||% Adj. upheld||% Total upheld|
Some of the results here – that The Sun and The Mail would be far in the lead in terms of number of complaints, for example, and that the The Sport would be full of breaches – are to be expected. Others would not. I’ve presented the data in some nice little graphs, because I do like graphs.
The Mail and The Mirror experience a major whittling down during the adjudication phase, while The Sun remains a massive outlier. Here’s a nice little representation of that whittling process:
The Mail, which was second in terms of the number of cases brought against it, is also the one which had the lowest percentage of cases upheld against it – fewer even than the reputable broadsheet stalwarts The Times and The Guardian – and The Mirror is not far behind.
In fairness, there could be good reasons for this. Perhaps The Mail and The Mirror are better at following the letter of the Editors’ code – even when an article appears objectionable, it can still be completely legal within the code. Perhaps the PCC is more likely to investigate complaints against these papers more fully – opening cases where otherwise it would simply throw away the complaint. Or perhaps this is simply statistical noise – 2206 cases is quite a lot, but when divided between 10 papers, it’s not impossible that a few funny outliers might skew the data.
Of course, as long as the PCC remains an industry-run body, there is always the suggestion of a less defensible explanation of this data. The problem with self-regulation is that it leads people to question the motives of any newspaper proprietors or editors who get involved in the PCC. Three newspaper editors are represented on the Commission: those of The Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Mirror and The Mail on Sunday – coincidentally the three papers least likely to have complaints upheld against them in adjudication. There’s no evidence that this is any kind of foul play – like I say, there are plenty of reasonable explanations why these papers might be less upheld against – but whether or not suspicion is warranted, this kind of thing will always look dodgy and reduce public trust in the Commission.
* To compile this data, every case involving a given newspaper was counted, even cases in which more than paper was complained against. Scottish, Sunday and online editions of papers were included in the total, including The Observer and The News of the World.