Promoting Ethical Practice: Media Reform recommendations part 1

Co-ordinating Committee
18 December 2011

This is the first section of Media Reform's recommendations. The second section is on Public Interest; the third is on Funding Models.


The News Publishing Commission

A News Publishing Commission would be formed to replace the PCC. The commission’s composition and duties are described below. They would incorporate much of the existing good practice of the PCC as well as having additional responsibilities.

2. Membership of the Commission: all publications are eligible for membership of and representation by, the Commission. All publications registered with the Commission (on or off line) would be eligible for VAT exemption. Publications that are not members of the Publishing Commission would not be eligible for VAT exemption. Any organisation withdrawing from the Commission would lose their VAT exemption.  Organisations with a turnover of less than £50,000 (ie not VAT registered) would be eligible for free associate membership of the Commission. They would be able to make use of the Ombudsman’s services and their members would be eligible to stand for tribunal panels and as members of the commission board (see below).

3. Composition of the Board: the Commission board will be composed of members of the public, ordinary working journalists and editors who must nominated by their trade body, union, or by relevant civil society organisations. This composition would work along similar lines to that successfully established by the Irish Press Council.

 4. The role of the Commission would be to promote press freedom and to oversee and update a code of conduct and ensure that it is implemented. The Commission would have a number of other duties that are described below.

5. Code of Ethical Practice:  the Commission would draw up a Code of Practice which would be based on the current PCC editors’ code. The code would include a conscience clause allowing journalists to refuse to do work that is in breach of the code.

6. Publication of ethical codes:  The Commission would mandate all publications to display the Code of Ethical Practice online, alongside information on right of reply, via a simple and visible button at the bottom of every article (alongside the Twitter and Facebook icons). An appropriate URL should also be included on the leader page of the print version of a publication and alongside the Corrections column.

7. News Ombudsman: The Commission board would appoint an independent Ombudsman who can operate as a first port of call for members of the public about right of reply or breaches of the code. The Ombudsman would have the power to demand an instant ‘right of reply’ at the top of the comment section of the relevant website within a specified time frame (hours rather than days). The right of reply would be of a specified length and contain a Commission logo to make it clear that a complaint had been made. The object would be to rectify any egregious abuse of power by news media as fast as possible in the hope that, in most cases, that would be the end of the matter. The secondary hope would be that news organisations rapidly institute their own ‘right of reply’ unit to avoid such a sanction.

8. News Tribunals: Operating on the same basis as employment tribunals, they would adjudicate on cases that are not resolved by the Ombudsman. The Tribunals would be constituted from a panel representing the media and a panel representing the public and would be chaired by a legally qualified person.

9. Prior notification:  Under the PCC, where a news organisation is about to publish information which they know to be in breach of the privacy of an individual, they are encouraged to alert the Commission. If it is judged not to be in the public interest, the Commission may issue a ‘desist’ notice to that effect. If the publication were to go ahead under those circumstances, then the breach of such a notice would be taken into consideration in any future privacy action. The new Commission would operate a similar policy.

10. Investigations on behalf of groups: In the case of an article that clearly breaches the code of ethics, but does not impugn a particular named person, the Board would be empowered to investigate and, where appropriate, insist on a right of reply (see below).

11. Libel: The use of the Ombudsman and the right of reply mechanism should be taken into account in libel cases as PCC adjudications are currently taken into consideration in privacy cases under the Human Rights Act. Where it is clear that the publication involved has made serious and immediate attempts to correct erroneous or unfair statements this should be used in mitigation in any future libel action. While there would be no attempt to prevent further legal action being taken, there should be a presumption that the courts would only be used if other avenues have failed. This should provide a useful quid pro quo for the news media who would stand to gain a great deal in freedom of expression in return for offering a fairer say to those who have been damaged.

12. Privacy: Breaches of privacy law should be subject to larger fines but a defence of ‘prior advice’ and ‘public interest’ should be clearly drafted and recognised, to protect press freedom. 

13. A whistle blowers code should be established and the commission would be empowered to intercede on behalf of any journalist who feels pressurised into breaking the code. 

14. A harassment help-line for victims of press intrusion is one of the current examples of good practice which would be incorporated into the new organisation

15. Funding: Publications (on or off line) registered with the Commission would pay a levy based on their turnover. All registered news organisations would be able to apply for VAT exemption. Additional statutory funding would be required in recognition of the public service performed by the Commission.

A Statutory Right of Reply

16. Any person or organisation specifically mentioned who believes that they have been seriously misrepresented should have a right of reply. Print publications should provide a mistakes and clarifications section, where a right of reply can be summarised with a referral to the on-line version where it must be reproduced in full, without comment. This would normally be immediately below the offending article, as it appears online, at the top of the comments column. 

17. In the case of a failure to offer a right of replywhere publications are members of the News Publishing Commission a complainant can take their case to the News Ombudsman (see below) for an adjudication, the News Tribunal (see below) or to a court.

18. The action of a publication in providing a right of reply or the judgement of the News Ombudsman would be taken into consideration in mitigation as is currently the case under section 12.4 of the Human Rights Act.

Enhancing Transparency

19. Journalists, once employed by other organisations, must not retain office space nor receive payments or other inducements from their previous news employer.

20. Public servants should be barred from receiving payment from journalists for any information related to their work unless they are themselves the author of the work and are credited for it.

21. The principle of transparency should be applied in dealings with journalists and news professionals at all levels of institutions. Meetings between politicians of all ranks, CEOs, police officers, etc., on the one hand, and editors and media owners on the other, should be recorded and made publicly available on the websites of both media organisations and public institutions, including political parties, police constabularies, public companies and so on to ensure that all contacts between politicians, senior officials and representatives of media organisations are above board and in the public domain. The News Publishing Commission that we are recommending as a replacement for the Press Complaints Commission should recommend standards on transparency at all levels and to include the following information: 

  • 1) The date and place of the meeting 
  • 2) The circumstances behind the meeting being arranged (i.e. at whose initiative)
  • 3) The attendees
  • 4) The subjects discussed
  • 5) Any decisions taken
  • 6) Any other information that would assist the process of establishing public transparency and accountability.

22. The News Publishing Commission would provide expert help on technical innovations to improve transparency and would consult and recommend on new standards of transparency using meta-data.


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