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IFJ report on hacking row exposes weakness of UK Press Complaints Commission

"Case for reform is unanswerable"

(IFJ/IFEX) - 1 March 2010 - A report prepared for the International Federation of Journalists into a controversy over illegal telephone hacking in the tabloid press says that the country's self-regulator is in need of urgent reform to enhance the reputation of British journalism.

The report was commissioned by the IFJ after the British Press Complaints Commission carried out two inquiries following claims of illegal tapping of the telephones of celebrities by journalists at The News of the World, the flagship title of the Rupert Murdoch press in Britain.

The claims, made by The Guardian, were dismissed by the PCC which accepted the tabloid management's view that the actions of two employees who were jailed in January 2007 for illegal hacking were an isolated incident.

However, fresh Guardian claims following extensive and secretive payouts to the victims of the hacking system last year led to a second inquiry. The PCC again accepted the News of the World's view and this time rebuked The Guardian, sparking a row which led The Guardian's editor to resign from his place on the PCC.

The IFJ Report, prepared by Belgian journalist and writer Jean-Paul Marthoz, has found that the actions of the PCC have weakened its credibility and revealed major failings in its mandate and its ways of operating.

"A critical moment has arrived and the case for reform of the PCC appears to be unanswerable," says Marthoz in his report which is published today and comes only a week after a Select Committee of the British Parliament issued its own damning report backing the view that the hacking has been more widespread than officially acknowledged and condemning the "collective amnesia" and "deliberate obfuscation" by the News of the World in its evidence to the Select Committee inquiry into illegal phone hacking.

The Committee also lambasted the PCC, qualifying its investigation into phone hacking as "simplistic, surprising, a further failure of self-regulation."

"It is clear that the PCC got itself into the no-man's-land of ethical journalism," said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary today. "Our report shows that it was hopelessly caught between two forces at work in journalism that pull in diametrically opposing directions. In doing so it exposed its own profound weakness as a credible self-regulator."

The IFJ report was commissioned as part of the IFJ Ethical Journalism Initiative, a global campaign supporting ethical conduct in journalism and calling for credible and transparent forms of self-regulation in media.

The report is to be a case study included in a book on media accountability systems to be published later this year. In his report Marthoz highlights a number of key reforms that could rebuild trust in a self-regulator for the British Press, including adopting the right of reply for people who are victims of press misbehaviour, a clause of conscience to allow journalists to opt out of unethical working practice and for more transparency in all areas of its operational work. He suggests that it must establish its independence from the British press industry and be more transparent about its funding - at the moment the financial contributions of newspapers are kept secret.

He also argues that it needs to have the power and mandate to carry out proper investigations and he describes its inquiries into the hacking affair as wholly inadequate.

He calls for a paradigm shift that would give a reformed regulator the voice and authority to speak out over press standards and to eliminate the impression that its current role is to be the defender of a press industry that is increasingly short of public confidence.

"The time has come for partisans of self-regulation to demonstrate the value of journalism as a public good," concludes Marthoz, "and media's real commitment to the highest ethical standards in a profession that is a key pillar of a vibrant and principled democracy."

Read the full report:
calling_to_account.pdf (187 KB)

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