Interview: Robert Pinker

Professor Robert Pinker, acting chairman at the Press Complaints Commission, on free speech and privacy.

Tessa Mayes

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Professor Robert Pinker’s comments form part of the spiked-report Restraint or Revelation? Free speech and privacy in a confessional age.

The media coverage of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC)’s decennial anniversary party in 2001 gave the impression that most of the guests were members of the Royal Family, top politicians and other celebrities. It neglected to mention that ordinary people who had been past complaints to the PCC were also there in large numbers. And so they should have been, because 90 percent of all the complaints we received came from so-called ordinary people.

The industry’s Code of Practice is the bedrock of all our work at the PCC. The code consists of 16 clauses under which individuals or organisations can make a complaint about unethical conduct on the part of the press.

Eight of the clauses in the code cover issues like privacy, intrusion, harassment, the protection of children – including children involved in sex cases – the use of listening devices, access to hospitals, reporting of crime, and resort to misrepresentation or subterfuge in the gathering of news. Under the provision of the code, editors may act in ways that seem to breach these clause requirements, but they must be able to demonstrate a public interest defence for doing so. A public interest defence covers such matters as the exposure of crime or serious misdemeanour, protecting public health, or preventing the public from being misled when public figures make statements that are inconsistent with the way in which they lead their private lives.

Much of the work that we do in adjudicating complaints involves us trying to reconcile conflicting principles or rights. When dealing with complaints about privacy intrusion, for example, we have to balance the right to privacy against the right to freedom of expression and the claims of the public interest against each other.

We administer and apply the Code of Practice, but the code itself belongs to the industry. The Code Committee of editors wrote the code in 1991, and have kept it up to date ever since in consultation with the industry. The press is publicly committed to upholding the code. The PCC is consulted by the Code Committee when changes are being made, and we also make recommendations from time to time. Occasionally editors may complain about our adjudications, but they can never complain that the code was imposed on them by people who know little or nothing about the realities of gathering and publishing the news. It is the industry’s code.

Over the years we have developed a set of ground rules that we apply with regard to complaints from public people about press intrusion into their private lives. When the Princes William and Harry were at school, there was a period during which relatively trivial stories were published about their activities – such as a minor sporting injury, a change of hairstyle or a friendship at school. Taken individually, none of these reports was sufficiently serious to merit a complaint. When considered cumulatively over time, however, they could be construed as invasion of privacy likely to prejudice the welfare and schooling of the young Princes.

We responded by asking the editors to apply a principle of proportionality when deciding whether or not to publish these kind of stories. We suggested that the coverage of the story should always be proportionate to the interest it would evoke if it were being written about any other child or young person. Would it even be considered for publication? What would be the likely cumulative effect of such stories on any child’s welfare over a period of time? These were questions we asked the editors to consider, and the record shows that the great majority of editors took these questions on board and stopped giving disproportionate coverage to the children of public figures.

In the early years of the PCC’s work, some editors argued that once a person, and notably a public person, had voluntarily placed information about aspects of their private life in the public domain then they had effectively forfeited all their future rights to privacy. We have never accepted this argument as a guiding principle. We look at each case on its merits. We check on those aspects of their private lives that they have already voluntarily disclosed. We ask whether or not there is a proportionate relationship between their past disclosures and the kinds of information that a newspaper has subsequently published without their consent.

We did not uphold a complaint from Julia Carling about a story giving details of her personal relationships because, in our view, she had in the recent past voluntarily placed very similar information about herself in the public domain. In the case of Selina Scott, we upheld her complaint about an article based on confidential letters to a former friend which had been published without her consent. Contrary to the claims of the offending newspaper, we found no evidence that she had ever voluntarily published information of this kind herself.

The code’s definition of a private place has been revised over the years. Private places are now defined as ‘public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy’. We try to apply this definition with realism and common sense. It would not be reasonable for very eminent people like members of the Royal Family, the prime minister’s family or show business celebrities to assume that they can enjoy the same degree of privacy in public places as ordinary people do when they are on holiday.

When Anna Ford complained about being photographed while walking with her friend on a beach, her complaint was not upheld. She claimed that the beach in question was a private one, but investigation showed it to have been public in character. Consequently we considered that it was not the kind of place in which a person could have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Some public places, however, do have an intrinsically private character because of the purposes they serve. Sir Paul McCartney complained to the PCC when he was photographed with one of his children at prayer in Notre Dame Cathedral. It could be argued that Notre Dame, when it is packed with holiday tourists, cannot reasonably be considered a private place. The offending magazine defended its publication of the photograph on the grounds that there was, at the time, considerable public interest in Sir Paul and his family because his wife had recently died.

We upheld his complaint on the grounds that a church is pre-eminently a place of worship and prayer where people can have reasonable expectation of privacy. Even churches which are not tourist attractions remind visitors to show respect to worshippers. The fact that Sir Paul and his family had recently been bereaved also compounded the privacy breach with one of intrusion into grief and shock.

Do all people have a basic right to privacy? We have argued that they do – even though that right may sometimes be qualified by considerations of public interest. Ian Brady once complained to the PCC that a newspaper had invaded his privacy when it published a photograph of him in transit from his special hospital to a local hospital. Brady had been on hunger strike and was dying as a result. We did not uphold his complaint, because he had voluntarily published the fact that he was on hunger strike. The newspaper in question, however, had also defended its action on the grounds that Brady had long ago forfeited all his rights to privacy because of the heinous nature of his crimes. In our adjudication we pointedly rejected this defence on the grounds that everyone has a basic right to privacy.

Lastly, we have had to consider whether or not the property people own is protected by a right to privacy irrespective of whether or not they are in personal residence. This issue arose when Sir Elton John complained to the PCC that the secluded garden of one of his holiday villas had been photographed without his consent when he was not in residence. Sir Elton had lent the villa to the Beckhams. The published photograph could only have been taken by scaling a wall, and it had been taken without the Beckhams’ knowledge or consent.

We asked the Beckhams if they wished to complain and they declined to do so. We went back to Sir Elton who said that he was complaining on his own behalf because it was his property. We upheld a complaint on the grounds that everyone is entitled to have their home treated as a private place whether or not they are in residence.

Self-regulation requires editors to regulate their own conduct. It is they who must decide whether or not a story or a picture will be published. The PCC, for example, cannot stop paparazzi from taking pictures under circumstances that breach the code. The principle of editorial accountability, however, ensures to a very considerable extent that stories and pictures of this kind are not published in British newspapers and periodicals.

Professor Robert Pinker is acting chairman of the Press Complaints Commission

This is an extract of a speech given at the debate Private Lives, Public People, at the London School of Economics on 7 March 2001. It was co-organised by the LIRE media group, the Society of Editors, the Media Society and the LSE Media group.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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