Media Law Update (04 March): Regulation and Ethics

Personal commentary surrounding regulation and ethics:

In previous blogs I have covered the legal framework in which journalism takes place including: limits imposed by laws on defamation, contempt of court, and copyright.

The main focus of this week’s blog is to explore regulation (by various bodies and codes) as the mechanism for guiding journalists in day-to-day situations.

Important differences exist in the regulatory regimes relating to broadcast and print journalism. The regime relating to broadcast (BBC and Ofcom) is relatively settled but the regime relating to print is currently subject to furious debate.

Generally, broadcasters enjoy higher levels of audience trust than print based media. Effective ethical guidelines must enjoy the respect of those whose behaviour they are trying to influence. Prior to the phone hacking scandal the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was already negatively regarded by many. The PCC was thought to be too easily brushed aside by less scrupulous editors and journalists and was not considered as an institution which could threaten journalists’ careers.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) has taken over the role of the old PCC, which closed in September. It is backed by the big newspaper and magazine groups, with exceptions of the Guardian, Financial Times and London Standard. Leveson opened his inquiry in November 2011 into the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the press’ posing the question: “Who guards the guardians?” He concluded a new system was needed as the old one had failed. Parliament has approved a Royal Charter system based on Leveson’s recommendations, but this has been rejected by the majority of press.

In an interview I conducted for The Justice Gap: associate director of Hacked Off, Dr Evan Harris, explained that unless there was an ‘external audit by the Royal Charter body’, both ‘independent’ of the industry and of politicians, ‘the public cannot have faith that IPSO isn’t just the PCC with lipstick’. Harris described the history of press regulation in this country as ‘a history of cycles of failure’ where the press say that they’re going to self-regulate themselves effectively and don’t.

In contrast, an article from the BBC, says former BBC chairman Lord Grade called the cross-party Royal Charter on press regulation “bonkers” saying that giving politicians ‘the opportunity to amend statutory press regulation cannot be in the public interest’.

Despite arguments over what type of regulation body should have replaced the PCC and why: it is important for journalists to follow the ethical codes set in place for them as making poor ethical judgements can cost them their reputation, audience trust, and ultimately their job. This is a consequence Peter Fincham found out, in 2007, when he resigned as BBC One Controller following an investigation into footage that misrepresented the Queen.

In the News:

In the news today (4th March 2015), IPSO upheld a complaint against Mail Online over Liz Jones’ column but rejected it against The Mail on Sunday over the same article. The Mail Online version of the article included a photograph of a dog wearing a “Hearing Dogs for Deaf People” vest, captioned “Home help: ‘I have four hearing dogs that are trained to create a commotion if my fire alarm goes off’”. Faith Clark complained on behalf of the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People that the article gave the inaccurate impression that the columnist has four specially-trained assistance dogs. According to Press Gazette, having upheld the complaint against the photograph, the IPSO complaints committee said that the removal of the photo and the addition of the footnote was sufficient remedial action. The complaint against The Mail on Sunday, which did not use the same photo as Mail Online, was rejected.

It is interesting to note in this case that the two titles were under separate editorial control and it is because of this that one article passed regulation ethics whilst the other one didn’t.

To round up:

Important differences exist in the regulatory regimes relating to broadcast and print journalism however it is up to you, as a journalist, to make sure that your work meets the relevant regulation standards and that if in doubt – refer up!

Law Notes: Regulation and codes of conduct

Codes of practice tend to concentrate on areas including:

  • Ethical behaviour expected from journalists.
  • Fair treatment and respect for privacy.
  • Requirement for accuracy and impartiality.
  • Protecting children and young people.

They also offer an avenue of redress to members of the public who wish to complain about their treatment at the hands of the press. This can be an alternative to the time and expense of going to law.

♦ (IPSO) The Independent Press Standards Organisation

IPSO is a non-statutory body. promises a tougher approach than the old PCC.


  • Mediation between complainant and publisher.
  • Arbitration scheme (low cost).
  • Requirement for apologies/corrections.
  • Fines up to £1 million.

Although it contains credible figures from outside the newspaper industry, the jury is still out on its effectiveness. Some victims of press intrusion and hacking claim it’s a sham.

♦ Ofcom

Ofcom has statutory powers. Ofcom applies to TV and radio broadcasts, or services licensed by Ofcom. Large parts of the Code apply to the BBC except impartiality, inaccuracy and election provisions.


  • Sanctions will be imposed when a broadcaster ‘deliberately, seriously or repeatedly’ breaches the Code.
  • Can issue a direction not to repeat a programme.
  • Can issue a direction to broadcast a correction or a statement of Ofcom’s findings.
  • Can impose a financial penalty; and/or
  • Revoke a licence (not applicable to the BBC, S4C or Channel 4).
  • Can fine up to 5% of qualifying revenue or £250,000 – whichever greater.

There is an absolute requirement for ‘due accuracy and due impartiality’ – absent for print media. Privacy (Section 8) is important as it covers when secret recording might be appropriate or ‘warranted’ to use the Ofcom term.

♦ BBC Editorial Guidelines

BBC handles all its own complaints about bias and inaccuracy. BBC Trust sets the framework for procedure.

There are two main purposes of the BBC Guidelines:

  • They are specifically designed to be a working tool for programme makers and journalists.
  • They are designed as a benchmark of good practice when considering complaints.

♦ National Union of Journalists Code of Conduct

As with the IPSO/PCC code there is nothing for the public to reasonably disagree with. It remains a useful guide to good conduct, and a model to be replicated elsewhere but without the possibility of serious sanction for transgression, it does little to reassure a public which often remains sceptical about journalistic conduct.


About brackenstockley

Contributor to the JusticeGap and WINOL. Currently studying journalism at the University of Winchester (Year Three).
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