PCC is misguided in the case of the misguided pilot
Regular readers will know that this column has been a faithful supporter of the Press Complaints Commission, while acknowledging that the ‘phone-hacking controversy has effectively proven the case that the self-regulatory watchdog needs sharper teeth.
The commission has been robust and pro-active in recent times since it — along with others — fell asleep at the wheel during the original News of the World hacking scandal.
I have a profound disagreement, however, with a recent adjudication.
Unless challenged or superseded in some way, it could have serious consequences for news-gathering and, therefore, for the promotion of an open society.
The kernel of the case is simple: the Northern Echo newspaper in Darlington published a photo of an injured glider pilot receiving emergency treatment after a crash.
The image, in which the man’s face was clearly visible, was given to the paper by the emergency team to promote their work.
The pilot was not asked for his consent before the photo was taken (although he did consent to the use of film footage in a later broadcast). He was conscious and survived the crash.
The victim’s wife, Mrs Leigh Blows, complained to the PCC, saying the paper had broken Clause 5 of the Editors’ Code by intruding into grief and shock. Publication of the image had led to “a number of distressing ‘phone calls from friends”.
Amazingly, in my opinion, the commission sided with the complainant. Clause 5 exists to protect grieving families from harassment. It exists to ensure reports about death and bereavement are published with sensitivity. And to prohibit gratuitous reporting.
It does not exist to prohibit legitimate reporting of newsworthy events.
Crash-landing your glider into a field and having to receive medical treatment might lead to unwanted publicity. But it is a legitimate and newsworthy event to record.
No one died, or was left at the brink of death. Public money was spent rescuing and treating Mr Blows and on the crash investigation. The implications of this ruling could be severe.
Many of the raw images from the Troubles would never have been seen: left locked in photographic vaults.
The true face of a generation of violence and grief would have been left unexplored.
The same could apply to the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings and the 2011 summer riots, or daily news events like car crashes. Will archive material from newspaper libraries now be prohibited?
I do hope the commissioners don’t feel so backed into a corner by recent events that firm judgment begins to get undermined.
In a somewhat ironical way, however, this inappropriate ruling may well hasten the day when the PCC’s ‘case law’-driven process is scrapped and replaced by a clear set of agreed guidelines.