Old-style Fleet Street watchdog the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has bared its teeth in the brave new world of citizen journalism in the United Kingdom, writes Tony Glover in The Independent.
Every major news event from the London bombings in 2005 to the recent Mississippi bridge disaster has been recorded by amateurs using cellphone video cameras, with newspapers and magazines standing in line to upload the best and bloodiest footage on to their websites.
By upholding a complaint against the Hamilton Advertiser, the PCC has made its first ruling on audio-visual content and sparked an industry-wide debate on the best way to police the largely untamed frontiers of the Internet.
A 16-year-old pupil at John Ogilvie High School in Hamilton, near Glasgow, used her cellphone to take a video of her fellow pupils misbehaving in class. The Hamilton Advertiser, a local paper, not only ran the story in print but also uploaded the video on to its website.
Two other papers, The Scottish Sun and the Scottish Daily Mirror, also used images from the video to illustrate stories concerning lax school discipline.
The president of the school's parents' and teachers' association, Laura Gaddis, lodged a complaint against all three publications on the grounds the newspapers had not obtained permission to use the images.
But the PCC only upheld the complaint against the Hamilton Advertiser. It judged that the other two publications had made sufficient efforts to hide the identities of the pupils shown in the video.
The ruling gives teeth to the PCC's announcement in February that its remit had been extended to include editorial audio-visual material on newspaper and magazine websites.
PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer said then: "Editorial information in the digital age – regardless of the format in which it is delivered – will be subject to the highest professional standards overseen by the commission."
But the PCC's remit only extends to websites operated by newspapers and magazines. Because of the PCC ruling, web-based publications are seen by some in the industry to now have far greater editorial freedom than websites operated by print media.
A PCC spokesperson told The Independent on Sunday that it is already facing criticism on this front. But he added that the PCC believes that, far from diminishing the effectiveness of print brands online, it gives them a distinct advantage.
"The PCC offers newspapers and magazines what is effectively a quality Kitemark. It assures readers that the material they are viewing can be checked for accuracy as well as for unwarranted intrusion.
"Most of the complaints we investigate relate to accuracy. Many publications run our logo online to differentiate themselves from unregulated news services," said the spokesperson.
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, agrees that newspapers and magazines should do all they can to maintain the quality of their brand on the Internet.
"Publications just cannot operate on the basis that the Internet offers open access to any kind of material with no control. This may be true of certain parts of the Internet but not for newspapers and magazines," said Satchwell, who edited the Cambridge Evening News for 15 years.
He said that the Internet age is entering a new era which will favour the websites of more traditional publications.
"The Internet has been flooded with a huge amount of material of varying quality. But things are beginning to settle down as people come to realise the value of information that comes from a reliable source. The newspapers' big online advantage is their brand," said Mr Satchwell.
He added that, although the Society of Editors is generally opposed to the over-policing of Internet content, the PCC's Code of Practice performs a valuable function.
"I believe that the code is setting a benchmark that can only enhance the brands of newspapers and magazines online. The biggest issue online is creating credibility. You cannot develop a significant audience online until you establish credibility. Organisations signed up to the PCC do have credibility since the information they publish is open to scrutiny," Satchwell said.
As well as helping ensure accuracy and protecting schoolchildren's privacy, the code prohibits the use of hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices, intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages and emails.
The code also bans racist or sexist references and prohibits payment to criminals or to witnesses in criminal trials.
Satchwell added: "While the PCC offers a useful assurance of quality, you cannot expect it to suddenly start policing the entire Internet."
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