Sir Christopher (center) and two of his colleagues.
I went yesterday afternoon to an interesting meeting in the Town Hall. The Town Hall is an imposing Victorian stone building in downtown Oxford, or in what they call "city centre." (Actually, what they call it is St. Aldate's, Oxonians preferring to refer to building locations by a scrap of the street the structure is on. This is taking me some getting used to, since I can't tell my St. Aldate's from my St. Giles, my St. Giles from my St. Clements.)
The occasion was a presentation by the Press Complaints Commission, an organization that is entirely alien to an American. You will notice on the home page of their Web site is a sentence that reads: "Click here for information on what to do if you are being harassed by a journalist." No, the link doesn't take you here or here. It takes you to a very detailed list of recommendations--pin a note to your door saying you are too distressed to talk, deputize a friend or neighbor to speak on your behalf--that ends with "If these measures fail and you feel that you are still being harassed, contact the PCC immediately." They offer a 24/7 anti-harassment service.
Earlier in the day, PCC staffers had confidential meetings with anyone who had a beef with the press. After that, some of its members discussed how they work to a room of about 20 interested people. The organization is independent and non-governmental. It receives its funding from the newspapers and magazines it keeps an eye on. The ravenous British media is known for digging up to its elbows in the private lives of celebrities, but commission members said the vast majority of its cases involve regular citizens who feel they've been wronged by their local paper.
That might include someone like Ms. Joyce Pinfield of Bromsgrove who, according to the PCC, complained that an article in the Clevedon Mercury "was inaccurate in its presentation of claims made against her by her former partner. She said that the piece had failed to distinguish between established fact and disputed allegations. There were also one or two points of simple inaccuracy....The matter was resolved when the newspaper indicated that it had removed the article from its electronic archives."
So, we don't know what it was specifically that Ms. Pinfield complained about, but a quick Google search and you can get some context. It involved alleged benefits fraud and adultery. Ah, the British.
The PCC's Code of Practice is an impressive document meant to keep journalists on the straight and narrow. It urges accuracy, warns against invasions of privacy and spells out how to write about children and victims of sexual assault. It has a section on "Intrusion into grief or shock" ("approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion").
The commission is chaired by Sir Christopher Meyer, whom Washingtonians may remember as Britain's ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2003. Sir Christopher (and that's what people called him as they raised their hands to ask questions) says the system is working. Though the PCC levies no fines, he says editors dread having to publish the retractions it insists upon when they rule in favor of the wronged reader--whether it's Catherine Zeta-Jones or Joyce Pinfield.