The Commons Media Committee has called for all journalists to have the Editors Code of Practice incorporated into their contracts and for the first time backed self-regulation of the press.
Previous incarnations of the committee have called for new privacy laws. But in a groundbreaking move, a report on Wednesday instead urged that adherence to the PCC code should become a “condition of employment”for all journalists.
This is already the case for many but not yet standard across the industry.
In the wake of the Clive Goodman royal phone-tapping affair – and the concerns over the hounding of Prince William’s former girlfriend Kate Middleton – MPs said the clause “would safeguard journalists who believed they were being asked to use unethical newsgathering practices”.
The MPs concluded that the press had been damaged by recent failures to uphold the Editors’ Code of Practice: the events which led to the imprisonment of former News of the World Royal correspondent Clive Goodman and the hounding by the paparazzi of Kate Middleton.
In January, Goodman was jailed, along with private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, for accessing voicemail messages left for members of the Royal Family and other high-profile figures.
The MPs accepted that then-editor Andy Coulson, who denied any knowledge of what was going on, was right to resign.
But they have accused the NoW of in effect operating a “slush-fund” which “can only further the belief that editors condone such payments on a ‘no need to know’ basis’ as long as they provide good copy”.
The MPs said they found it extraordinary that the PCC had not questioned Coulson, and described its response to the harassment of Kate Middleton as “less than impressive”.
Jeremy Dear, NUJ General Secretary, told the committee that he thinks a conscience clause should be explicitly included into the Code of Practice, formally establishing a right for journalists to refuse to carry out editors’
instructions if they believe it would be unethical to do so.
He told MPs: “We receive complaints from lots of members who are put under pressure to breach the PCC and NUJ codes of practice and codes of ethics in pursuit of a story.”
In its written evidence, the NUJ argued: “The balance needs to be swung back to the professional journalists to make a decision about the story on which they are working rather than the editor whose loyalties must be influenced by the importance of raising circulation and profits.
“The editor should decide what goes into the paper applying the PCC Code whilst the journalist must have some say about the ethics of collecting and sourcing the story, also applying the Code.”
But Paul Horrocks, editor of the Manchester Evening News and President of the Society of Editors disputed the NUJ’s claim.
“That is just not my experience,” he told the MPs. “I have been the editor of the MEN for 10 years and I was on the PCC as a commissioner for four years. It is not a common problem, in my experience, that people are being forced into breaking the code.”
Tim Toulmin, director the Press Complaints Commission, said: “I do think it is a conscience clauseâ€¦ they are saying there should be references in peoples’ contracts to the [Editors’] Code of Conduct, and that’s something that the PCC has suggested is a good idea on a number of occasions.
“Where it is appropriate to company structures, anything that underlines the importance of the code in the mind of journalists is a good thing.
“This is not binding on the press, or the PCC or even the Government; it’s just an independent parliamentary look at how these things operate.”
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors said: “My understanding is that the Editors’ Code is already in most people’s contracts.
“The last time the Media Committee reported they called for privacy laws; now they are saying absolutely and unequivicably that it would be better to have self regulation.
“We should be celebrating because at last MPs have said that self regulation is good and statutory regulation is bad.”
The Government has six weeks to respond to the select committee’s report.