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User-generated content, privacy and subterfuge tackled by news chiefs

Major changes are being made to the Editors’ Code of Practice, to cover the growth of user-generated content and the phone-tapping scandal at the News of the World.

Following the annual review by the Code committee, which comprises senior newspaper executives, changes have been made to the preamble to the Code, and to Clause 10, which covers “clandestine devices and subterfuge”.

The Society of Editors is printing and distributing 40,000 wallet-size copies of the revised Code to Britain’s journalists and to politicians and leaders of civil society.

The code itself is enforced by the Press Complaints Commission and the changes will come into force from August 1.

The first change follows guidance on online publications issued earlier this year by the Press Standards Board of Finance, representing the publishers who co-ordinate and fund the newspaper and magazine industry’s actions on self-regulation.

This specifically excluded user-generated and non-edited material from the Code’s remit in online publications.

It defined editorial material as that for which the editor of the newspaper or magazine is responsible and could reasonably have been expected both to exercise control over and to apply the terms of the Code.

The Editors’ Committee has revised the preamble to make clear that the Code applies only to editorial material, and it will now say: “It is the responsibility of editors and publishers to apply the Code to editorial material in both printed and online versions of publications.

“They should take care to ensure it is observed rigorously by all editorial staff and external contributors, including non-journalists.”

The committee also wants journalists to see the preamble and public interest exceptions as a central part of the Code, and amended it to read: “All members of the press have a duty to maintain the highest professional standards.

“This Code, which includes this preamble and the public interest exceptions below, sets the benchmark for those ethical standards, protecting both the rights of the individual and the public’s right to know…”

The Clause 10 changes are a response to concerns about intrusions into privacy raised by the Information Commissioner – related to illegal trading in confidential information – and by the News of the World case.

Clause 10 is revised to state: “The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorized removal of documents, or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held private information without consent.

“Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest, and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.”

Code Committee chairman Les Hinton said: “We wanted to ensure that the preamble and public interest exceptions – which set out to balance the rights of the individual and the public’s right to know – are both instantly recognised as essential, and indivisible, elements of the document itself by anyone using the Code, be they a journalist, reader, lawyer or a judge.

“Second, it was vital that the Code’s approach to online and printed versions of newspapers was fully synchronised. The online guidance note’s definition of editorial material as that which might reasonably be expected to be edited applies equally well to printed versions. It means, for example, that while readers’ Letters to the Editor continue to be covered by the Code, advertising and marketing material continue not to be.

“Finally, in Clause 10, we felt that, under the spirit of the Code, as removal of documents or photographs without consent is already unacceptable, then hacking into computers to obtain such material must also be. Similarly, the use of third parties to gain information that would otherwise be protected by the Code would also amount to a breach. In both cases, it would be better, for the avoidance of doubt, to state this specifically.”

The Editors’ Code Committee comprises Les Hinton, News International; Neil Benson, Trinity Mirror Regional Newspapers; Adrian Faber, Express and Star, Wolverhampton; Mike Gilson, The Scotsman; Douglas Melloy, Rotherham and South Yorkshire Advertiser; Ian Murray, Southern Daily Echo; Lindsay Nicholson, The National Magazine Company; Jonathan Grun, Press Association; David Pollington, The Sunday Post; Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian: Neil Wallis, News of the World; Harriet Wilson, Conde-Nast magazines; John Witherow, Sunday Times, and Peter Wright, The Mail on Sunday.

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