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Press complaints about online news outstrip print for the first time

For the first time last year the press watchdog the Press Complaints Commission received more complaints about online versions of articles than hard-copy versions.

There was a 56 percent to 44 per cent split. The PCC has been responsible for the regulation of the editorial content of publications’ websites since 1997.

It puts the rise in complaints about online material down to the fact that it is more convenient for readers to complain via the internet and provide a link to the article being complained about.

Meanwhile, the Commmission has received only a handful of complaints about audio-visual material since its remit was extended to include AV in February 2007.

The complaints generally conform to a particular pattern in that they relate to privacy and they comprise video taken and submitted by non-journalists, to illustrate stories about individuals’ conduct.

Almost invariably, such material has raised possible breaches of Clause 3 (privacy) or 6 (children), as it has been published without the consent of those who feature in it.

The test for the Commission – as it should for editors – has often come down to whether there was a sufficient public interest to justify any resultant intrusion.

The Commission’s policy is that, as soon as an editor makes a decision to publish material, he or she is assuming responsibility for its content and the manner in which it was obtained. This places a responsibility on the editor to make appropriate checks on material before it is placed online or in the paper.

One example was when the Hamilton Advertiser ran a video supplied by a pupil who had filmed her unruly maths class on her mobile phone to explain her poor results to her parents. The video identified other children in the class without consent.

While the subject matter of the story – that classroom discipline was allegedly so lax it was affecting pupils’ performance – was clearly in the public interest, it did not override the rights of the other pupils in the class.

The PCC said that the newspaper should have taken steps to conceal the identities of the children or obtained proper consent – and that its decision to upload the video to its website in full raised a breach of the Code of Practice.

The watchdog has only received one complaint about AV material that has been commissioned by a newspaper (and supplied by working journalists).

This appeared in The Guardian and was a Reuters report on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The complaint related to the accuracy of one of the terms used in the report. The Commission found no breach of the code.

The PCC is also able to rule upon complaints about user comments – but only if two conditions are met: the online editor or moderator is made aware of any problems and then exercises “editorial control” by allowing the material to remain online and the complaint raises an issue under the terms of the code.

Yet while the Commission has received around 50 complaints over the year about users comments, a tiny percentage have fallen within its jurisdiction.

Most relate to issues of taste and decency, rather than the code, and most are resolved by the take-down procedures of the websites.