Bureau of Investigative Journalism v Bell Pottinger: a question of standards II

Sequels are rarely as good as the first book or film, but sometimes it is hard to resist. In my first blog into the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) sting on Bell Pottinger (BP), I used the story to show how blogging is largely unregulated, press media is regulated to a limited degree by the Editors’ Code of the PCC and then lastly that broadcast media are subject to the greatest regulation of all under Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code.

To adapt my own opening, you may have thought that experienced public relations professionals would realise that there is no such thing as impartiality in the press, but the press release of Lord Bell of Chime Communications suggests this is not the case.

I’ll follow the format of my last blog, too.

Blogs and websites

Firstly, as I said before, blogs, bloggers and their websites have little restrictions on what they do or say. So in the context of the Chime Communications press release, bloggers can be as underhand, unethical and improper as they like. Their reporting of a matter can be as impartial, not even-handed and deliberately slanted as they want.

Press media

For press media, there is little legislation above what applies to bloggers. When it comes to the increased, self-imposed regulation of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and its Editors’ Code, there is not much to add on impartiality. The press only have some duties concerning accuracy. Article 1 of the Code states:


i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading  or distorted information, including pictures.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.

iii) The press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

iv) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.

The use of subterfuge was addressed in my last blog – I note that Chime Communications have not stated why the public interest defence does not apply to its use by BIJ for the sting. Impartiality or partisanship is the name of the game for the press, which a PR would know, surely?

Broadcast media

Lastly, there is the broadcast media. Here, fairness and impartiality is an issue, with a whole section dealing with fairness (Section 7). So perhaps in a broadcast of the BIJ story, there would have to have been some programme time devoted to a right to reply (see Section 7.11 and 7.12 of the Broadcasting Code), once the use of deception could be justified by the public interest test in the Code to permit the programme to air in the first place.

So given that the BIJ website and The Independent could be quite impartial, what is the Chime Communications press release trying to say? Sorry?

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