IMPRESS is currently undertaking a code consultation to develop a Standards Code, which you can view here.
At IMPRESS, we require the news publishers we regulate to uphold a Standards Code. We are putting forward the Editors’ Code of Practice as our initial Standards Code. The Editors’ Code of Practice has been developed since 1991 by members of the Editors’ Code of Practice Committee, convened by the Regulatory Funding Company, which is completely separate from IMPRESS. You can read the Editors' Code in full here.
The Editors’ Code has 16 clauses, which cover important issues such as accuracy, privacy, harassment, discrimination and the confidentiality of sources. The Code also includes a preamble, which explains that it should be followed not only to the letter but also in the full spirit.
On these pages, you can read our guidance on each clause of the Code. We hope that this guidance will be useful to journalists, publishers and members of the public who want to understand issues concerning the press and the Code.
There is a public interest exception for most (but not all) clauses of the Code. We provide additional guidance on these exceptions, and on the nature of the ‘public interest’ in general. This guidance does not form part of the Code. It is intended to help publishers determine whether a particular publication or journalistic activity is justifiable in the public interest. We cannot anticipate the facts of every case, and nothing here should be taken as prejudging the outcome of any adjudication or investigation for which IMPRESS is responsible.
Some issues which are covered in the Editors’ Code of Practice are also subject to provisions in the civil and criminal law. This guidance does not constitute legal advice.
What is the ‘public interest’? And how can we tell the difference between journalism which is in the public interest and journalism which simply interests the public?
To have an interest in something can mean (1) that you are curious about it; or (2) that you have a stake in it. When we talk about the ‘public interest’, we are using the second meaning of the word.
The first meaning of ‘interest’ is the most common. We use it all the time. ‘Did she really say that?’ ‘What was he wearing?’ ‘Have you seen them together?’ ‘That’s so interesting!’ A lot of journalism satisfies our natural interest, or curiosity, about what is happening in the world around us. That does not mean it is in the public interest. Nor does it mean that it is against this Code, or the law. It may simply provide useful information or harmless entertainment.
But some journalism is not so harmless. Journalists and news publishers might intrude into someone’s private life. They might use clandestine listening devices or engage in subterfuge in order to establish the facts of a story. Or they might pay a criminal for information. This kind of activity would normally constitute a breach of the Code, because of the harm that it causes. But if a news publisher can demonstrate that they were acting in the public interest, their actions might be justified. Ten Clauses under this Code are wholly or partly subject to a public interest exception.
We have an ‘interest’, or stake, in issues which concern us as members of the community or society as a whole. For instance, if you hold shares in a company, you have an interest in that company. Similarly, if you live in a certain town, you have an interest in the way your council is run. If you are a citizen of a particular country, you have an interest in the way your country is governed. These issues may not be very interesting but you have a stake in them nonetheless. This is the second meaning of ‘interest’, which lies behind the phrase, ‘public interest’The public interest may be used to justify publications or activities which would otherwise constitute a breach of the Editors' Code when the interests of society in publication outweigh the harm caused by the publisher.'The public interest includes...'The Standards Code provides a few examples of issues which may be in the public interest. The Code states that the ‘public interest includes, but is not confined to’ these issues. They are simply examples of matters in which we have a stake as members of society. We have an interest in detecting crime and protecting public safety, so journalism which pursues these objectives, despite causing some harm, may be in the public interest.Some forms of public interest journalism inform public debate and democratic participation and allow us to hold the state to account. The state includes central government, Parliament, local authorities, the courts, the police and other bodies carrying out public functions.
There may also be a public interest in matters relating to private bodies, such as companies, banks, trade unions, charities and sports clubs. As stakeholders in society and the economy we have an interest in the sound administration of such organisations.
However, there is not necessarily a public interest in journalism merely because it relates to a public figure or a well-known personality. Public figures such as politicians, senior civil servants or religious leaders may expect to come under scrutiny from news publishers, acting on behalf of the public. But public figures and celebrities also have a right to a private life (see below, Clause 2: Privacy). Publication or journalistic activity which interferes with their privacy, or other expectations under this Code, is not necessarily justified simply because they are public figures or well known to the public.
The Code states that there may be a public interest in ‘preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.’ This provision suggests that publishers might commission journalists to investigate an individual or organisation, where they believe that the public might otherwise be misled – for instance, if a water company released incomplete information about its safety record, or a religious leader, with direct influence over the actions of her followers, falsely purported to practise ‘family values’. It does not give news publishers a licence to correct any inaccurate impression created by an individual, or to publish private information simply because someone has chosen to keep a secret.
Ordinary members of the public may also find themselves at the centre of attention. The public interest in the publication of private information will depend not simply on the status of the person concerned, but on the significance of any information which is revealed by publication.
Freedom of expression
The Code states that there is a ‘public interest in freedom of expression itself.’ This reminds us that freedom of expression is a human right, and that sometimes news publications will publish ideas or information which some people may find distasteful, indecent or partisan. It also recognises the importance of editorial autonomy in determining the selection, placing and presentation within news publications of ideas and information. However, it does not mean that a particular article should be seen as serving the public interest simply because it is a manifestation of ‘freedom of expression’.
Unlike the codes which apply to broadcasters in the United Kingdom, this Code does not set standards of taste, decency or political impartiality. It recognises the value of a press which is free to be noisy and partisan. However, it is important to note that Clause 1 of the Code (see below) requires news publishers to ‘distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.’ There may be a breach of the Code where an opinion is presented as a fact, and that fact is inaccurate.
A vast range of material is published every day by publications or individuals which are not regulated under this Code. Sometimes, news publishers may want to republish or refer to information which breaches this Code but is already in the public domain. This may be a factor in determining whether a particular publication is in the public interest, but it is not necessarily a justification for publishing certain material.
‘Editors invoking the public interest…’
The Code requires editors to 'demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication – or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.'
This means that editors and journalists cannot breach the Code on a whim, or justify their actions retrospectively if they did not establish at the time that they were acting in the public interest. For example, publishers should not pursue ‘fishing trips’, where journalists intrude upon the privacy of multiple individuals, on the off-chance that one of these intrusions might reveal important information. The link between the publication or journalistic activity and the public interest should be clear and compelling.
The Code does not require publishers to protect children from particular ideas, information or images. There is no ‘watershed’ requirement in news publishing. However, matters are different when specific children are the subject of reporting. The Code requires news publishers to respect the ‘paramount interest of the child’ when publishing information or pursuing journalistic activity in relation to children (see below, Clause 6: Children; and Clause 7: Children in sex cases).
Clause 1 sets standards for news publishers to follow both before and after publication. Before publication, publishers must take reasonable care ‘not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information’. Accuracy applies to images as well as words. Significantly altering photographs may be a breach of this Clause.
The level of care which is reasonable will depend on the circumstances. A publisher should be able to demonstrate reasonable grounds for accepting the accuracy of a report, and to provide evidence that appropriate checks were carried out before publication. More care may reasonably be expected if the reputation of an individual or organisation is stake. For instance, a publisher may not be required to double-check the statistics in an official report, because it would be reasonable to assume that they are accurate. In contrast, extreme care must be taken when reporting any allegation of crime or wrongdoing. It is standard practice (and may be required in any action for defamation) for a journalist, before publication, to contact the subject of any allegation which may adversely affect a person’s reputation. This is particularly important if an allegation has been made by an anonymous source.
There may still be a breach of this Clause if facts are reported in a misleading or distorted way. This can be the case when significant facts are omitted.
After publication, this Clause requires publishers to correct significant inaccuracies, misleading statements and distortions, promptly and with due prominence. If a publisher and a complainant cannot agree on the nature or prominence of a correction or apology, the complainant may refer this to the Regulator.
News publishers are required to distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. Some forms of content, such as news stories, are clearly presented as matters of fact. Others, such as comment pieces and book reviews, are presented as opinion. In every case, the publisher should make clear whether an individual aspect of any article is being presented as comment, conjecture or fact.
Sometimes news publishers are responsible for publishing information which is found to be defamatory. If so, they are required under the Code to report fairly and accurately the outcome of any legal action.
This Clause applies when there has been a breach of the accuracy requirement in Clause 1. If inaccurate information has been published about a person or organisation, that person or organisation must be given a reasonable opportunity to reply, promptly and with due prominence.
There is no public interest exception to Clause 1.
This Clause reminds us that privacy is a human right. A breach of privacy may cause serious harm. It can undermine people’s psychological wellbeing, particularly their trust in others. The Clause applies both to the publication of private information and to journalistic activity which interferes with a person’s privacy. It may be breached by photographing someone who has a reasonable expectation of privacy, regardless of whether any images are subsequently published.
People may have a reasonable expectation of privacy not only in private places but also in private activities (such as visiting a doctor or therapist) and communications (such as letters, phone calls, text messages and web browsing). People may also have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place, when they are engaging in activity which is part of their private or family life. For example, a couple kissing in a public square or a family on a shopping expedition are not hidden from view, but they may have a reasonable expectation that they will not be photographed. Being noticed fleetingly by passers-by, whilst remaining anonymous, is very different from seeing photographs of yourself, in which you are identifiable, published for posterity. An expectation of privacy may be unreasonable in some contexts, such as appearing at an event for publicity purposes, or where you are not engaging in any aspect of private or family life.
There may be overlap between this Clause and others. For instance, the use of clandestine devices or subterfuge may be a breach of both Clause 2 and Clause 10 (see below).
Children should always be treated as a special case (see Clause 6, below).
Public interest Guidance on Clause 2
There may be a public interest justification to a breach of privacy if (1) the breach was proportionate to the public interest in the information obtained; or (2) the information was already in the public domain.
For instance, it may, in certain circumstances, be in the public interest to reveal the fact that someone in a position of authority has initiated a sexual affair with a vulnerable junior colleague. However, it might be going too far to publish intimate details or photographs of any sex acts which took place between the couple. The public are unlikely to need to see photographs to understand what has taken place.
This Clause recognises the harm that may be caused by journalistic activities such as aggressive interview techniques or threatening methods of obtaining an interview or photograph, including pursuit on foot or in a vehicle.
It is usually acceptable for journalists and photographers to make one approach towards a person at their home, workplace or a public place in person or by email or telephone. However, if that approach is rejected, it is unlikely to be acceptable to pursue the person. Harassment is the pursuit of somebody who has stated – whether personally, through a representative or the police – that they wish to be left alone. Any continued pursuit by a journalist, or the use by a publisher of material obtained in this way (for instance, from a photographic agency), may breach this Clause and may also fall foul of the criminal or civil law. Publishers may record someone’s non-cooperation with a story but cannot use non-cooperation to justify harassment.
Public interest Guidance on Clause 3
The requirements under this Clause are strict. The fact that a story is in the public interest does not, in itself, justify a breach of this Clause. A publisher would need to have a reasonable belief that a breach of this particular Clause was necessary, for instance because significant material could not be obtained by any other means.
This Clause is not aimed at preventing the publication of stories involving death and shocking events. Instead, it looks at how those stories are approached, in terms both of publication and of journalistic activity.
Journalists should be particularly careful to avoid making any approaches which constitute harassment towards a person suffering from grief or shock, or towards their friends, colleagues or wider families (see above, Clause 3: Harassment). They should also be careful to avoid exacerbating such people’s grief or shock by publishing unnecessary or sensationalist details of an event. Publishers should wait until death has been formally confirmed and the family has been notified before identifying any deceased person.
There is no public interest exception to Clause 4.
Publishers are required not to glamorise suicide or facilitate copycat suicides by giving unnecessary detail or publishing groundless speculations on the reason for someone’s suicide. This Clause recognises the vulnerability of those with suicidal tendencies and the possibility that they may act upon this information to take their own lives. It also recognises the vulnerability and curiosity of children and young people reading this information.
Public interest Guidance on Clause 5
The requirement in the Clause to avoid excessive details concerning suicide is strong and can only be avoided in circumstances where those details are necessary to the public interest discussion. The fact that the story in general is in the public interest is not enough to satisfy this provision. For example, the suicide of a politician may be a matter of potential public interest but the details should only be published if they are necessary to a proper understanding of the event.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as anyone under the age of 18, so, unless otherwise stated (as in section (ii) of the Clause), this Code treats anyone under the age of 18 as a child. This Clause emphasises the special vulnerability of children and gives them greater protection from publication and journalistic activities, even where they have famous, notorious or high-profile parents or guardians.
It is standard practice for children’s faces to be pixelated in news publications unless they are the subject of the story and/or permission has been given by a responsible adult for their image to be reproduced. Publishers should take similar care when publishing user-generated images, unless it is possible to verify the age of any children or young people in the photograph and whether permission has been given. It may be acceptable to print pictures of children in public places if they are engaged in illegal or antisocial conduct.
Public Interest Guidance on Clause 6
This Clause recognises the exceptional harm that may be caused to children by certain forms of publication and journalistic activities. Taken in conjunction with the provisions in the Public Interest Clause (see above), this Clause requires publishers to demonstrate an ‘exceptional public interest to over-ride the normally paramount interest of the child.’ Publishers must therefore have a reasonable belief that the publication or journalistic activity in question engages an ‘exceptional’ public interest, and that significant material could not be obtained by any other means.
This Clause requires publishers not to identify children who are victims or witnesses in cases involving sex offences, regardless of whether the court or a responsible adult allows publication. Publishers must also take care not to allow ‘jigsaw identification’ by publishing so many pieces of information that the public can work out the child’s identity. It is particularly important not to mention any family relationships between a defendant and child victim, or to use the word ‘incest’ (which implies a familial relationship).
Public Interest Guidance on Clause 7
This Clause recognises the extreme vulnerability of children who are involved in sex cases and the lifelong harm which may be caused by revealing their identity to the public. As with Clause 6 (see above), publishers are only justified in breaching this Clause where there is an ‘exceptional’ public interest.
Journalists should take great care when conducting any enquires in hospitals or similar institutions, such as private clinics and residential homes. People in such institutions may reasonably expect a high level of privacy (see above, Clause 2: Privacy). This expectation of privacy may also apply to the friends, family or colleagues of patients or residents (see above, Clause 4: Intrusion into grief or shock). Publishers may record someone’s non-cooperation with a story but cannot use their non-cooperation to justify pursuing them into a hospital or similar institution.
Public Interest Guidance on Clause 8
This Clause recognises the particular vulnerability of patients and visitors in hospitals and similar institutions. The public interest in a story does not, in itself, justify a breach of this Clause. A publisher would need to have a reasonable belief that a breach was necessary, for instance because significant material could not be obtained by any other means.
Publishers generally have the right to publish fair, accurate and contemporaneous reports of criminal proceedings. However, this does not extend to identifying the relatives and friends of those convicted or accused of crime. Such people should not normally be named unless they are genuinely relevant to the story. This might be where the relationship is already known to the public (including where the relative has made public statements about the case, or the relationship has been disclosed in a court report) or the relationship is relevant to the crime.
Public Interest Guidance on Clause 9
Being associated with a criminal case can be damaging to the reputations of perfectly innocent people. It is not enough, therefore, to identify a relative or friend of a person convicted or accused of crime simply because the case itself is of public interest. Publishers must have a reasonable belief that the identification of the relative or friend is itself ‘genuinely relevant’ to the story.
As in Clauses 6 and 7 (see above), children should not be identified without reasons of exceptional public interest.
This Clause requires publishers not to use clandestine methods of obtaining information, to publish material obtained by such methods, or to engage in misrepresentation or subterfuge. The Clause applies even if no information obtained in this way is published.
The prohibition on misrepresentation and subterfuge also applies when publishers obtain information from others, including ‘agents or intermediaries’, who have used such methods. The use of clandestine methods of obtaining information or the interception of communications may constitute a criminal offence. Publishers should take legal advice before contemplating any such activities.
Public Interest Guidance on Clause 10
Investigative journalism may sometimes rely on the use of clandestine devices and subterfuge. However, such methods can cause great harm, and should be used only as a last resort.
In order to justify the use of clandestine devices or subterfuge, a publisher should be able to show that at the time they had a reasonable belief that: (1) significant information would be discovered through these means and this was not a ‘fishing trip’, where multiple breaches were committed on the off-chance that they might reveal information of public interest; (2) the material could not have been obtained by other, less intrusive, means such as contacting the subject of the story directly; and (3) the means used were proportionate to the significance of the information to be obtained.
Clause 11 requires publishers to preserve the anonymity of victims of sexual assault. This Clause applies irrespective of the outcome of any criminal trial. It is designed to help victims of sexual assault come forward to the police, free from fear that they will be identified to the public.
As with Clause 7 (see above), publishers must take care not to allow ‘jigsaw identification’ by publishing enough information that the public can work out the individual’s identity. Information such as the age, health details and clothing of the individual, or the location and specifics of the attack, may be enough to identify the individual concerned.
Publishers should also take care not to commission activities such as conducting interviews among the victim’s neighbours which may allow that individual to be identified by the public.
Victims of sexual assault may sometimes voluntarily allow themselves to be identified – for example, as part of a campaign against low conviction rates for sexual offences. Even where publishers are legally free to identify a victim, this Clause requires them to have ‘adequate justification’ for doing so. Given the importance of protecting the anonymity of victims of sexual assault, this sets a high threshold.
There is no public interest exception to Clause 11.
This Clause is intended to protect individuals from prejudicial or pejorative comments about their race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or any physical or mental illness or disability. The Clause also asks publishers to avoid including such details unless these characteristics are genuinely relevant to the story.
Publishers are required to avoid terminology that is in common use but may be prejudicial or pejorative. For example, it would be a breach of the Code to use the word ‘loony’ in relation to a person with a mental health condition. Some prejudicial terms, such as ‘illegal asylum seeker’, may engage Clause 1: Accuracy (see above), as there is no such thing as an ‘illegal asylum-seeker’. Third parties are able to bring complaints of inaccuracy to the Regulator under Clause 1.
The Clause applies only to the treatment of individuals, not groups. However, publishers and journalists are covered by the criminal law prohibiting incitement to hatred on grounds of race, religious belief (or lack of it) and sexual orientation.
There is no public interest exception to Clause 12.
Journalists and news publishers may receive financial information, such as company reports, in advance of the public. This Clause prohibits journalists from using such information for their own benefit.
The Clause requires journalists to declare any significant financial interest they or their close families have in any shares or securities about which they are writing, and not to trade in shares or securities about which they have written recently or about which they intend to write in the near future. This is designed to prevent ‘share tipping’, where journalists or publishers exert an influence on the value of shares in which they have an interest.
There is no public interest exception to Clause 13.
Journalists often depend on confidential sources of information. Whilst journalists and publishers are required by the Code to verify the accuracy of information they publish (see above, Clause 1: Accuracy), they are not required to reveal the identity of any confidential source of information.
Where journalists have guaranteed confidentiality to a source they are responsible for protecting that confidentiality. When publishing documents, journalists should ensure that identifying material is removed. They should remove the original sender’s details if they forward an email for comment to the subject of any allegation.
Journalists and publishers should also take care when reporting ‘off-the-record’ conversations. If a journalist encourages a member of the public to be interviewed ‘off the record’, they should not publish any information in such a way that the source is explicitly or implicitly identified. Journalists should take particular care to clarify the nature of ‘off-the-record’ and ‘on-the-record’ conversations when interviewing members of the public who have little or no experience of dealing with the media.
Journalists and news publishers may sometimes come under pressure in criminal trials or civil litigation to identify confidential sources of information. This may be required, under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, in the interests of justice or national security or for the protection of disorder or crime. A court is required to carry out a careful balancing exercise when deciding whether to order the disclosure of a source. A journalist may find that the moral duty under this Clause conflicts with a legal order which may result in a fine or imprisonment for contempt of court. Publishers should take legal advice if they find themselves under legal pressure to identify a confidential source of information.
There is no public interest exception to Clause 14.
This Clause reminds us that a fair trial is a human right. It is unfair to pay or offer to pay witnesses in a criminal trial because this might compromise the evidence they give or lead to a publication which prejudices the trial.
This Clause therefore imposes strict requirements on publishers. There is an absolute prohibition on making payments or offers of payment to witnesses where criminal proceedings are active. This period begins when the accused is arrested, a warrant is issued for their arrest, a summons is issued or the accused is charged orally. It does not end until the conditions set out in the Clause are satisfied.
Witnesses may be interviewed after a trial but it is not appropriate for a journalist to approach a witness with an offer of payment while the trial is ongoing, even if they intend to conduct the interview only after the trial is over.
Public Interest Guidance on Clause 15
There is no public interest exception to section (i) of this Clause. Since this requirement is strict it does not matter whether a publisher knew that proceedings were active or that the individual concerned was a witness or was likely to be called as a witness.
Where proceedings are not yet active but are likely and foreseeable, and a person may reasonably be expected to be called as a witness, there is a limited public interest exception. Determining whether proceedings are ‘likely and foreseeable’ is a question of fact. An allegation of criminal behaviour may be sufficient to trigger this provision.
This Clause is designed to mitigate the risk that criminals might benefit from their crimes or that criminal activity might be glamorised through the payment or offer of payment to convicted or confessed criminals or their associates. The prohibition relates to (1) the exploitation of a particular crime; and (2) the glamorisation of crime in general.
Not all payments to criminals or their associates will fall foul of this prohibition. The clause does not prohibit payments per se to individuals with a criminal record or their family, friends and colleagues. It only relates to payments for stories, pictures and information which exploit, glorify or glamorise crime. And it does not necessarily prohibit the publication of such material, so long as any payments are not made to the criminal or their associates but, for instance, to a charity.
Public Interest Guidance on Clause 16
This Clause is subject to a public interest exception so long as publishers can demonstrate that there was ‘good reason’ to believe the public interest would be served by paying criminals or their associates for stories, pictures or information which exploit, glorify or glamorise crime. This information must be different from anything already on the public record – for instance, evidence which was disclosed during a criminal trial.