Archive for December, 2010
The PCC recently rejected a complaint that Richard Littlejohn had been inaccurate when he wrote that:
“any Afghan climbing off the back of a lorry in Dover goes automatically to the top of the housing list” (‘Why doing the right thing is a mug’s game‘).
The rejection left the complainant scratching his head – given that the statement was clearly untrue, how could the complaint be rejected? Supporters characterised the PCC’s position as guaranteeing Littlejohn membership of an unofficial register of “regular bullshitters”.
The case throws up two important issues: whether the PCC was correct and whether the code is right. The PCC made its judgement with reference to the editors’ code which makes clear that newspapers must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact – as part of its accuracy clause.
In this context, the PCC gives columnists more leeway. So just as it considers the headline of an article in the context of the whole article, it also considers the particular statements made by columnists the context of readers’ reasonable expectations.
For example, Jan Moir wrote after Stephen Gately’ death that “healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again”. Complainants considered this to be inaccurate because:
“the tragic fact was that adults did die prematurely, though thankfully rarely, from previously undetected heart problems as well as SADS (Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome).”
The commission ruled that;
“[Moir’s] was a general and rhetorical point, based on the view of the prevailing health of young men. It admittedly did not take into account the possibility of SADS or similar, but the Commission did not consider that it could be read to be an authoritative and exhaustive statement of medical fact.”
So on that basis, it’s logical to suggest that just as Moir’s article had to be judged as a comment piece rather than a statement of fact, so Littlejohn’s statement should not be seen as a statement of government policy.
However, when Rod Liddle wrote;
“the overwhelming majority of street crime, knife crime, gun crime, robbery and crimes of sexual violence in London is carried out by young men from the African-Caribbean community”
The commission ruled that;
“the magazine had not been able to demonstrate that the “overwhelming majority” of crime in all of the stated categories had been carried out by members of the African-Caribbean community. It was difficult to argue that the sentence in question represented purely the columnist’s opinion, which might be challenged. Instead, it was a statement of fact.”
This ruling appears to directly contradict the rulings in the Littlejohn and Moir cases. Liddle’s comment is as much of a statement as fact as Littlejohn’s.
There’s a tricky debate about what columnists should and should not be able to write. Their columns are generally quite clearly labelled as comment rather than as news reports. They represent a significant commercial value to newspapers who are keen that they express forthright, eye-catching opinions. They give British newspapers much of their character and freedom to offend which is so rare in other countries. And the PCC does not have the resources to check every single controversial statement – and many will be made and judged before the facts are clear.
However, if the PCC were to allow columnists to say anything, there would be a significant incentive for editors to move all dubious statements into the work of columnists, knowing that it would free them of censure by the PCC, leaving the court to judge (think, for example, of the Daily Express’ allegations about the McCanns).
So the PCC is surely right to respond to complaints when a reader has concerns. And it is also sensible to take the piece in its entirety. But perhaps it needs to make clearer to the public that the sub-clause about distinguishing between comment and fact provides greater leeway to columnists. It also needs to be consistent in its judgements, or else it risks undermining the apparent clarity of the code.
There are rumours that the Daily Star is considering withdrawing from the Press Complaints Commission. This has provoked a strong reaction from respected media commentators, such as Roy Greenslade (‘Press freedom danger if Desmond withdraws the Star from PCC scrutiny‘). But in fact, the real question should be: Why weren’t they pushed out earlier?
Professor Greenslade worries that:
“Any breach in the system of self-regulation would inevitably lead to renewed calls for statutory regulation, which have become something of a distant memory. Press freedom would be the loser.
In the last three years, the system of self-regulation has continued whilst the Royal Family had their phone hacked and a reporter jailed and three newspapers paid upwards of £1m compensation for repeatedly defaming Kate and Gerry McCann. In that context, the withdrawal of a single newspaper may not have such consequences. Politicians are still remarkably reluctant to impose any stronger form of self-regulation.
Rather than weakening self-regulation, the absence of the Daily Star could strengthen it considerably. The newspaper has not just frequently got things wrong and shown scant regard for getting them right. It does so in sensationalist terms with apologies always less prominent than the original article. It does not make clear how to complain about articles in its newspaper and in our experience, does not respond to complaints from readers.
For example, in the last year, the Daily Star has had to apologise for the following inaccurate stories:
- Claiming that a bus driver refused entry to a passenger for wearing an England football shirt
- Claiming that Heather Mills paid her nanny £6.20 an hour – rather than £25,000 per annum
- Misleading readers into thinking that Rochdale Council was installing Muslim-only toilets at a shopping centre
- Suggesting a plane exploded on hitting an ash cloud during the recent airspace closures by using an image reconstruction from 1982
- Putting words into Cheryl Cole’s mouth that she did not use
- Reporting Katie Price was pregnant when she was not
The news agenda of the Daily Star is frequently at odds with all other newspapers and its stories rarely followed up by others. On that basis, it is not a newspaper which appears to command the respect of its peers.
Effective self-regulation should not just be ‘the least worst option’ but a statement of standards that its members aspire to, as the Media Standards Trust argued in its submission to the PCC’s governance review. That the Financial Times is regulated by the same system as the Daily Star surely makes little sense for either.
On a technical point, that it is unclear to a commentator with as much experience and knowledge of self-regulation whether or how a newspaper can leave the PCC, suggests a system that could still do a lot to be more transparent. Indeed when Richard Desmond’s group stopped its contributions to the PCC the first the public knew about it was during evidence to a select committee. The first the public knew that the dispute was over, was in an incidental line during an interview with the PCC chairman in the Guardian.
The real questions that this reveal are:
‘At what point do serious breaches of the code amount to a wider case of bringing self-regulation into disrepute?’
‘How can the PCC have sufficient powers that it can threaten, and deliver, an expulsion for repeated failure to comply with self-regulation?’
One of the most challenging criticisms for the PCC is that it lacks power. Legally speaking, this is correct. It can ask a newspaper or magazine to publish an adjudication but if it refuses, the PCC has no power to compel the newspaper to comply.
In the vast majority of cases this is not a problem. It is right that the PCC operates on the basis of consent and its rulings must have respect if they are to mean anything. And the PCC and editors are keen to ensure the public understands just how seriously they view an adjudication against their title. However, there are occasions when the PCC lacks the subtelty to grade cases according to the seriousness of the breach.
The outcome of most cases is a resolution. There have been 406 cases resolved so far in 2010 but these cover a very broad range of mistakes by newspapers. For example, Mahendra Djou complained about a report in the Evening Standard that he had won a £17,000 compensation claim following a health and safety breach by his employer. In fact, the employer had been fined for the breach but his compensation claim is still outstanding. The newspaper published the correction 10 weeks later.
Contrast this with the resolved case brought by West London Mental Health Trust which runs Broadmoor Hospital. The Trust complained that the hospital inaccurately had been referred to as a jail by the News of the World. The newspaper removed the reference from the article on its website and apologised for the error. On the face of it a sensible outcome. If the PCC were to adjudicate on every complaint of that level of seriousness, it would not be able to work efficiently.
However, this isn’t the first time that Broadmoor Hospital has been referred to as a penal establishment. The following is a list of all the complaints the Trust has made after Broadmoor Hospital was reported inaccurately, 11 of which were made this year:
- 1. West London Mental Health Trust v News of the World 23 November
- 2. West London Mental Health Trust v Daily Mirror 20 August
- 3. West London Mental Health Trust v Construction Enquirer 22 July
- 4. West London Mental Health Trust v Daily Mail 22 July
- 5. West London Mental Health Trust v News of the World 29 June
- 6. West London Mental Health Trust v The Sun 3 June
- 7. West London Mental Health Trust v The Citizen 25 May
- 8. West London Mental Health Trust v Daily Star on Sunday 13 April
- 9. West London Mental Health Trust v Daily Sport 9 March
- 10. West London Mental Health Trust v Daily Mail 8 March
- 11. West London Mental Health Trust v News of the World 19 February
The News of the World alone has now corrected three articles this year with what amounts to the same mistake. This suggests three challenges for the PCC:
- · If a newspaper pays attention to resolved complaints, how does it continue to make the same error?
- · How many times do newspapers have to make the same mistake before the PCC considers further action?
But a challenge for the governance of the PCC – which was not part of last year’s governance review – is how it has a series of ever-stiffer penalties which ensure that newspapers comply with the code that they write?