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?