Think back to Spring, when restrictions on flights were being lifted after a period when they had been grounded due to the volcano eruption in Iceland. The Daily Star published a frontpage with the headline ‘Terror as plane hits ash cloud’ with a picture of a jet engines in flames. The report was not of a recent event – as you might reasonably expect of a newspaper – but a simulation of an event over 10 years ago which was to be re-shown on Channel Five.
The newspaper was withdrawn from sale at most UK airports, the Media Guardian reported the case and the PCC intervened. The newspaper later apologised and corrected the story, on page 2.
So what can we learn from the case, and what it means for the role of the Press Complaints Commission?
1. The apology was prominent and fulsome
The newspaper did apologise, the apology was near the front of the newspaper and it did not equivocate in its response. This was a success for the Press Complaints Commission.
2. The process was free
The complainants did not have to pay to extract an apology from the Daily Star. The newspaper probably did have to pay (in terms of staff time) to deal with the complaint and is now contributing financially to the system of self-regulation (there was a period of unknown length during 2009 when all Northern and Shell titles were not contributing financially to self-regulation.
3. The apology could have been slower
The apology appeared three months after the original story. This is quicker than some complicated legal actions take to resolve, although within modern expectations of a 24-hour news cycle this is still a long time.
I understand this was not the fault of the PCC – that the initial complainants were slow to respond to their enquiries. So what could the PCC have done differently? If the Media Standards Trust’s vision of self-regulation was adopted, it could have been different in the following ways (though this is hypothetical, there are lots of areas where the MST’s submission needs further thought).
A. The PCC could have appeared more responsive
I called the PCC after seeing the Daily Star frontpage and reading the Media Guardian article. At that point, the PCC could have made clear that it had already made enquiries about the article. That would have made the PCC look proactive in the Guardian article, and meant that I wouldn’t have troubled the PCC with a formal complaint – as I would have known that it was under investigation. If it published a register of complaints received over a regular period, it would be very apparent just how busy the commission is and the work that it does to uphold the code.
B. The Daily Star could have suffered financially
The only real inconvenience for the Daily Star was the withdrawal of copies from the airport. The space it gave up for the apology was on page 2, and smaller than the weather map – commercially insignificant. And if its annual PCC bill reflected the number of times the Daily Star had been investigated, its owners might have more of an interest in its compliance with the industry standard.
C. The process could have been quicker
The PCC insists on acting on behalf of the complainant. This is legitimate, and it does so with a real sense of conviction for the member of the public – but the MST disagrees. If the PCC acted on behalf of the public it would not necessarily need a complaint to proceed. So in this example, the delays experienced whilst the PCC liaised with the complainant would not have occurred. The complaint could have been resolved, or adjudicated within the PCC’s preferred timeframe.
D. The Daily Star would have to think twice
As Roy Greenslade has demonstrated, the Daily Star has consistently run into trouble in 2010 – often for clear breaches of the PCC code. However, the PCC does not have any mechanism by which it publicly warns editors or their bosses when it finds frequency transgressions. The punishment for the Daily Star in this case was no more stringent because of its frequent abuses than it would have been for any newspaper which had published an inaccurate frontpage.
E. Self-regulation starts with newspapers
When I saw the Daily Star story, my first step was to contact the newspaper. The paper itself does not advertise a phone number for enquiries, feedback or complaints. I called the number for ‘selling a story’ – the only one available. I was instructed to send an email by the busy journalist who answered. I never heard back from the editor’s office. If self-regulation means anything, it is surely that the newspaper feels a greater responsibility for its own actions than if regulation was imposed from an external source? But the Daily Star cannot even reply to a complaint.
The PCC can only do what it has the power, resources and legitimacy to do. That the Daily Star was able to deliberately mislead readers on its frontpage and publish any apology four month later, near a weather map (and occupying less space) shows why this may change.