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.