The Press Complaints Commission has ruled that a Daily Star frontpage article “misled readers in a significant manner” and the newspaper published the adjudication. It is only the third national newspaper to have had an adjudication upheld against it this year. However, it is the 10th time the newspaper has come to the attention of the PCC this year – an average of more than one case a month. So why is the Daily Star breaking the code with such frequency?
All of the other cases against the Daily Star in 2010 have been resolved with the publication of an apology or correction. Most recently, the Daily Star corrected another inaccurate frontpage. On the day the civil air authority allowed airplanes to fly through the ash cloud, the Daily Star splashed with ‘Terror As Plane Hits Ash Cloud’ on the front page, complete with a photograph of a plane in flames in the sky. At the bottom of page 8 the paper noted that the picture was from a television documentary.
In this case it turned out that the council did not pay for the loos, they were installed by a private shopping centre. Nor were they exclusively for Muslims. But the PCC has expressed its clear dissatisfaction with the newspaper by taking the case to adjudication rather than allowing it to be resolved. Whilst this case isn’t materially different from the Terror As Plane Hits Ash Cloud story, clearly the PCC has expressed its dissatisfaction by taking the case to adjudication rather than accepting the newspaper’s offer of an adjudication.
It must be significant that the two recent cases involved controversial front page headlines – an important commercial consideration for the newspaper. The apologies for the ‘ash cloud’ and’ muslim toilets’ cases appeared on page two – numerically significant for the PCC’s end of year statistics which measure relative prominence but commercially less significant than giving up space on the front page. If the Daily Star is wilfully misrepresenting stories for commercial benefit, then the PCC’s adjudication is unlikely to have an obvious impact.
Perhaps the previous interventions of the PCC have not been treated sufficiently seriously by the Daily Star. The chairman of the editors’ code committee, Paul Dacre, has previously suggested that resolved cases cannot be understood as part of a case against a newspaper.
The strongest advocates of self-regulations argue that having to publish an adjudication is embarrassing for a newspaper and so a deterrent against breaching the code. It will be interesting to see if the Daily Star now complies more frequently.
However, understanding of the PCC’s code does appear to be uniquely poor at the Daily Star. Its sports journalism has also been criticised in the last month for reporting a number of articles containing quotes from top international football players which were all unlikely, and all subsequently denied by the players in question. If this is the case the PCC should consider a programme of intervention – much as it did with the News of the World after the phone hacking stories first emerged.
Finally, the newspaper (and Northern and Shell, its owner) may not have a culture of respect for self-regulation. Only a year ago it emerged that Northern and Shell had secretly stopped contributing financially to the Press Complaints Commission. The newspaper contains no regular advert for the PCC’s services (unlike the Daily Mirror, for example) and no obvious means of complaining to the newspaper about its content. When I called the newsroom about the Ash Cloud article the journalist was unsure of what to do and the newspaper failed to respond to email queries.
Whatever the reasons for the Daily Star’s problems, the persistent problems suggest that the PCC’s current remedy – asking for the publication of an adjudication – is failing. The PCC requires three important reforms in order to be equipped to deal with persistent offenders .
When a newspaper breaches the code, the PCC should have a mechanism for considering the publication’s previous performance. Whilst the PCC appears to do this informally, Editors do not see a resolved complaint as being a cause for concern. A ladder of remedies which escalated the seriousness of the punishment depending on the offence and the newspaper’s performance would enable the PCC to take more tough action. A league table of offenders, published in conjunction with its annual report would provide further opportunity for the PCC to shame Editors.
Without sanctions of commercial significance, there are some cases (of which this appears to be a prime example) where an adjudication will not be sufficient. Whilst PCC Watch is attracted to the idea that a newspaper could be forced to carry a disclaimer that its content may not reflect reality, a more traditional proposal would invest the PCC with the power to place a commercial value on an adjudication (measured by advertising value) which could increase for each instance of re-offending.
Finally, the PCC must have the courage to suspend or terminate the membership of persistent offenders. Failure to do so tarnishes the reputation of those that do respect and abide by the PCC code – just as any club is judged by its high profile examples of wrong-doing. What good does it do the Financial Times to say that it is covered by the same regulatory body as the Daily Star?
In other regulatory systems – such as the Advertising Standards Authority – the body has a back-stop to which it can report persistent non-offenders. The ASA has done this recently in the case of Ryanair which it reported to the Office of Fair Trading. This would require a statutory footing for the PCC – a step too far for newspapers.
With these three elements in place, the PCC could have acted differently against the Daily Star. Firstly, in each of the nine resolved cases, it could have come to an opinion as to whether the code had been breached. With each breach, it could then have made clear to the newspaper and the public that further breaches would have been accompanied with stiffer penalties. Its annual report could then have highlighted persistent bad practice at the Daily Star whilst the Editors’ code review could contain a threat that continued offences by the Daily Star would lead to a suspension of membership. This may be bureaucratic and legalistic. But if the newspaper continues to misrepresent ‘news’ articles, how else will the public be sure that it can believe what it reads in the Daily Star?