And the PCC’s decision is in on the Dunblane splash…

Press Complaints Commission, Adjudication: Ms Mullan, Mr Weir & Ms Campbell v Scottish Sunday Express:

Ms Elizabeth Mullan, Mr Robert Weir & Ms Morag Campbell complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined “Anniversary shame of Dunblane survivors”, published in the Scottish Sunday Express on 8 March 2009, intruded into their sons’ private lives in breach of Clause 3 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

The complaint was upheld. […]

[The boys] had done nothing to warrant media scrutiny, and the images appeared to have been taken out of context and presented in a way that was designed to humiliate or embarrass them. Even if the images were available freely online, the way they were used – when there was no particular reason for the boys to be in the news – represented a fundamental failure to respect their private lives. Publication represented a serious error of judgement on the part of the newspaper.

Although the editor had taken steps to resolve the complaint, and rightly published an apology, the breach of the Code was so serious that no apology could remedy it.

And that’s where the judgement ends, because that’s where the PCC’s powers end. But then, we already knew that press self-regulation doesn’t work: if judgements like these had any value, newspapers would avoid them by not publishing cheap, intrusive, salacious pieces in the first place. The PCC is right at least that an apology can’t remedy the damage already done. It’s also highly unlikely to dissuade future journalists from commiting more damage of the same kind.

(I originally blogged here on the Express’ Dunblane story and the reaction to it.)

© Sarah Ditum 2009.

Dog sniffs dog, gently

Dog doesn’t eat dog. That’s always been the rule in Fleet Street. We dig into the world of politics and finance and sport and policing and entertainment. We dig wherever we like – but not in our own back garden.

Flat Earth News, p. 1

Which might be one explanation for the strange mismatch in the Guardian media section’s reaction to the BBC’s treatment of Chris Moyles after an Ofcom judgement against the DJ (“How long can the BBC continue to stand by its man?”, says John Plunkett), and its reporting of the Express‘s barelyadequate sorry as a “strongly-worded apology”.

The apology was self-congratulatory and short-sighted. It dealt exclusively with the offence caused to the subjects of the shabby reporting and readers of the paper: there was no acknowledgement of systemic failings in editorial policy, never mind a promise to do better next time, and no one on the Express‘s staff has taken responsibility for this and stepped down. But the tone of the Guardian report is that the Express apology has fixed everything – and as far as it goes with the self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission, it probably has.

That’s because the PCC (whose board is dominated by newspaper men) maintains a preposterously narrow remit. They look at the extent to which a newspaper’s reporting is untrue, unfair or improperly obtained only within the complained-about article – and the risible sanctions the PCC will impose are no deterrent for newspapers with a systemic culture of abusing the truth. Publishing a correction or a retraction is enough to have a complaint classified as resolved. If all you have to do to get out of trouble is to say sorry in a very small voice, where’s the incentive to be good in the first place?

And because the PCC will only investigate complaints from the direct subjects of reports, they’re able to discount most of the reports they receive: only the two complaints from people mentioned in the Dunblane article really count for the PCC’s purposes, even though 10,000 people have signed the petition to say they are disgusted by it.

The press is every bit as responsible to its audience as the broadcast media, so why shouldn’t the PCC follow Ofcom and accept complaints from any party who feels offended by a piece? You don’t have to be Will Young – you don’t even have to like Will Young – to think that the joke lyrics broadcast by Moyles were inane and unpleasant. And you don’t have to have been nearly murdered in a Scottish schoolroom to think it’s inappropriate for a newspaper to run a story like the Express‘s Dunblane one.

But while the press won’t regulate itself or answer to its public, at least the readers and the bloggers have taken an interest and acted as a self-organised, informal watchdog. And it’s beginning to be recognised that the papers can’t get away with this sort of thing forever: an active community of critical readers online means that malpractice can be spotted, recorded, and made available to anyone who searches for it. Like Anton Vowl, I think that the traditional outlets of print and broadcast journalism are irreplaceable. Reporting, properly done, is one of the checks and balances that makes a democracy work. I want a strong press and an honest press, and if the PCC can’t make that hapen, bloggers are the best hope we have of getting newspapers to fix themselves up.

The Express is a rotten lover

Scottish Express Dunblane apologyThe Express has said sorry to the people of Dunblane. Well, barely. The apology acknowledges that story was “undeniably inappropriate”, although it doesn’t say why: maybe the feeling in the Express newsroom is that they just had a lapse of taste in picking the wrong subjects for an exposé. There’s no mention here of invasion of privacy or public interest – both key principles which ought to be respected by any paper which expects to be protected as a democratic institution – although there’s room to stress that “nobody was misquoted”, if that makes you feel better. There’s no mention of all the ways in which the front page could have been used better, no apology for the genuine reporting and truly revealing journalism which has been trampled on by crass splashes like this one.

Readers of the Express: your paper is sorry that you’re offended. The Express thinks it’s having a love affair with its readers (really: someone thought that the best way to deal with this was to sexualise the relationship between paper and reader), and now the paper has caused upset and offence and distress, it’s sorry you feel that way. Well, Express, if you really want to run with that metaphor, newspapers are probably more like prostitutes than lovers. And I’d suggest to any Express readers that you really shouldn’t be paying for this sort of treatment.

The world’s nastiest intrusion

Graham Linehan’s plan of direct action against the Express.

If you didn’t see the Express front page, and you haven’t followed the story on The Enemies Of Reason and elsewhere, then now would be a good time to catch up, get outraged and follow Linehan’s four-point plan:

So! What can we do? Here are a few suggestions:

1) Stand up and be counted. Matt Nida has started an online petition which you can find here. When he’s got a decent number of names, he’ll be submitting it to the editor responsible for the story, the publishers and managing directors of Express Group Newspapers, the PCC, Downing Street and all media outlets who may be able to help shame the Express Group into action by making public the strength of national feeling about this.

2) Email your personal complaint to the Editorial Director of the Express Group about the conduct of Paula Murray and Scottish Sunday Express, Derek Lambie, who was responsible for placing the piece on the front cover. The Editorial Director is Paul Ashford, and this is his secretary’s email address, so please try to avoid being abusive to her – it’s not her fault! – and preface your email by asking Jo to pass your letter on to Mr Ashford. Jo.dimond@express.co.uk

3) Write to Express Group publisher Richard Desmond. He keeps his email address well hidden, but you can write to him by snail mail at: Richard Desmond, Northern and Shell building, 10 Lower Thames Street, London EC3R 6EN

4) If you have a Facebook account and would like to vent with likeminded folks, here’s a group set up to protest the story.

Bad, exploitative journalism is pretty much impossible to avoid, but this is one case where invasion of privacy, lack of public interest, sneering hypocrisy and actual harm to actual people are all unequivocally present. Reporting like this is damaging to the people it exposes, but also ultimately to the function of the press – who have no right to claim any role in democratic scrutiny if they condone the humiliation of traumatised young adults. As Linehan points out, it’s partly because of the weakness of self-legislation that newspapers are able to repeat this sort of grotesque intrusion again and again and again. So let the press know how disgraceful they are. It’s for their own good.

Then after you’ve done that, check out the ersatz justice Bloggerheads weilds over Paula Murray. It’s pretty satisfying, so make sure you do your civic duty before you enjoy the reward.

(Updated 19 March to mirror changes on the original.)