Misuse of the law is not an argument for self-regulation

There’s something curious about Baroness Buscombe’s speech to the Society Of Editors. She talks a great deal about our “dysfunctional democracy” and the role of the press in supplying oppositional scrutiny. She is – and this is very welcome – severely critical of superinjunctions, and the harm they do in restricting information. But none of these things are within her remit as chair of the PCC, and she seems adamant that while there’s plenty to be fixed around the PCC, everything inside is working just fine.

The PCC is a “discreet”, “sensible”, “democratic” service she proclaims, and she has a chilly warning for anyone who thinks the PCC should be doing more:

So to those people who have recently signed a petition on the Number 10 website urging the government to put the PCC on a statutory footing I say: be careful what you wish for.

Yes, there were many people angered by Jan Moir’s controversial article about the death of Stephen Gately; and indeed 25,000 people were sufficiently moved to complain about it to the PCC. But when there is – in the PCC – already a channel to express dismay that a paper has overstepped the line, do people really want a government body telling us what we can read and think? […]

But a statutory press council is, in any case, pie in the sky. We need look no further than the other great development of the last few weeks to see why. The most benign thing that can be said about the recent Trafigura injunction fiasco was that it showed a touching naïveté on the part of the highly paid lawyers advising the company.

Baroness Buscombe, “Speech to the Society of Editors”

From a restricted perspective, the revulsion at Moir and the exposure of Trafigura might look like contradictory impulses: the conflicted twittermob wants The Mail to hush up, and The Guardian to speak freely. But Trafigura was about verifiable, public interest information. Moir offered nothing but crass speculation – and it’s important to note that she didn’t just outrage the delicate and arbitrary mores of online liberals. Her column broke the PCC’s own code – a code which her employer, The Mail, is ostensibly committed to maintaining.

The PCC’s impotent position means that newspapers feel able to disregard the rules they’ve signed up to. Buscombe, in her interview on Today the next morning, congratulates the PCC on the work it does in averting breaches pre-publication, but when something as clearly egregious as Moir on Gately can make it online and in print, her confidence looks misplaced.

Superinjunctions and libel law need reform, badly. But if legal remedies are going to be made increasingly inaccessible, the PCC will have to do more to assist individuals who end up on the wrong side of reporting: ugly intrusions into personal grief are not the fair price of a free press. The PCC could impose all sorts of penalties on a columnist like Moir without standing in the way of a single Trafigura. But the conflation of personal intrusion with public interest has long been the PCC’s argument for doing nothing: Buscombe is simply aligning recent events to fit a very old way of doing things.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Intrusion, part two

Gordon BrownThe Janes family weren’t the only ones to be exposed by The Sun’s attacks on the PM. Gordon Brown was the unwilling subject of an especially unpleasant kind of scrutiny – including having his phone call recorded and republished by The Sun. At the Currybet blog, Martin Belam thinks this is a likely contravention of clause 10 of the PCC code, which forbids the interception of private communications:

I’ve no doubt that the contents of the call were of interest to the public, but it seems to me that one side of the phone call is someone attempting to make an apology for their visual disability causing them to have poor handwriting, in a phone call they had every expectation at the time of being private. It would have been possible for The Sun to report on the conversation without publishing a transcript, and it would certainly have been possible to report on the story without publishing a recording of the call in full on the paper’s website.

Currybet, “PM’s private call published by The Sun, but PCC has no interest in a ‘public interest’ debate”

Belam has taken his concerns to the PCC, and predictably been told that, as he isn’t the prime minister, there’s nothing the PCC can do. I suspect that in any case, as the phone call to Mrs Janes was made in the course of Brown’s public duties as head of government, The Sun could argue that the expectation of privacy doesn’t apply – in the same way it was argued that Alan Duncan’s “on rations” comments were fair game for Heydon Prowse to record and distribute.

But intercepting a phone call to entrap one (sincerely apologetic) party in the conversation is in pretty bad taste – and besides, isn’t it a practice that News International has put behind it? After Nick Davies’ reports for The Guardian earlier this year on the pervasive use of the black arts on the NOTW and Sun, the PCC produced a report this week which assured the public that:

Despite the manner in which the Guardian’s allegations were treated in some quarters – as if they related to current or recent activity – there is no evidence that the practice of phone message tapping is ongoing. The Commission is satisfied that – so far as it is possible to tell – its work aimed at improving the integrity of undercover journalism has played its part in raising standards in this area.

PCC, “PCC report on phone message tapping allegations”

Improving its integrity. Raising its standards. By running a personal apology from one bereaved parent to another on the front page. Well done, The Sun.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

PCC rules on Mail homophobia: snippy is fine

At the beginning of October, Iain Dale suddenly noticed that The Mail was not very nice about gay people and put in a complaint to the PCC. Or at least, he noticed that The Mail was not very nice about him, and the focus of their abuse was his sexuality. Anyway, the PCC have issued their judgement on the case – and the original column is ok with them:

In coming to a conclusion on the matter, the Commission had to have regard to the context in which the remarks were made. They appeared in a diary column which is well known for its mischievous – and sometimes self-consciously fusty – remarks that poke fun at the antics of public figures. The piece followed the complainant’s own comments to Pink News – a news website aimed at gay people – about his attempt to secure the nomination in Bracknell. It may have been an uncharitable account of the complainant’s position – and any intended humour may have been lost on some readers – but the item appeared to be relevant to the news, and to fit into the column’s style, rather than constitute an arbitrary attack on him on the basis of his sexuality.

This might strike some as a fine distinction to make, but where it is debatable – as in this case – about whether remarks can be regarded solely as pejorative and gratuitous, the Commission should be slow to restrict the right to express an opinion, however snippy it might be. While people may occasionally be insulted or upset by what is said about them in newspapers, the right to freedom of expression that journalists enjoy also includes the right – within the law – to give offence. The Commission regretted that the item had upset the complainant, but the complaint was not upheld.

PCC, “Adjudicated – Iain Dale v Daily Mail”

Within the broader politics of the Daily Mail, which consistently figures homosexuality as some sort of threat to the nation (see this report, where the US electorate’s rejection of same-sex marriage is called “a victory for traditional marriage”), the Ephraim Hardcastle column was mild stuff. And given that the PCC has previously asserted that Mail columnists are entitled to claim plain untruths about homosexuality as “facts”, it would be hard for them to penalise the Mail now for using a snide tone to report something that actually happened.

In fact, snarking that “gays all stick together, don’t they?” is barely worth more than a quiver of outrage when there are those who object to extending basic human rights to gay people – the right to marry someone they love and fancy, the right to have a family. The Conservative Party’s group in the European Parliament, for example, includes Valdemar Tomasevski MEP, who describes homosexuality as an “evil” from which children must be “protected”. It’s easier for the Tory party to ally with outright homophobes than it is for them to confront their own Eurosceptics. If Dale really is distressed by hate and prejudice, he might want to modify his support for Cameron’s European policy.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

PCC to follow up on third-party complaints over Jan Moir

The PCC’s standard position on third-party complaints is to dismiss them. Their initial response to contact about Jan Moir’s poisonous Stephen Gately column implied that they intended to hold to the same line in this case, although there was a small suggestion that they could be pressed into expanding their remit:

On initial examination, it would appear that you are, therefore, a third party to the complaint, and wemay [sic] not be able to pursue your concerns further. However, if you feel that your complaint touches on claims that do not relate directly to Mr Gately or his family, please let us know, making clear how they raise a breach of the Code of Practice. If you feel that the Commission should waive its third party rules, please make clear why you believe this.

Email from the PCC, 16 October 2009

It appears that the massive response to Moir’s column (21,000 complaints) has caused them to follow up on that hint of action, because today they sent out a further response:

The  PCC generally requires the involvement of directly-affected parties  in its investigations, and it has pro-actively  been in touch with representatives of Boyzone  – who are in contact with Stephen Gately’s family – since shortly after his death.  Any complaint from the affected parties will naturally be given precedence by the Commission, in line with its normal procedures.

If, for whatever reason, those individuals do not wish to make a complaint, the PCC will in any case write to the Daily Mail for its response to the more general complaints from the public before considering whether there are any issues under the Code to pursue.

Email from the PCC, 19 October 2009

One of the problems with the PCC is its institutionalised refusal to look on accuracy as a responsibility held by newspapers to all their readers, rather than a duty they only have towards the people they choose to write about. That means that the PCC has previously been able to ignore any complaints from a third party, and avoid adjudicating on matters (like Moir’s Gately column) when the harm and offence caused spreads much wider than the direct subjects of the piece.

It’s welcome, then, that the PCC will give consideration to the prejudice and inaccuracy in Moir’s piece that animated so many people to complain. At the same time, the PCC is still composed of print industry figures (including Mail On Sunday editor Peter Wright) – and even if they did wish to punish the Mail for this, they have very few sanctions to use.

When the Scottish Sunday Express offered an “insufficient apology” for its intrusion into the privacy of Dunblane survivors, the PCC couldn’t compel the paper to do any more. In the Gately case, the attention on the PCC may be so extreme that they will have to be seen to take convincing action, or face imminent and widespread unhappiness with the self-governing structure.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Introducing: Don’t Get Mad, Get Accurate

Newspapers are entitled to a worldview. If The Mail believes that only social conservatism and bad body image can save us, then it’s legitimate for their editorial to follow that line. What’s not legitimate is for them to misreport the facts to fit that editorial line. So new blog Don’t Get Mad, Get Accuracy is a pretty interesting proposition (and thanks to Anton Vowl for announcing its existence). It aims to get readers complaining to the PCC whenever The Mail publishes something demonstrably untrue – and while the PCC might not be especially awesome as watchdogs go, it’s still the best venue for organised objection as things are. Read, subscribe, follow their lead, hope that you end up with a better press for your letter-writing efforts.

Smearing people is wrong (mostly)

I don’t know about you, but in all the coverage of the unappealing McBride/Draper Smeargate nonsense, at least one thing was reassuringly clear: the press is totally, completely opposed to harmful insinuations that damage the reputations of public figures. Well, obviously, there’ll be times when newspapers report unsubstantiated and embarrassing allegations about the shadow chancellor’s wife – or, as you might say if you were feeling uncharitable, repeats and publicises them, making them even more destructive. But what are newsrooms supposed to do apart from churn out this sort of thing?

And then there are some times when it’s just really, really important to come up with something bad to say about someone. In the interests of balance. Like, say, if that someone is Nick Davies, author of a study of the endemic distortions and corruptions in the British press, and you happen to be a journalist on one of the distorting and corrupt papers. Then it’s basically essential that you ring him up and tell him you’re going to publish some “grotesque sexual smear” about a wife he doesn’t even have. Otherwise, how are you going to defend the honour of your paper as a reliable organ of responsible newsgathering?

Then, there are the people who might not have actively attacked your newspaper, but have somehow slighted you. Such as Nicola Fisher, who employed Max Clifford to represent her after being twatted in the face by riot police, and went on to give interviews to the Northern And Shell newspapers. With Nicola sitting on the front covers of the Star and the Express, it would be frankly remiss for Sun and the Mail to fail to say something nasty about her.

It can be something really simple: just drawing attention to the Clifford connection and throwing some scare quotes on phrases like “victim”, “hit” and “anti-capitalist” goes a long way to suggest that Fisher might really just be a violent opportunist who’s drawn on the baton-bruise with eyeliner. Or you could go big like the Mail and put together a balls-out character assassination:

Mail attack piece on Nicola FisherThat extract appears in search results for “Nicola Fisher” on the Mail website, although if you click on the link it redirects to the index, suggesting that the story has now been withdrawn. Not that it matters: the story did its bit to spike the opposition’s exclusive, and it set the tone for the reporting on Fisher, which includes beautiful examples like this column in the Yorkshire Post from Bill Carmichael, setting up Fisher as a punchable harpy. “If anyone ever deserved a good slap, this woman certainly did”, says Carmichael, pleased that law and order is free to do the important work of, um, silencing people he disagrees with by hitting them.

Smearing, then: totally harmful to the body politic and a dangerous exploitation of journalism. Just imagine what the papers would be saying about Osborne, Davies and Fisher if one of them had been involved in anything as disgraceful as smearing.

I blame the software

The PCC is a pretty scary institution. “Nothing makes editors scream louder than when they know a complaint is going to go to a formal adjudication”, says outgoing PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer: “I tell you, this really concentrates the mind – to be named and shamed in their own newspaper.” So, when the PCC tells a newspaper to do something – like, say, removing an excessively intrusive and graphic story from their website – you’d expect the terrified publication to comply.

Well, obviously that didn’t happen. But I bet the PCC has got some eyewatering punishments in place for those recidivists who fail to comply. I bet they fine the hell out of anyone who’s guilty of that sort of thing. So, I emailed to find out and this is the PCC’s description how the case proceeded:

The Daily Telegraph piece was initially removed when the Commission investigated the matter.  It reappeared due to a software error and has now – following our contact with the paper – been removed once more.

Software errors do happen, and maybe that really is how the Telegraph‘s article came to be available on the internet even though the PCC requested that it be removed. But if I was an editor in the process of withdrawing something potentially harmful from circulation, I’d probably try pretty hard to ensure it was permanently erased: partly from wanting to repair the original error, and partly because I’d expect an extraordinary bollocking if I didn’t comply. Apparently, that didn’t come into the Telegraph‘s thinking – reasonably enough, it seems, because the PCC aren’t going to do anything about it.

Self-destruction and self-regulation

Earlier this week, I was blogging about the reporting of suicide. This weekend, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column is a much more thorough treatment of the same subject. On the 20 November last year, many UK newspapers carried a story taken from the Press Association about a death by suicide. Complaints were lodged with the PCC against 14 of these papers; 12 complaints were upheld; one of the reports found against was in the Telegraph, and this is the one Goldacre writes about:

“Man cut off own head with chainsaw” was the headline: “A man cut off his head with a chainsaw because he did not want to leave his repossessed home.” What followed this headline was not a news story: far from it. What the Telegraph published was a horrific, comprehensive, explicit, and detailed instruction manual.

In fact this information was so appallingly technical and instructive that after some discussion we have decided that the Guardian will not print it, even in the context of a critique. It gives truly staggering details on exactly what to buy, how to rig it up, how to use it, and even how to make things more comfortable while waiting for death to come.

I’ve read the article: if I was contemplating suicide and looking for a method, I now know everything necessary to copy this example. By the PCC’s own guidelines, it should never have been published. According to the PCC’s judgement, I shouldn’t be able to read it now:

[The Telegraph] suspended the article from its website following the contact from the PCC.

Which is funny, because I took this screengrab today (handbook bits blacked out):

Screengrab 28 March 2009

So, to review this cascade of twattery: the PCC has guidelines on how suicide should be reported. These guidelines were ignored in 12 cases. The PCC was especially critical of the manner in which the Telegraph‘s online article breached the code, and “expected that the situation would not be repeated”. Two months later, the material is still there and still extravagently explicit. Excellent self regulation there. Fearsome and authoritative as ever.

In the comments thread on the Bad Science blog, this was quickly dragged into freedom of speech bickering. “Freedom speech is not a zero sum game”, said one exasperated commentator: “Free speech and freedom of information is not freedom to shout about it.” This story could have been a news-in-brief. It could have excluded all the detailed instruction derived from the coroner’s report. It could have followed The Samaritans’ simple guidelines for reporting suicide in the least damaging way possible.

Not only did it fail on every particular, but the online article goes on to make things astonishingly worse. Have a look on the left at the “related articles” box: if death-by-chainsaw doesn’t appeal, a thoughtful Telegraph sub (or handy algorithm) has picked out five more power-tool and self-destruction related stories. How about making an exit via wild herbs? Hanging? Seriously, your suicide method could be just a click away, and the Telegraph‘s editorial policy is apparently to make sure you’ve got every detail you need to clinch your own fatality.

Taking offence

I got pulled up in the comments earlier (actually, I got pulled up twice, but one thing at a time):

Great post, but I have a slight issue with this though…

“Won’t regulate itself or answer to its public”

I see what you mean in relation to Express/Dunblane, but that line sounds a lot like the same charges that are levied at stuff like Chris Morris. Agree the regulators are fail, but working out who gets to decide what’s okay and what’s not is quite the shit sandwich to chomp on.

As I might have mentioned on this blog, I’m quite keen on explicit and potentially offensive material, and consequently pretty anti most censorship. But then, if the Press Complaints Commission was able to regulate anything, I don’t think censorship would be an issue: it should be possible to deal with journalistic process without touching on questions of taste. And as well as liking the big swears and dirty bits, I’m pretty hot for people being able to complain when they don’t what they see.

Unlike the PCC, Ofcom is an institution that does a decent job of making complaints heard. Tim mentioned Chris Morris: I’d have been almost disappointed if nobody complained about Paedoggedon. I don’t think any of the complaints Ofcom investigated were justified, but the programme covered a delicate subject and people found that distressing. The actual judgement itself is an elegant thing, combining an understanding of satire with consideration for the complainers. Even Mediawatch armchair reactionaries deserve that much sometimes. Even when they’re utterly, miserably wrong.

The PCC don’t offer anything close to that level of engagement. Even though newspaper editors frantically stress the importance of the press in scrutinising public life, their self-regulatory body is massively reluctant to consider reporting in the context of any sort of lofty civic purpose. Even when addressing a case where the press had obviously and callously infringed justice and privacy, like the reporting of the McCanns, the PCC only reflects on its ability to wring apologies out of malefactors and doesn’t touch on the problem with a press that produced that sort of journalism in the first place. And that narrowness of scope is compounded by the minutely constrained range of complaints they’re willing to examine in the first case. So, even though the press claims many of its freedoms on the basis that it’s serving a public interest, the PCC won’t follow up on complaints from the actual public.

The willingness of the PCC to cut the Northern And Shell titles (the Express, Star and OK) loose becaue “rogue proprietor” Desmond won’t pay his subs shows how intensely useless self-regulation can be. It works for the rest of the press to be able to declare these papers outcasts – but for the people who are harassed, slandered or misrepresented by Desmond’s titles, the only alternative to the PCC is court. And while the Press Gazette notes that this will mean “additional costs” for the papers, it doesn’t mention that this will also mean prohibitive expense for complainants, fewer complaints and less restitution. Brilliant!

Anyway, while I’m doing Chris Morris, Northern And Shell, criticism of the press and failed journalistic responses, here’s a treasure from history: the Star condemns Brass Eye and splashes on a teenager’s tits.


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.