Desmond “ground into dust”: what is a proprietor’s sweep?

dust by serdalRichard Desmond’s libel case looks pretty baffling. There’s no perplexity over him losing – the passage of Tom Bower’s book over which Desmond sued is brief, factual, and (as Private Eye points out) showed that Desmond’s Express was correct in its reporting of Condrad Black’s precarious finances. What’s confusing is that he brought it at all.

Part of the motivation, according to Bower’s defence, is pride: “Mr Desmond is here because he wants to tell the world that he’s not a wimp.” (All quotes from the trial are taken from Private Eye’s brilliant report, no. 2141, p. 9.) But another motivation would be to suppress the (tacit, and you might think obviously true) assertion in the Bower book that proprietors influence content or use their papers to attack opponents.

“It’s difficult to think of a more defamatory allegation to make against the proprietor a newspaper”, said Desmond’s QC – although the evidence went on to demonstrate that both the Telegraph and the Express were heavily influenced in their editorial by their respective proprietors’ issues with each other.

Testimony from Express media columnist Anil Bhoyrul made it clear that Desmond’s likes and dislikes were imposed more-or-less directly on the newsroom. “Every Sunday the column would come out and I would speak to Martin [Townsend, Sunday Express editor]  usually on a Tuesday, and he would tell me ‘Richard liked the column this week’ or didn’t like it. […] I got a pretty good feel for who, you know, to be positive about and who to be negative about.”

The business of the newspaper business is (mostly) newspapers – so it seems intuitive that proprietors and managers would be at least passingly concerned with what they’re printing. Why, then, is it so easy for an organisation like News International to shrug off the phone hacking issue as a low-level newsroom hiccup? Or, more pertinently for Desmond, for the PCC to convict the Scottish Express of a breach “so serious that no apology could remedy it”, and yet for management to be untouched?

It’s axiomatic that Richard Desmond is a “rogue propietor” and a disgrace to Fleet Street. But in using his newspapers to further his own personal and business interests, he’s doing nothing that’s out of step with his peers. It’s obvious from the libel case that Conrad Black was doing the same; the Murdoch papers’ willingness to hound the Beeb and pimp out Sky is another, less cackhandedly executed, example of people acting in their own best interests (or of employees acting in their own immediate interests by acting according to their employer’s preferences).

Desmond is unpopular. He doesn’t hide his unpleasantness, and he’s made a lot of money out of ladyflesh. But it’s a self-serving fiction for other papers to pretend that he’s worse in kind rather than degree.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by Serdal, used under Creative Commons.

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.