In November 2013, the month of the first anniversary of the publication of the Leveson Report, thePress Complaints Commission (PCC) published some of the details of 37 complaints from the public that it claims to have ‘resolved’.
‘Resolution’ can look suspiciously like sweeping problems under the carpet as the PCC often lets offending newspapers get away with quietly withdrawing the online version of the complained-about story or amending the online file. There is usually no public apology or correction – no action that might deter a paper from doing the same again.
According to Leveson, 96 per cent of complaints to the PCC were dealt with through resolution in 2012, up from 86 per cent in 2009 so it is clear that brokering resolutions is now the principal purpose of the PCC.
The PCC says it only publishes around a third of the resolutions that it brokers with people who complain and it is not possible to be sure the cases made public are a representative sample; but it is the best indication the outside world has of the way it operates.
Last November the biggest culprit was once again the Mail newspaper group with nine ‘resolutions’, which in a short month still keeps up its average of about one every three days (this compares with 10 resolved complaints against the Mail in October 2013 and 14 in September).
Such figures contradict the impression encouraged by many newspapers that things are getting better. Instead the resolutions stand testament to a catalogue of bad reporting, dodgy analysis and twisted figures, as in each case the Mail admitted that it had to make some sort of redress.
A few more complainants did squeeze a correction in print out of the Daily Mail last November than in the previous months. Two of those cases were important political articles in which essential underpinning figures were entirely incorrect.
In both cases the stories were quietly withdrawn from the online archive, although astonishingly this was not part of the PCC ‘resolution’. And there is no evidence at all that the PCC has even raised with the paper the problem that it clearly has in handling statistics, even where they form the basis of significant stories. One of the Daily Mail corrections says:
‘An article on 8 October said that the UK has paid £4.4 million in compensation to criminals under rulings by the European Court of Human Rights. In fact, the money went to a range of claimants and only £1.7 million was compensation; legal costs accounted for the rest,’
The article reported on payouts in cases against the United Kingdom before the Court and had inaccurately folded in all the legal costs with the figure for compensation, spun the figures back 16 years and then claimed the whole lot went to litigious criminals, which it hadn’t.
The Daily Telegraph ran a similar article on the same day and was also the subject of a complaint. The correction in the Telegraph stated the true position more clearly.
‘A report on Oct 8 stated that since 1998 £4.4m in compensation has been paid by the UK to claimants under rulings by the European Court of Human Rights. In fact, around £1.7m represented compensation; lawyers’ costs and expenses accounted for the remainder. We also wish to make clear that awards of compensation and costs were made to a range of claimants as well as to criminals.’
In the case of ‘The Top 10 Benefits Cheats’ the Mail breached Clause 1 (accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. In particular, it stated that one man had claimed over £1 million in benefits when he had claimed £38,852. The correction said:
‘An article on August 18 listed the “top ten” benefits fraudsters ordered to repay the largest amounts under the Proceeds of Crime Act. We would like to point out that the sums included profits made from their crimes as well as the amount of benefits they had fraudulently claimed.’
This falls a long way short of acknowledging the scale of the error, since on this basis it is clear that the list did not identify the top ten benefit cheats at all. No one had checked the facts, but there is no sign that the PCC did anything to check whether the Mail could ensure that similar errors would not occur in future.
Another complaint in November came from Ms Dee Vyas and concerned an article in the Mail about her eating disorder. The PCC brokered a resolution in which the newspaper accepted the article was inaccurate and removed the online version. The excuse from the Mail was that the story was an unchecked piece of agency copy. Did the PCC ask the paper to check its procedures for checking agency copy? There is no sign of it.
The simple removal of the article – even if it is part of a larger malaise which the PCC does not care to address – might be some comfort for Ms Vyas, except for one thing: at the time of writing this story is still available online at Reveal magazine’s website. It comes up via a simple Google search.
Reveal writes: ‘Speaking to The Daily Mail the 34-year-old from London said . . .’ Yet the Mail had admitted it never spoke to Ms Vyas.
Surely the PCC has a responsibility to ensure that basic journalistic errors admitted by one of its members are not reproduced endlessly by the others? Reveal is owned by the National Magazine Company, also owner of Good Housekeeping. And the editorial director of Good Housekeeping is Lindsay Nicholson, a member of the Press Complaints Commission.
I asked her about this case and she replied that because the Mail agreed to withdraw the article and the complaint was ‘resolved’, and because there was no specific complaint against the Reveal publication over the exact same article, Reveal was under no obligation to do anything. She said
‘This complaint was resolved through mediation with the agreement of the parties . . . Had the Commission been asked to make a determination on this complaint under the terms of the Code (The PCC Editors’ Code), it would have examined the process by which the agency produced the report“
Which will be a great comfort to Dee Vyas.
This post originally appeared on the Hacked Off blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks