In the dying days of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) the Prime Minister has found himself on the receiving end of a successful complaint over his public spat with senior clerics about the hardship caused by government welfare changes.
He was caught recycling wrong and unchecked statistics in an article for the Daily Telegraph – numbers which were almost certainly culled from the Mail Online.
Mr Cameron might reflect that he would have been spared the embarrassment if the PCC system was not so shockingly lax – and this is the same system that is being transferred to the successor body IPSO.
On 18 February, under the headline ‘David Cameron: Why the Archbishop of Westminster is wrong about welfare’, the Prime Minister penned a piece for the Daily Telegraph which, among other things, claimed that during the boom years the number of ‘workless households’ doubled. His argument was that the unreformed benefit system encouraged feckless inactivity even when work was readily available,
Except the official definition of ‘workless households’ underpinned by official figures is those where all adults are unemployed or inactive, and the numbers of those did not go up during the boom. In fact, they fell. So after a complaint to the PCC, the Telegraph had to publish a correction to the Prime Minister’s article.
But the duff figures did not originate in that Telegraph. The Mail Online had run the same figures in an article on 2 February 2104, just over two weeks before – just the right timing for them to be cut and pasted into Mr Cameron’s argument.
What followed the Mail Online publication is instructive.
That article sparked a complaint to the PCC from Jonathan Portes, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. The PCC did not make a ruling on the Mail Online error but instead six weeks were allowed to pass before it published a ‘resolution’ negotiated with the Daily Mail.
All the Mail was required to do was quietly withdraw the original from its database and post a characteristically weak correction on its website that said:
“the article stated that ‘the number of workless households rose through the boom years’. In fact, while the number of households where no adult had ever worked did rise through the boom years, the number of households where no person was in work at the time of the survey fell during this period.”
All this, of course, came far too late to save the Prime Minister from falling into error. Nor is it likely to have been noticed by the overwhelming majority of the Mail Online’s readers.
The case is a reminder of the toxic quality of inaccuracy in national newspapers. People of all sorts – including David Cameron and his Downing Street staff – accept and repeat such statistics in everyday life. But many papers are not nearly rigorous enough in checking those statistics, and the PCC is far too slow and feeble in upholding accuracy.
If the Mail committed similar errors a thousand times (which it may well have done) the PCC would still not tick the paper off or ask it to improve its fact-checking. Instead the PCC system, like the IPSO one that will replace it – is a licence to be inaccurate, because there are no real consequences for sloppy journalism.