October 31, 2011 • 9:22 am

  • Daily Mail guilty of ‘sloppy journalism’ says PCC

  • “Two separate occasions of significant inaccuracies on the newspaper’s front page”

  • “A matter of serious concern to the Commission,” they say

  • BUT no sanction imposed

As you can imagine, at Full Fact we complain fairly regularly about inaccurate news stories. Up until now, we have largely succeeded in getting corrections printed in the offending newspaper.

While we normally welcome these corrections, this morning the Daily Mail carried one with which we were less than satisfied.

Back in May, the paper had reported in a full front page that the UK gives more in foreign aid than any other country. As we found at the time, this wasn’t true.

The error was in large type on the front page so it would reach many more people than an average mistake in the inside pages. We felt it was appropriate for the correction to be printed on the front page too. The Mail disagreed, forcing us to ask the PCC to adjudicate through its commission.

We were less than impressed by the results.

Abuse of process?

The adjudication fails to mention how poorly the Daily Mail has treated the PCC—and us—through the process. Here is the chain of letters:

  • 7 June: Full Fact’s initial complaint.
  • 16 June: Argued that readers would understand that ‘any other country’ in fact meant ‘any country in the G8′ so there was no need for a printed correction. Agreed to change the online version anyway.
  • 11 July: Offered a printed correction, alongside the paper’s next coverage of the issue.
  • 22 July: Upgraded to the offer of a correction within the first 12 pages of the newspaper.
  • 9 August: Upgraded to offer a correction in the first 6 pages of the paper. The PCC’s Complaints Officer commented that this “may well meet the Code’s criteria for ‘due prominence’.” We weren’t convinced.
  • 22 August: The paper put forward what it unilaterally referred to as a ‘final offer’ of a page two correction.
  • We were not satisfied with a correction that did not feature on page one, so we asked the PCC formally to adjudicate.

Just before 6pm on the Friday of the week before the Commission met to adjudicate the case, the paper contacted the PCC to say it intended to go ahead unilaterally with publishing a different correction than was agreed on the following Monday, two days before the adjudication.

This was an extraordinarily derisive way for the Daily Mail to treat the PCC, its new Chair Lord Hunt who took office only the previous day, and us. We objected strongly and the paper backed down. Fortunately, we work late.

The PCC’s own rules say: “The system of self regulation overseen by the PCC requires good faith on both sides.” We do not think the Daily Mail acted with good faith in its dealing with us through the PCC.

So we asked the Commission to censure the Daily Mail for this foot-dragging and manoeuvring. Sadly the adjudication fails to mention the issue.

PCC fails to uphold own rules

Clause 1 of the code, which deals with accuracy, imposes three duties:

  1. Take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information
  2. Correct significant inaccuracies promptly and with due prominence
  3. Apologise when necessary

In this case the PCC has only addressed the second duty, and even then only partially.

Full Fact specifically asked the Commission to consider whether the Daily Mail has taken adequate care under the Code. The adjudication concedes that the story was the result of “sloppy journalism,” but it did not consider our concerns at all, let alone any sanctions that could be taken to ensure a higher standard in future.

The PCC also did not require the paper to apologise to its readers, or offer any reason why it should not.

The lesson seems to be that as long as a newspaper eventually issues a correction the Commission is satisfied, regardless of whether or not the paper has upheld its duty to take care to avoid misinforming its readers. This is particularly surprising given that Lord Justice Leveson is currently scrutinising the culture and practices of newspapers as part of a public inquiry.

Due prominence

Throughout the process Full Fact argued that a correction for a clear-cut full-page, front-page error should be either on the front page or at least trailed there. That is why we could not agree upon what constituted ‘due prominence’ with the paper.

When it came to adjudicate, the PCC felt that the Daily Mail’s new corrections column, at the bottom of page two, was sufficiently prominent.

The corrections column – which is a good thing – was introduced the week before the PCC’s adjudication. Full Fact has time and again pushed the paper to make its corrections more prominent, and it is likely that this played a part in the paper’s decision to make the column a fixture of its inside cover (although we cannot be sure).

We have ourselves argued that there is more to ‘due prominence’ than the page upon which a correction appears

However, it is hard to see what this particular page two correction achieves. It cannot repair the damage done by misleading those who only saw the claim on the original front page, and never venture any further into the paper. It is certainly little or no deterrent to doing such “sloppy journalism” in future.

The decision reached by the Commission was that the error was “not of such import that the Code required a front-page correction.” This conclusion raises the question of what an inaccuracy would have to look like for the Commission to feel it merited a page one correction.

The Commission gives little explanation of its decision but does say that “the issues were not personal to the complainant and had not caused personal harm.”

This may be the most worrying part of the decision. If the Commission believes—as it appears to—that inaccuracy can be relegated to a secondary concern if no identifiable individual is hurt, then the duty of accuracy in the coverage of important general issues will never be properly enforced.

Every time people are misled, in their hundreds of thousands, about controversial topics of the day it becomes harder for people to be citizens in a meaningful sense and it becomes harder for politicians to do their jobs. Bad decisions based upon bad information do real and tangible harm to many.

Furthermore the Commission has missed an opportunity to take a lead on tackling the sort of newsroom culture that Lord Justice Leveson is investigating. By insisting upon a proper correction on this matter even if its ‘import’ was slight, the Mail might be more sure to double-check its claims on more serious matters.  As it stands, the Commission, and by extension the whole PCC, looks increasingly isolated and out-of-touch.

The PCC urgently needs to rethink its understanding of the harm of inaccuracy.

Conclusion

In all, we are disappointed by today’s decision. We think it shows the PCC is too timid to stand up to the newspapers with whom it deals.

It fatally undermines the good work that the PCC’s complaints staff do by showing that ultimately, when the Commission itself is called upon to regulate rather than mediate, it is weak.

We can only hope that either the Commission’s new Chairman, or Lord Justice Leveson’s Inquiry, gets to grips with the problem soon.


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