Editors' Code of Practice review: Full Fact submission
This week the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press will hear evidence from both Full Fact and Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre.
On top of his role at the Mail, Mr Dacre is Chair of the Editors' Code of Practice Committee, which is responsible for maintaining the text which the Press Complaints Commission uses to judge the complaints they receive.
Last year the Code of Practice Committee sought suggestions for changes to the Code as part of its annual review. Full Fact, as one of the most frequent users of the PCC, has a great deal of experience of working with the code and has submitted several suggestions.
Our ideas include making the standard and process by which complaints are judged explicit in the Code, and outlining a positive exposition of what readers can reasonably expect from newspapers in terms of accuracy.
Below is the full text of our submission.
Editors' Code of Practice Review — Full Fact submission
While Clause I of the Editors' Code of Practice covers the right ground in theory, there are many aspects that could be strengthened and clarified so that it offers a more practical guide to upholding high standards of accuracy and quickly obtaining corrections when things go wrong. In particular we think the Committee should consider making the standard and process by which complaints are judged explicit in the Code, while outlining a positive exposition of what readers can reasonably expect from newspapers in terms of accuracy.
Problem: The Code does not provide a positive standard of accuracy
The Code's duties in respect of accuracy are purely negative. They are designed to guard against inaccuracy, rather than to promote 'the best available version of the truth.' This allows newspapers to resist the publication of corrections on technicalities, regardless of how the original claim would have been interpreted by readers.
Recommendation: The NUJ defines a journalist as someone who "strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair." The New York Times' ethics policy states:
"Whatever the medium, we tell our audiences the complete, unvarnished truth as best we can learn it. We correct our errors explicitly as soon as we become aware of them. We do not wait for someone to request a correction."
The Code should set a similar standard and the complaints process should require a paper to provide evidence that the information it presented to its readers was the best version of the truth available at the time of publication, rather than allowing it to resist corrections on the basis that there is a conceivable interpretation of its report that did not breach the letter of the Code. The impression given to an average reader should be at the heart of the way in which complaints are evaluated.
Problem: The Code provides no standard of proof for complaints about accuracy
It is not clear from the Code what is an acceptable standard of proof for something to be reported as fact. Claims made by others (e.g. in speeches or reports) are often reported as fact when they are nothing more than conjecture. Furthermore confusion about how something is proven to be accurate/inaccurate makes for a lengthy mediation process, and corrections issued a long time after the original error was made. Our impression is that this omission also makes drafting adjudications harder than it needs to be.
Recommendation: Predictability and consistency—where newspapers know what is expected of them and complainants can know what to expect—make for the best forms of regulation. The standard against which the accuracy of claims is assessed when they are subject to complaints should be written into the Code. If third party claims are presented as fact, it should explicitly be incumbent upon the newspaper to check their veracity.
Problem: The Code doesn't specify where the burden of proof falls for complaints about accuracy
When lodging a complaint under Clause I of the code, the burden of proof in practice seems to fall upon the complainant rather than the newspaper, notwithstanding the guidance given in the Editors' Codebook. There is consequently a mismatch in the mediation process, as complainants are required to invest their own time and energy to overcome any objections raised by the lawyers employed by many newspapers to handle PCC negotiations.
Recommendation: The Code should stipulate that once a credible prima facie case has been provided by a complainant under Clause I, it is for the newspaper to either refute it or issue a correction.
Problem: Clause I of the Code does not cover inaccuracies in headlines
The Code does not distinguish between constituent parts of a newspaper article. Where a headline is wildly inaccurate, it is not presently considered a breach of the Code if a qualification is included at the bottom of the article. Many readers who see only the headline are consequently misinformed.
Recommendation: Headlines are subject to space and editorial constraints that articles are not, and are often written by sub-editors rather than the journalists themselves. However they are also the most prominent part of a story, and reach more readers than the whole article will. Consequently, the Code should offer specific guidance on the standard of accuracy expected of headlines.
Problem: Clause I of the Code is unclear
The current wording of Clause I is too vague to offer a useful guide for upholding high standards of accuracy. Consequently there seem to be some inconsistencies in the way in which different complaints are handled and resolved.
Recommendation: The Committee should consider the following:
- What is the duty to "take care"? Can carelessness with factual information be punished under the Code in and of itself, or is it merely an aggravating or mitigating factor in adjudications?
- What is a "significant inaccuracy"? Do the importance of the claim, its prominence, the person or paper making it or its centrality to the article impinge upon its significance? If so, to what extent? How is an inaccuracy's significance relevant to any corrective action sanctioned?
- What makes something "distorted" or "misleading"? Who is responsible for deciding what constitutes either?
- What counts as "corrected"? Particularly, does the newspaper have to acknowledge its error, and does the correction need to be labelled as such?
- How quickly should a correction be issued for it to have been resolved "promptly"?
- What constitutes "due prominence"? What factors are considered when deciding how and where a correction should feature?
- Under what circumstances is an "apology" necessary? Are apologies only issued to those misrepresented, or should newspapers also apologise to readers for breaches of the Code?
Problem: The Code requires separate complaints for inaccuracies stemming from the same source
Where several papers print inaccuracies based upon a single source, complainants are required to submit separate complaints and negotiate with each newspaper separately. This can make the process more time consuming for the complainant than is necessary.
Recommendation: Where a source for a story (e.g report or press release) is corrected or demonstrated to be inaccurate, the Code should require newspapers that have printed inaccuracies as a result to print a correction without a separate complaint being lodged.
Problem: Lack of sanctions leads to a 'print now, correct much later' culture
A breach of the Code only occurs if an adjudication finds against a newspaper, not when inaccuracies are identified and corrected. While there should be no stigma in mistakes that are promptly corrected, the lack of any sanction for printing inaccuracies can lead to a "print now, correct much later" culture.
Recommendation: Inaccuracies should be treated as breaches of the Code, which are ameliorated by corrections. The Committee may also wish to consider the introduction of other sanctions for careless, reckless or wilful inaccuracies; instances where newspapers take too long to correct breaches; and instances where corrections do not meet the agreed standard.