PCC rejects Full Fact complaint over Mail's riot coverage
The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has rejected Full Fact's complaint into the Daily Mail's coverage of figures from the August riots last year.
It was the same coverage criticised by the UK Statistics Authority for being likely to leave its readers "with the impression that far fewer crimes were recorded as a result of the disorder in August than was actually the case."
Full Fact complained to the PCC at the start of June this year after the Authority had made its intervention. What followed - as Full Fact is accustomed to when complaining via the PCC - was a long and draining negotiation in which minor concessions were gradually teased out of the newspaper over a period of several weeks until an impasse was reached.
So what was achieved? To start with, here was the original headline:
And here's what it became after two months of negotiation:
The Mail also removed or amended several references to there being a "tiny number of disorder offences" after originally neglecting to also mention that several hundered 'disorder-related' crimes had been recorded; in effect, giving its readers the impression that far fewer disorder-related crimes had occurred than was the case.
Full Fact is grateful that the Mail offered and made the concessions it did, which at least showed some acknowledgment that the original article wasn't up to standard. However, this isn't enough to address the overall impression given by the article that fewer crimes took place than the figures themselves clearly showed.
What's most disappointing is that, given the opportunity to come to its own verdict on whether or not Mail readers would be misled by the article, the PCC instead appeared to focus on technical interpretations of specific terminology in the report which few ordinary readers would have been likely to appreciate. This led to the PCC's conclusion that sufficient remedial action had been offered in each case, and so there was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editor's Code of Practice.
Where the Authority found fault with the Mail's reporting, the PCC found none, save for welcoming some of the Mail's concessions.
It's this kind of discord and reticence to lead rather than follow on press standards that shows the PCC in its current form simply isn't effective enough at enforcing adequate standards of accuracy in the media.
For more background, you can read the UK Statistics Authority's view on the article here, and the PCC's view below:
Commission's decision in the case of
Full Fact v Daily Mail
The complainant was of the view that the article would leave readers with the misleading impression that fewer crimes had been recorded in relation to the riots than was the case.
The Commission noted that the premise of the article was to criticise the manner in which crimes were recorded, in particular the low number of disorder offences that had been recorded in the worst-hit areas. The newspaper was entitled to criticise the system in place for recording crimes of this nature and to draw particular attention to the low number of disorder offences in light of the widespread disorder. The newspaper made clear that this was the basis of its article, stating that the lower than expected figures "come down to the way officers recorded the avalanche of offences committed during the unrest". It appeared that the complainant objected to the singling out of disorder offences in the article on the grounds that the absence of reference to other disorder-related offences would mislead readers.
The Commission noted that further on in the article, it was made clear that disorder offences were not the sole category of offences recorded in relation to the riots; the article reported that, in addition to the single public disorder offence in Southwark during the five days of unrest, 314 other offences had been recorded. Further, it reported that in Manchester there had been recorded 386 further crimes to the 11 public disorder offences, and that across England 5,112 offences had been recorded by the police in relation to the period of unrest. Certainly, particular emphasis had been placed on disorder offences; however, on balance, the Commission could not agree that readers would be misled as to the total number of offences recorded during the period or that the only offences recorded were "disorder offences". There was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code on this point.
Nonetheless, although the Commission had not found a breach of the Code, it welcomed the steps taken by the newspaper to alter the article in order to make clear from the beginning that further related offences had been recorded in addition to disorder offences, and to record this alteration.
The complainant took issue with the use of the term "airbrushed" in the headline. The Commission noted that it has been placed in inverted commas, which would demonstrate to readers that it was not necessarily meant in a literal sense and that the position would be further clarified in the article. The focus of the article was a criticism of the manner in which crimes were recorded by the police. Readers generally would understand that the term "airbrushed" represented the newspaper's position that the system used to record crimes produced statistics that did not clearly reflect the level of criminal activity committed during the riots. The article included a brief explanation from the Home Office in regard to how disorder crimes were recorded. In light of this, the Commission could not agree that readers would be significantly misled by the headline. While it welcomed the newspaper's agreement to remove the term from the headline following the complaint, there was no breach of the Editors' Code.
The complainant considered that it was misleading to report that "not one force records rioting as an offence" and to omit the Home Office comment that the majority of instances of large scale public disorder during the period of unrest would have been recorded as violent crime. There did not appear to be any suggestion that a police force had recorded an offence of "rioting", so the statement was not incorrect. Furthermore, the article included the definition of the offence. The Commission could not agree the absence of the Home Office comment rendered the statement inaccurate or misleading — the fact remained that no offence of "rioting" had been recorded. In the circumstances, the Commission could not agree that the statement was inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy).
The complainant considered that it was misleading for the newspaper to claim that the crime statistics suggested that "it was almost as if the five days of widespread looting and violence never took place". As previously noted, the newspaper was entitled to criticise the manner in which the crime figures were recorded and comment on the relatively few offences. The article included the total number of crimes recorded. As such, the Commission could not agree that the article was misleading in this regard. There was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.
The complainant was of the view that the text box recording the number of disorder offences in a number of areas was misleading in the absence of reference to the disorder-related offences. The Commission noted that the box made clear that it was reporting "disorder offences"; it did not claim that it was reporting all offences recorded in relation to the riots. Given that the article subsequently made clear that other crimes had been recorded in relation to the riots, the Commission did not consider that readers would be misled by the text box. There was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) on this point.
Finally, the complainant was concerned by the paragraph which reported that in Croydon, where buildings had been burned to the ground, seven disorder offences had been recorded. The Commission acknowledged that arson did not fall under the category of disorder offences. However, on balance, the Commission did not consider that readers would understand from the article that it would. It seemed to the Commission that the reference was included to demonstrate the extent of the riots in the areas, rather than to suggest that arson was a disorder offence. While it had stopped short of finding a breach of the Code on this point, the Commission welcomed the alteration of the article to emphasise that 423 disorder-related offences had been recorded in that area.