After seven weary months and a correspondence running to more than 20,000 words, the Press Complaints Commission has made a final ‘adjudication’ about Andrew Gilligan’s ludicrous claim in the Sunday Telegraph last April that a motley bunch of academics and voluntary organisations are part of a European Union-funded conspiracy to hand control of the press to the state.
The PCC is requiring both the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Mail, which repeated the story without properly checking its provenance, to set the record straight – at least in part. However, the PCC cannot seriously believe that its intervention even remotely offers adequate redress for the the entirely spurious claims of a sensational article that was riddled with factual errors and deliberate misrepresentation.
It is the first time MediaWise has made its own complaint. Normally we advise others who feel they have been maligned by the media.
Gilligan’s article was one of a series designed to undermine the credibility of those who supported Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for reform of the self-regulatory system and continue to criticise the unethical behaviour and arrogance of sections of the press.
As Director of MediaWise I challenged both papers, and the online magazine The Drum which also repeated Gilligan’s slur, mainly because there were so many inaccuracies in the article. Some impugned the integrity of MediaWise, a charity which has been helping ‘victims of media abuse’ for 20 years. It claimed that we had received £100k of public funds and not declared them. The PCC found this to a breach of the Editors’ Code, yet the defamatory statement remains in the article online – with a correction appended.
I also felt that those elements of the press which had turned on their critics and deliberately misrepresented Leveson’s recommendations needed to be challenged. At a the crucial moment for ‘self-regulation’ the integrity of the PCC needed to be tested.
Although the European Union rebutted the central claim within two days, the PCC and the newspapers regarded this as irrelevant. Indeed their initial response was that since others had not made formal complaints to the PCC, there was no case to answer! Instead we were faced with tardy responses to our letters and almost farcical attempts to wriggle out of responsibility for their errors – we listed some 30.
Our own case was simple and we were able to quote chapter and verse in support from the outset. Our position did not change, yet it took the Sunday Telegraph and the Mail almost six months to make their first offer of a correction, just ahead of the date set by the PCC for an adjudication.
Before doing so the Sunday Telegraph had reminded the PCC: ‘MediaWise … is an avowed critic of the Commission and has criticised it as ineffective and as too lenient towards the press. The Telegraph is naturally mindful of the fact that the Commission – as part of the current system of self-regulation of the press – is placed in the unusual position of having to determine a complaint that raises issues that pertain to how its role should be changed. We are confident, however, that the Commission will view our … evidence … in the dispassionate, objective and unbiased manner that it invariably adopts.’
Whether read as sinister or just slimy, these words characterise the relationship between the press and the body it set up to keep critics at bay. Unhealthy, too close, and antipathetic to the notion of truly independent regulation.
In his article Gilligan used part of a sentence from an academic study in which I had reported the views of others, as if it were a direct quote from me to him. The PCC ‘expressed its strong concern about the practice of incorrectly attributing such observations’ but astonishingly chose to ignore my objections. Initially it had brushed them aside on the grounds that I had not denied it was my opinion. When reminded that I had indeed denied it categorically in writing, the Commission suddenly changed tack and declared the quote ‘uncontroversial’, and in line with the ‘aims and objectives of MediaWise’ (it was neither). The twisted logic by which the PCC has avoided setting the record straight beggars belief.
It is easy to see why others give up and give in when faced with the intransigence of editors and the weasel words of the PCC. It is easier still to see that the PCC has had its day, and that its resurrection by the newspaper industry as the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) will make little difference to the standing of this type of ‘self-regulation’ with the public, especially if it applies a similar approach to ‘resolving’ complaints.
The offending newspapers get to make a final ‘offer’ which the Commission then ‘obliges’ them to publish even after I had pointed out inaccuracies and omissions. A most peculiar way to ‘resolve’ a complaint, especially as the credibility of the PCC was also at stake.
After a long and complex process we have reached a far from satisfactory outcome where wild assertions made by newspapers with no basis in fact are given credence by the PCC over detailed rebuttals backed by documentary evidence. This is hardly calculated to restore confidence in ‘self regulation’.
Like News Ltd, the Telegraph Media Group, DMGT Group and the PCC do not seem to appreciate the significance of the 27% trust rating the press received in the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey, nor Transparency International’s finding that Britain is one of only four countries in which the media is regarded as the most corrupt of institutions.
Lashing out at critics is not the best way to regain trust. Acknowledging errors swiftly, setting the record straight and entering into an honest dialogue with critics is the best way to resolve the current hiatus in public trust.
Instead they plan to push ahead with IPSO confident in the knowledge that no political leader will want a confrontation in the run up to an election. Their cynicism will win them few friends. That is a pity since in an open democracy a free press should be regarded as a champion by the public rather than as a pariah. As MediaWise has always maintained: Press freedom is a responsibility exercised by journalists on behalf of the public – it is not a licence for commercial enterprises to do as they please.
Mike Jempson is the Director MediaWise.
Originally posted on MediaWise. Reposted with kind permission.