By Tom Rowland
Last year the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) received 12,763 complaints, yet its published Monthly Complaint Summaries only record 5,940 cases dealt with – or about 46 per cent of the total. So how it can claim that 80 per cent of complainants using its service are satisfied with the outcome?
One explanation, we know, is that it arbitrarily excludes swathes of legitimate complaints – and of course it never asks those who made the excluded complaints whether they are satisfied.
In its dying months the PCC has unwittingly provided fresh evidence about how this works, and this is a useful indication of how the rebranded PCC, to be named IPSO, will operate – because IPSO’s complaints system will be just the same.
Last month saw the PCC conclude its work on the Daily Mail’s report in December 2013 that Romanians and Bulgarians would pour into Britain as soon as immigration restrictions were relaxed. The journalist Jon Danzig put in a substantial complaint about the paper’s claims that buses and planes from Bulgaria and Romania to the UK were ‘full-up and sold-out’. He listed 13 reasons why the Daily Mail story was inaccurate.
Danzig discovered that the PCC had received at least 83 complaints about the story. While his and 81 others were discarded by the PCC, the organisation ‘chose’ one ‘lead complaint’ to consider on its own. How this choice was made is not clear, but one glance at Danzig’s complaint shows that his was thorough, well-sourced, clear and conformed closely to PCC requirements.
Because his was not the ‘lead complaint’, Danzig, like the 81 others that were excluded, lost any say in the process. His 13 serious grounds were never specifically addressed.
Instead the PCC chose a Mr William Galloway as the lead complainant.
The PCC preamble, published last month, says:
“Mr William Galloway complained to the Press Complaints Commission that the newspaper had published inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The complainant said that the newspaper had incorrectly claimed that flights from Romania to London were full, and that seats were selling for up to £3,000. The complainant had been able to find available spaces on these flights at reasonable prices. While some flights did cost up to £3,000, these were indirect flights which went via countries outside Europe.”
The PCC added, however, that the complainant agreed that his complaint was ‘resolved’ when the Daily Mail published the following in its occasional column of ‘corrections and clarifications’:
An article on December 31 reported information provided by local travel agents that there was limited availability on flights and buses to London from Romania and Bulgaria in January this year, despite one airline doubling the number of flights. We have since been made aware that some reasonably priced flights and seats on buses were available from Bucharest and Sofia at that time. We are also happy to clarify that some of the additional flights were put in place before January 1. (Cl 1)
The following update was added to the online article:
UPDATE: Our reporters in Bucharest and Sofia were informed by travel agents and on websites within the countries that there was very limited availability on flights and buses to London at the start of the new year. We have since been made aware, however, that some readers were able to find a larger number of flights leaving Bucharest and Sofia at the beginning of January with availability, with fares starting from £122. We understand that some seats on buses bound for London were also available at the time. We are happy to clarify that some of the additional flights were put in place before January 1.
Given that the original article was on the front page and that the paper accepts that its central claim (that flights were sold out) was incorrect, this lets the newspaper off remarkably lightly. But it would be wrong to criticise Mr Galloway for accepting this.
Pretty well every complainant experiences problems identified in the Leveson report such as ‘inequality of arms’ – you are up against a big paper’s legal department and the PCC is not on your side – and ‘complaint fatigue’ – you get worn down by a barrage of correspondence, semi-legal papers and time-consuming bumph.
It is a battle of raw amateur against battle-hardened pro, and this is especially true in the case of the very powerful Daily Mail, which alone is responsible for more than 40 per cent of the complaints ‘resolved’ in 2013.
After the Galloway ‘resolution’ a member of the PCC secretariat wrote to Jon Danzig saying,
“I should make clear that the above outcome reflects a resolution that the complainant considered to be a satisfactory response to his complaint; it is not a PCC ruling. In instances where a complaint has been resolved to the satisfaction of the complainant, the Commission does not generally rule on the matter. “
So, having presumably signed a document that includes a paragraph saying he accepts this, Mr Galloway will no doubt find himself included, like it or not, in that 80 per cent of complainants who the PCC claim are satisfied with the process.
Meanwhile, we can have no idea whether the other 81 people who complained about the story are content to see the paper commit a gross and damaging error on its front page and suffer no meaningful consequence.
Following intense pushing by Jon Danzig, we’ve learned that the PCC has agreed to conduct a special investigation into his 13-reasons complaint. We look forward to hearing the outcome…