The Press Complaints Commission (“PCC”) rarely makes adjudications on complaints. Only seven have been published in 2014. Bearing in mind the fact that the PCC staff and procedures seem likely to be transferred wholesale to the successor body, IPSO, it is worth scrutinising adjudications with some care. They contain the approach to press standards which, if it is not audited by an independent Recognition Panel, the press is likely to pursue for the foreseeable future.
The latest adjudication is in the case of Wilton Park School v Mail on Sunday (25 February 2014). Once again, the PCC has failed properly to analyse the issues and to identify clear breaches of its own Code. This does not bode well for the future.
The complaint arose out of an article in the Mail on Sunday on 20 January 2013 entitled “Probe into strict Christian sect school that ‘shut up’ girl pupil for 37 days… for making Facebook page”. The article concerned Wilton Park School – run by the Exclusive Brethren and described as a “fundamentalist Christian church”. It was said that the school was being investigated over “claims of child cruelty”.
The Mail on Sunday said that it had:
“uncovered allegations of a shocking regime inside Exclusive Brethren schools – including pupils being confined at home for using the internet, elders tearing pages from textbooks to remove material about gay rights or sexually transmitted diseases, and teenage boys and girls being banned from talking to each other”.
The newspaper reported that the local education authority was investigating allegations of child cruelty after a teacher had handed over a dossier describing alleged abuses.
The teacher was quoted as saying that six pupils were “shut up” for different lengths of time, one girl being shut up for 37 out of 70 school days. The teacher also claimed that textbooks were censored to remove material about gay rights and evolution, that social interaction between boys and girls was banned and that pupils seldom played competitive sport.
The article did not contain any specific comment from the School although it did quote a “Brethren spokesman” as saying:
“Shutting up is not intended as a punishment but is meant to encourage people to consider the consequences of their actions. Where young persons are involved this decision is taken ultimately by their parents, though the advice of elders may be sought”.
The School issued a statement on the Tuesday, two days after publication (not mentioned by the Mail on Sunday or the PCC) in which it denied the claims in the article, particularly in relation to the girl who was alleged to have been “shut up”:
“The girl was never ‘shut up’ and the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church congregation in her parish have never taken any action restricting her activities. The girl’s father was going through a difficult time and the girl’s agreed wish was to stay home with her mother in support of the household.
“This was done with the full knowledge of the school and the school provided educational resources and support so that she could do her schoolwork at home temporarily. It is unconceivable that a national newspaper should denigrate a school that was showing support and care for a family that was going through a difficult time.”
The article had a serious impact on the school and its pupils. As the adjudication records, it was closed for a period of four weeks during the middle of term as a result of a “breakdown of trust between the school and pupils” following publication.
The true position was very different from that reported in the article. No one had been disciplined for making a Facebook page and a girl had not been “shut up”. The County Council, the Department of Education and the police agreed that there were no safeguarding issues at the school. They described the concerns as “unfounded”. On 18 March 2013 (2 months after the publication of the article) it issued a statement in which it said:
“Officers from Wiltshire Police and Wiltshire social services conducted an investigation at the school. Following this, it has been unanimously agreed by all agencies involved that no specific safeguarding issues were identified and the investigation has now concluded.”
The School, with the support of the parents of 17 pupils, complained that pupils’ education had been impaired. They complained of a breach of clause 6 i) of the Editor’s Code which provides that:
“Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.”
The School argued that no legitimate public interest could be served by publishing the details of whistleblowing allegations before they had been investigated.
The School’s complaint was not upheld by the PCC. It said that the publication of allegations before they had been investigated:
“performs an important function, allowing the public to scrutinise the claims and the procedures being employed to investigate them. It also enables members of the public to contribute relevant information to the inquiries that might otherwise have been unavailable”.
It said that parents were entitled to be made aware of the whistleblower’s claims and of the fact that an enquiry was underway.
According to the PCC, whilst the upset caused to pupils was “regrettable” that it was:
“inevitable that the free circulation of information will on occasion lead to consequences that are, in themselves, undesirable.”
It said that if it ruled that as a consequence of a subsequent decision, the publication of an otherwise legitimate report was an “unnecessary intrusion”, this would create a “serious chilling effect” on the reporting of matters of public interest.
The PCC said that once the newspaper was notified of the outcome of the investigation “it was required to update its readers on this matter. This update should now be published to avoid misleading readers”. An “update” was added to the end of the on-line version of the article on 14 February 2014, over a year later.
The complaint involved a complex issue about the public interest in the reporting of unproven, uninvestigated allegations. But first there are some points to be made about accuracy and the adequacy of the remedy.
First, a number of statements in article were patently inaccurate. For example, the statements about “gender segregation” and lack of competitive sport at the School were untrue. These inaccuracies were a clear breach of clause 1 of the Code.
However, because the PCC sees itself as a complaints handler rather than a regulator, it does not regard it as part of its duties to draw attention to breaches of the Code not specifically mentioned by the complainant. It appears that the PCC did not think it necessary make any comment or determination in relation to this breach. Another clear breach of goes unrecorded.
Secondly, the allegations by the “whistleblower” were rejected by Wiltshire County Council in a statement made public on 21 March 2013. This was nearly 11 months before the Mail on Sunday published its correction. This was a plain breach of clause 1 ii) of the Code – which provides for the correction of inaccuracies “promptly”. Once again, it appears that the PCC did not think it necessary to draw this breach to the attention of the School.
It did note that “once the newspaper was notified of the outcome of the investigation it was required to update its readers on this matter” but did not comment on the extraordinary failure of the newspaper to do so, 10 months after the true position had become clear and did not record the code breach which had taken place.
This can be contrasted with the statement in the Editors Code Book [pdf], which provides guidance on the operation of the Code that:
“the Commission takes a stern view of unnecessary delays in righting undisputed — or incontestable — errors, especially where the repercussions can be serious” (p.21)
Thirdly, there is the question of the adequacy of the remedy. The Mail on Sunday published a double page spread about the School under an eye catching headline to 4.74 million readers. The factual contents of the article were false. Nothing was done to correct this for more than a year. And all that the PCC required was an update – appended to the online article and doubtless attracting a readership of, at most, a few thousand.
What about the breach of clause 6? The PCC, characteristically, fails to engage properly with the issue. Clause 6 is subject to the public interest test. So the analysis needs to be in two stages:
· Was there an unnecessary intrusion into the “time at school” of the pupils?
· If so, was this justified by any public interest?
The PCC did not consider these two stages but, rather, fudged the issue relying on a general statement of principle: that “responsible” publication of untested allegations can perform an important “public information” function and the coverage did not pose a “gratuitous” intrusion into the lives of pupils.
As a general statement this is uncontentious, but the question is whether publication was, on the facts of the case “unnecessary”. Should the Mail on Sunday have published full details of the teacher’s allegations against the school in this particular case? This question is not considered at all.
The publication of allegations about the mistreatment of pupils is bound to intrude into their education. How, on the facts of this case, was such an intrusion necessary? The Mail on Sunday did not suggest that the allegations were being ignored or hidden from relevant people or that the investigation was inadequate. These are all factors which might have justified publication. None of them were mentioned by the PCC. In the absence of such factors, and bearing in mind the potential adverse impact on the pupils, there was a strong argument that publication was unnecessary. The PCC did not consider the point.
What about the public interest? The Editors’ Code makes it clear that “in cases involving children under 16” editors must demonstrate “exceptional public interest” to over-ride the normally paramount interests of the child. The children at the school were aged between 11 and 18 but the PCC did not, apparently, inquire whether any “exceptional public interest” had been demonstrated. The Code requires editors to “demonstrate fully” that there was a reasonable belief in the public interest value of a story and “how and with whom that was established at the time”. None of this was apparently considered by the PCC.
Even if some publication could be justified the Mail on Sunday had, as the PCC accepted, to act “responsibly”. But once again, the PCC did not subject this issue to any analysis. The fact that the allegations were accurately reported can hardly determine the issue. The risk is that (as turned out to be the case here) the allegations are false. Responsible reporting would, at the very least, involve careful checking with the organisation being criticised and the provision of a full opportunity to respond.
It is not clear how long the Mail on Sunday gave the School to respond although the fact that it issued a detailed statement two days later suggests that adequate time may not have been given. Once again, the PCC does not examine the question.
Of course, there are cases in which the publication of untested allegations can serve the public interest. But there is nothing to suggest that any relevant public interest was engaged in this case. There was, as the local authority investigation found, no “impropriety to expose”.
It is not the subsequently discovered falsity of the allegations which made their publication an unnecessary intrusion. The problem was the decision of the Mail on Sunday to publish untested and uninvestigated allegations which were bound to intrude on children’s education without there being a specific public interest justification for this course of action. None was ever identified.
A proper and effective regulator would have found the Mail on Sunday to be in breach of Code provisions concerning accuracy and children. Its failure to provide a prompt correction of its inaccuracies was a particularly outrageous breach of the Code which the PCC simply ignored.
The PCC’s failures in this case demonstrate, yet again, its toothless and supine approach to the task of regulation. And with IPSO it will be more of the same.