By Tom Rowland
In September and October this year, when the press was supposed to be on its best behaviour, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) claims to have ‘resolved’ 72 complaints from the public.
The biggest culprit by a mile was the Mail newspaper group with 24 – one every two to three days on average, and an enormous one-third of the total. That compares with just a handful each for most papers in the whole period and a single complaint against the Guardian.
In each case the Mail admitted that it had to make some sort of amends, which means that this amounts to a catalogue of faulty reporting and failing standards at the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday.
Worse still, these cases show that even now, nearly a year after Lord Justice Leveson reported, the PCC system continues to obscure newspaper wrongdoing rather than highlighting and challenging it.
The Mail’s actions included printing people’s medical records, printing pictures taken by sticking cameras into their private lives without justification, misrepresenting the findings of professional disciplinary hearings and twisting stories in a way that risked stoking racial resentment and tensions.
In most cases, the PCC let the Mail’s parent company get away with quietly withdrawing the online version of the offending story or amending the online file, although in at least one case there was a payment to the complainant and in others there were undisclosed donations to charities.
Hardly ever did the PCC insist that a notice appeared in the bragged-about Daily Mail corrections column, let alone suggest that a right of reply be offered to the injured party or that a corrected account of the story be printed.
It is a shocking record of weakness in the face of a newspaper that appears happy to flout the ‘editors’ code’ whenever it likes.
The PCC might be a largely ineffective and discredited body – even its chairman says as much1 – but it looks as though it will remain the only place people can go to complain about the press for many months to come, so its work churns on.
Here is how it handled one case: Nahill Younis complained after he, his wife Donna Savattere (a former CBS TV producer) and her seven-year-old child were ambushed by photographers outside their London home. The Mail ran the snaps and when challenged said it was not its responsibility because the paparazzi were not on its payroll. The ‘resolution’ is a textbook piece of PCC spinelessness.
‘While the newspaper stated that the reporters had not acted on its behalf, the PCC negotiated a resolution to the complaint, when photographs depicting the complainant and his family were removed from an online archive and the online report was deleted.’
This is supposed to be redress for trampling over someone’s garden, shoving a camera lens at their terrified daughter and then writing scurrilous rubbish to go with the picture. Thank you, PCC.
Here is another. The daughter of a former footballer complained after the Daily Mail ran a really nasty feature about her father who it alleged now has an alcohol problem. The headline ran: ‘From glory to the gutter: A football golden boy who played for England 86 times – and is now a homeless wreck drinking himself to death.’ The article also contained details of his daughter’s medical records.
The PCC resolution says: ‘The newspaper swiftly removed the detail considered intrusive from the online article and the matter was resolved on the basis of a goodwill payment made directly to the complainant plus a donation to her charity of choice, Papyrus, which works to prevent young suicide.’
And here is another case, following a Mail article about the Charles Dickens Primary School in Portsmouth. The headline ran: ‘Teachers “denied schoolboy, 10, water on the hottest day of the year to avoid upsetting Muslim pupils during Ramadan”’. Except it was not like that.
The PCC resolution says: ‘The complaint was resolved when the newspaper amended the online version to include a full statement from the school’s head teacher which made clear to readers that water was available to all pupils but they were reminded to be respectful to those observing Ramadan.
‘Head teacher Craig Duncan has said water was available to students who had been “reminded to be respectful” to classmates who were fasting. He said: “School staff do everything that we can to ensure the welfare of all of our children and we would never prevent them from having access to water.”’
In short, the Mail story was wrong. The problem with this kind of PCC ‘resolution’ is that tinkering with the online article long after publication hardly puts right the damage done to the school and potentially to race relations by a completely wrong splash story in a mass-market daily. And the PCC data identifies at least three similar, inaccurate Mail articles during this two-month period.
Here is another: the case of a Basildon GP, one of three doctors with African names who were wrongly accused by the Mail of failing to diagnose a man’s brain tumour, though he was struggling even to speak. In fact this was a highly unusual tumour and all three doctors were exonerated by the General Medical Council.
The PCC says the complaint was resolved when the Mail deleted the online article and sent a private letter of apology to the GP. This will have done nothing whatever to correct any unfavourable impression Mail readers might have formed about doctors with African names.
One last case, this time a piece relating to travellers, a favourite Mail target. On 18 July the paper ran an outraged article under the headline: ‘Former Sunday school teacher, 77, charged with racially abusing travellers camped on greenbelt land near her home’. The piece was broadly sympathetic towards the teacher, who, the paper said, had gone through a “humiliating” ordeal, and referred to a ‘long running feud’ between the travellers and the local community. The father of the travellers’ family, Mike Linfoot complained to the PCC that his family’s relationship with their local community had been misrepresented by the newspaper and that it had used pejorative terms about his family in breach of the PCC code.
Political correctness gone mad? No. The woman did indeed racially abuse the travellers and she was duly found guilty and fined £1,300. The Mail eventually agreed to add substantial quotes to its online article, and they are worth quoting.
Mike Linfoot said: ‘We have a lot of local support. Our three boys are popular at the local school and my wife Patty Linfoot is a Parent Governor. I work hard for my family’s future and I pay my taxes.
‘We moved on to our land here because we wanted stability and an education for our kids and so that we can live together and care for the elder generation of our family. Before that we travelled in and around the Chorley area for forty years. I applied for planning permission as soon as I moved here and now we have a two-year permission to stay.
‘I realise that not everyone might agree with me, but despite trying to work with Chorley Council for years to find suitable land for a site, we could not find anywhere else to go. I felt I had no choice.’
No doubt the Mail disliked publishing those words, but that is hardly a punishment for getting a story completely wrong, and it is meagre and very belated justice for Mr Linfoot.
But this is how the PCC operates, even after the Leveson Report. This is the system that big newspapers like the Mail want to have in the future. In case after case perfectly legitimate complaints are consigned to obscurity and the newspaper is allowed to continue breaching the code with a minimum of inconvenience. Even worse, because these cases were all ‘resolved’ and no clear ruling was issued on whether the code was breached, the Mail can claim – outrageously – that in this period it had a ‘clean record’.
Tom Rowland is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. He was on the staff of the Daily Telegraph for 10 years and has written extensively for The Times and The Guardian. In 2011, he won substantial damages from News International for hacking his phone.
|1 Lord Hunt of Wirral, 8 March 2013: “It is now more than a year since I persuaded the Press Complaints Commission, with its in-built majority of individuals who are independent of the press, that the PCC should prepare itself for an orderly transition, to be replaced by a more effective and authoritative body”|