by Brian Cathcart
If you ever doubt that the people who run our corporate national press view the British public with contempt, take a look at Clause 1(iii) of their professional code of practice.
Under the heading ‘Accuracy’, it declares: ‘The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.’
It is there in black and white: the editors of the Mail, the Mirror, the Sun and the Express, to name but four, have all accepted that when they publish comment or conjecture, they will always make clear to their readers that this is distinct from fact.
In the closing days of an election campaign that has seen such papers take propaganda and distortion to new depths, it is obvious that they ignore Clause 1(iii).
Far from distinguishing between comment, conjecture and fact, these papers clearly regard the deliberate muddling of the three as an important part of their journalistic mission, to the point where facts are frequently obscured altogether.
But since this is an industry that is regulated precisely as it chooses to be regulated, there are no consequences to this. The big papers know that nobody can or will call them to account because they own and choose their own regulator.
Now, you may be thinking that it would be asking a lot of our national papers to insist that they ‘distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact’. They would certainly look very different, and indeed it may not be practical, but that is not the point.
The point is that the Editors’ Code Committee adopted that clause of its own free will, and that it advertises it to the public as a commitment. Further, the subscribing editors of today’s big national corporate papers, and of many regional and local papers, have freely and publicly undertaken to abide by it.
The preamble to the Code of Practice even says: ‘It is essential that an agreed code [as this one is] be honoured not only to the letter but in the full spirit.’ And ‘It is the responsibility of editors and publishers to apply the Code to editorial material in both printed and online versions of publications.’
But this is all a mockery and those are just words.
As the authors of Clause 1(iii) knew, way back in 1990, and as the members of the current Editors’ Code Committee know today, the code is a mere fig leaf, designed to give the impression of ethical rigour while the substance is kept as far away as possible.
No less eloquent as testimony of this is the identity of the Code Committee chair: Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail and the editor in chief of the Mail group papers. He has chaired the committee for seven years and in every one of those years (and many before then) his newspapers have committed more breaches of the Code than any others.
Yet throughout those years Mr Dacre has been able to ensure that this fact was never made public by the so-called regulator, and that nothing happened to his papers in consequence that might make them take the code more seriously.
We need a code that is formulated – as Sir Brian Leveson recommended – by an independent body, informed of course by editors and journalists, because then it stands a better chance of making sense. And to uphold it we need a new, independent and effective press self-regulator on the lines recommended by the Leveson Inquiry and set out in the Royal Charter.