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The PCC – still failing to hold newspapers accountable: The case of Dr Kate Stone

By Dr Evan Harris

Dr Kate Stone, a Cambridge academic, spoke on Channel 4 News on Saturday about how she had succeeded in getting no fewer than 6 national newspapers to correct a story, and that this was via a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).  The Observer referred to this as a “landmark PCC ruling” (although this was later corrected, everywhere except in the photo caption and in the URL, to say “landmark negotiation”.

Although Dr Stone was as successful as she had set out to be (she wanted the record corrected and to publicise the fact of the corrections) it certainly was not a “ruling” by the PCC. The fact that 6 national newspapers could get something so badly wrong meant that this was only a “landmark” in the failure of much of the press to follow their own rules.

Roy Greenslade, in his normally astute column, said that Dr Stone’s case was a validation of the PCC in its mediation role, and he suggested that on the evidence of this case perhaps the PCC approach (of mediation rather than adjudication) was not always wrong. In fact, while it was satisfactory for Dr Stone because of her personal circumstances, the whole episode underlines why the PCC model (to be replicated by its near-clone, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, IPSO) is so unsatisfactory.

The following are the facts.

Dr Stone founded a company called Novalia, which is a cutting edge technology company in software printing.  She is widely respected in the technology community.  On New Years’ Eve, she was gored in the neck by the antler of a startled stag while walking with a group of friends back from a party on her Scottish holiday. She was left fighting for her life in a Scottish Hospital.

This freak occurrence was widely reported in the press, and there was no doubt that it was a newsworthy story.  However, 4 newspapers – that is The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Daily Record, and The Daily Telegraph – chose to describe the event in headlines and in the story as ‘sex-swap academic attacked by stag’, or in similar terms.  Her transgender status was of course totally irrelevant to the story.

The Editor’s Code is very clear on the matter.  Clause 12 states that:

12 Discrimination

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Dr Stone complained that the terms used were pejorative, in breach of 12[i], and irrelevant, in breach of 12[ii].

Two more newspapers, The Daily Mirror and The Scottish Sun, were not only guilty of that but went further and published either her previous name (pre-transition) which is particularly upsetting, and/or details about her family and previous life (when she was living as a man), which is known to be offensive to most people who have undergone gender reassignment and represented in Dr Stone’s view a clear invasion of her privacy in breach of the Editor’s Code Clause 3.

It might be argued that the poor newspapers would not have been aware of the sensitivities around this issue or how the Editor’s Code applied, because transgender issues have only been around for a few decades, and it takes time for editors to catch up with the modern world. But that is unsustainable given that the editor of the Daily Mail, as chair of the Editor’s Code Committee, had issued a few weeks before new guidance to himself and the other editors (and indeed to sub-editors, news editors and journalists) on this specific issue of how the code applied to transgender issues.

This guidance was itself prompted by the disgraceful Lucy Meadows affair where a local Lancashire newspaper and the Daily Mail had viciously and personally attacked a young teacher who was transitioning over the Christmas period 2012-13.  This culminated in an even more vicious personal attack by Richard Littlejohn in the Mail, Miss Meadows’ suicide, and condemnation of the tabloid press by the coroner at the inquest.

When Dr Stone emerged from her coma and from intensive care, she, with the assistance of a friend (who is advisor to a project called ‘All About Trans’), complained to the PCC. The details can be seen here. Instead of adjudicating on the complaint like any other regulator would, and requiring whatever reasonable printed and online correction and apology the victim wanted, the PCC entered a mediation process as it is bound to do by the rules the newspapers have set for it. The details of the correspondence are confidential.  But what we do know is the following.

Four months after initial publication all 6 of the newspapers quietly (one might even say surreptitiously and sheepishly) amended their online copy to remove references to ‘sex-swap’ and ‘transgender’.  The Scottish Sun and Daily Mirror were reported by the PCC to have removed references to Dr Stone’s previous name.  The PCC quietly published the ‘resolutions’ in all 6 cases on their website among all the others. So no landmark ruling. Not even a “landmark” press release or a “landmark” PCC commentary.

Had it not been for the determination and willingness of Dr Stone and her associates in All About Trans to publicise the fact that the six newspapers had got it wrong, no one would have noticed.  As it is, unless readers of these six newspapers watched Channel 4 News on Saturday afternoon or read the Observer article, they would not have known that what they had read in January was discriminatory and/or intrusive, and they would not have known that their newspaper had done anything wrong.

Some commentators may consider this a good result, and that the PCC has ‘done a good thing’.  A closer analysis reveals the opposite to be the case for the following reasons:

1.  It took up to four months for articles published on January 1st to be corrected online. The newspapers most likely corrected the stories somewhat prior to the PCC publishing the outcome – we can not tell because not all the newspapers admit in the corrected online version that it has been corrected, let alone say when. This in itself is poor practice. Nor does the PCC resolution tell us when the “1st party” complaint was made. To do so would demonstrate how long the mediation process has taken and the newspapers either do not want the PCC to do this, or the PCC chooses to protect the reputation of the mediation process by withholding this information from its published outcome (though eagle-eyed analysts can find the date of the complaint from the monthly complaint summaries when they are published, weeks later). Dr Stone must have made her complaint at the very beginning of March to meet the deadline. The Daily Mail only seem to have “updated” their stories from31st December and 1st January 2013 on 25th March and 2nd April 2014” respectively.

2.  Not surprisingly many members of the “transgender community” or those who advocate on their behalf objected immediately – in the first week of January – to the flagrant and damaging breach of the code. These can be found by trawling through the PCC’s monthlycomplaints summary for January where there are 11 references to complaints about these articles. But the PCC rejected them all immediately. It takes the view that an obvious code breach cannot possibly be drawn to the attention of the guilty newspapers unless the person directly affected says they wish to complain.  Naturally Dr Stone was in no position to complain when she was in a coma, was in intensive care or was recovering in hospital, and it would have been cruel of her family or doctors to have shown her the intrusive and offensive newspaper coverage to prompt her to make a complaint. Lord Justice Leveson specifically said that where there was a clear code-breach, and a public interest, that representative groups should be entitled to make complaints and the PCC should be able to deal with them. This is set out in his recommendation 11 here.

3.  Better still, the PCC should be able to take action against the newspapers itself – without waiting for a victim fighting for her life to pull through.  It’s not clear – should she have tragically died from her injuries – whether the PCC would have acted or continued to reject all complaints as “third party”.  The idea that in cases of discriminatory treatment of a protected group only the person directly affected should be allowed to complain is absurd.  The PCC know it (but the industry who control them won’t let them change their rules), the press industry knows it, and Leveson stated it. Sadly IPSO will have even less discretion than the PCC in this area.

4.  In the “resolution”, none of the newspapers were willing to admit that the terms they used were pejorative or discriminatory; merely that they were “inappropriate” and/or “not relevant”

5.  While the Daily Mirror acknowledged that “disclosure of the complainant’s previous name without her consent was an unjustified intrusion into her private life”, there was no such acknowledgement by the Scottish Sun which had also printed Dr Stone’s previous name and subsequently removed it and was subject to an identical complaint.

6.  Neither the newspapers nor the PCC will record any of these outcomes (“resolutions”) as code breaches because the PCC is not allowed by the industry which runs it to count these guilty pleas – including half-hearted ones like these – as code breaches.  This allows newspaper editors to say that they have not had an adverse ruling (which would be an “adjudication”) from the PCC.  It’s a rather clever scam.

7.  The newspapers have failed to offer either a printed apology or an online apology (and Dr Stone chose not to initiate what could be a prolonged effort to achieve one).  Even if the PCC had made a formal adjudication on the complaint it would not have had the power to insist on an apology; let alone ensure it was not buried on page 34.  The same applies to the PCC Mark 2, IPSO, in a clear breach of Leveson’s recommendations.

8.  The newspapers did not even offer to tell their readers that they had breached the code, or that they had been unkind and unfair to Dr Stone.  In fact, were it not for the publicity organised by Dr Stone herself, the newspapers would have escaped any public censure for these clear violations of their own code. Though even then they are no doubted comforted by the increased sales revenue that comes from headlines that they consider to be sensationalist or salacious.

9.  The Daily Mirror did not even remove all the references to Dr Stone’s personal life which were irrelevant and intrusive.  I am not linking to this article in order to respect Dr Stone’s privacy, but I have drawn her attention to it so that she can go back to the PCC, who really should have noticed this.

10.  No information has been provided by the newspapers or the PCC, nor any assurances sought by the PCC, that newspapers will in future follow their own code of practice and adhere to their own guidance. The suggestion that anyone responsible for the offence has been disciplined or required to re-acquaint themselves with the rules – as the press would demand in any other industry that screwed up – is fanciful.

Dr Stone has made clear she is satisfied with the overall outcome, given the publicity that she has garnered for what has happened.  All About Trans have a published policy of trying to positively engage with even the most reactionary tabloids in an attempt to persuade them to abide by their own code of practice.  But no one should suggest that this case does anything other than show why the PCC system, and that proposed for IPSO, does anything other than fail to provide an adequate remedy, and fail to make newspapers change their ways.

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Rothermere papers commit almost half of all PCC Code breaches so far in 2014 | Hacked Offreply
July 01, 2014 at 10:07 AM

[…] This case further confirms that the PCC fails to provide an adequate remedy in cases like this – and fails to make newspapers learn lessons, change their ways or behave appropriately. The PCC’s replacement, IPSO, will be no different. […]

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