Am I the only one who thought The Sun got off rather lightly at Leveson? It is absolutely right that newspaper editors should be able to shout about the good work they do. As Lord Justice Leveson said, “it is extremely important to emphasise the positive” role that newspapers play, as well as scrutinizing the negative.
Dominic Mohan, the current editor of The Sun, did just this by talking about The Sun’s campaigns (Help for Heroes, the Millies, Sun employment, drug awareness campaign), The Sun’s investigations, and the important role The Sun plays in making serious, complex subjects digestible.
But it is also right that these editors should be challenged, particularly when they say things that are inconsistent, unfounded, or inaccurate. They weren’t, Mohan especially.
Read through Dominic Mohan’s written evidence and there are frequent references to the importance of the PCC to him and those at the paper he edits:
‘The main guide to ethical conduct for Sun joumalists in their day-to-day work is the PCC Code, which we take very seriously… The importance of the Code is also underlined through regular discussion of it, as well as training sessions’ (paragraph 4&6)
‘If the PCC Code is breached, a complaint is received and it is found to have merit, then a correction will be published. Any published correction as a result of a PCC complaint is negotiated directly with the PCC who in turn liaises with the complainant. Corrections are never placed further back in the newspaper than the original article, except for those connected with page one stories where the correction is published on page two” (paragraph 18, my bold).
This emphasis on the importance of the PCC Code and the results of PCC complaints is consistent with what his predecessors at The Sun, and its ex-stablemate the News of the World, have said to previous inquiries, particularly with regard to PCC adjudications.
In 2003 Rebekah Brooks (then Wade), speaking to the culture media and sport select committee, said that “the threat of a complaint being upheld by the PCC is what terrifies editors – not particularly a financial sanction; it is the actual adjudication’ (Q.429). Andy Coulson, giving evidence alongside Wade, said that an adjudication ‘carries an enormous amount of weight and far more significance than a fine’ (Q.428).
In his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry, Mohan also emphasised the importance of adjudications: ‘I am proud’, he wrote, ‘that as Editor I have only had one partial PCC complaint upheld against the paper’ (paragraph 8).
This is all sounds good, but is it true? The best way to judge is to look at the way the newspapers have actually dealt with complaints and evidence of malpractice and compare that to what the editors themselves say. In the case of Brooks and Coulson, we already know that their newspapers breached the PCC code on an industrial scale.
But how has The Sun dealt with complaints since Mohan took over as editor in August 2009? Since August 2009 there has has been only one adjudication upheld against The Sun. This was for two stories published on 18th and 19thSeptember 2009, the first titled ‘Boy, 12 Turns Into Girl’, the second titled ‘Now Boy, 9 Is Girl’. They were published on Page 1 and Page 5 on the 18th, and Page 1 and Page 5 on the 19th.
The parents of one of the children complained that the articles breached Clause 1 – Accuracy, and Clause 3 – Privacy, as well as clauses 4 (harassment), 6 (children), and 12 (discrimination). A further complaint was received from a second couple. In respect of accuracy (clause 1) and privacy (clause 3) the complaint was upheld. It was not upheld on the other clauses or for the second couple.
Given an upheld adjudication is – we are told by News International editors – taken very seriously indeed, given it is the only upheld adjudication against the paper since Mohan took over, and since it involved a child and breached the two most prominent clauses of the code, one would have thought the published adjudication would have been published quickly, with due prominence and the journalists involved disciplined.
Yet it took The Sun almost 7 months to publish a correction (the upheld adjudication), and this was in one narrow column down the right hand side of Page 6 – i.e. further back in the paper than any of the original articles (see left). Furthermore there is no evidence that Mohan was disciplined or that the journalists who wrote the original articles, Brian Flynn and Rhodri Phillips, were disciplined. Both are still writing for the paper.
This directly contradicts Mohan’s written evidence that ‘Corrections are never placed further back in the newspaper than the original article, except for those connected with page one stories where the correction is published on page two’. The one clear and substantial example available was published further back in the paper. If Mohan had checked any of his written evidence he would surely have checked this claim. Yet this evidence, submitted under oath, is wrong. Unfortunately the counsel, Robert Jay, failed to bring adequate attention to this contradiction.
Nor is The Sun’s PCC record since 2009 as unblemished as Mohan suggests. If one goes through the 52 PCC complaints against The Sun that were recorded in 2010, The Sun appears to have admitted code breaches in 38 of them. This was not addressed at the inquiry.
Or take another case which went not to the PCC but to the High Court. Parameswaran Subramanyam said that articles published in The Sun and Daily Mail in October 2009, which claimed he secretly broke his hunger strike outside Parliament, were entirely false and defamatory. As a consequence of the articles Subramanyam lost friends, was shunned by family members, and was ostracised from the Tamil community (see his statement here). He also, he says, contemplated suicide.
For ten months The Sun and Daily Mail refused to correct the articles. Only when Subramanyam took legal action, with the help of a Conditional Fee Agreement, was he able to secure full corrections and apologies from both papers:
‘OUR article of 9 October 2009 falsely alleged that throughout a 23 day hunger strike, Mr Parameswaran Subramanyam secretly ate takeaway burgers when dishonestly claiming he was on hunger strike in support of Sri Lankan Tamils, in a campaign which was policed at considerable expense and caused the police to waste public money.
We now accept that these allegations are totally untrue. Mr Subramanyam, whose sole aim has always been to promote the Tamil cause, did not eat any food at all during his hunger strike.
We apologise to Mr Subramanyam and his family for any upset and embarrassment caused and are paying him a substantial sum in damages.’
It would have been very helpful to have heard Dominic Mohan’s explanation of why it was so difficult, and took so long, to correct an article which was ‘totally untrue’ and was based on no evidence. Unfortunately we didn’t.