PCC“Resolution” of complaints from members of the public at the Press Complaints Commission (“PCC”) can include the sending of ‘private letters of apology’. Tracking down some of these proves instructive.

We recently reported on the case of the three Basildon GPs, based at the Robert Frew Medical Centre in Wickford, Essex, who have African names and were wrongly accused by the Daily Mail of misdiagnosing a man’s brain tumour.

The Mail did not contact them before publishing its damaging article, the doctors claim, and in fact all three were exonerated by a General Medical Council inquiry.

The PCC said the complaint was resolved when the Mail deleted the online story and sent a private letter of apology. This is no doubt better than nothing, but it will have done nothing whatever to correct any unfavourable impression Mail readers might have formed about, for example, NHS GPs in general, or about the practice in Wickford, or indeed about doctors with African names (as these ones did). Nor did it do anything to repair the unfair damage.

The letter of apology was written by Rhiannon Macdonald, managing editor of MailOnline. It began:

‘I am writing to apologise for any distress caused by our recent article on MailOnline and, in particular, the references to inappropriate conduct.

‘As you are aware we, in common with other media outlets, used the copy provided to us, in good faith, after it was provided to us by a reputable news agency, Cascade News.’

Blaming agencies that supply news is a common excuse for newspapers – for example, it forms part of the Sun’s case in the Hillsborough affair – but it is not a serious explanation. A big, powerful news organisation such as the Mail must take responsibility for what it publishes, and it should have processes in place to check agency reports.

When asked to comment on being blamed by the Mail in this way, John Jeffay of Cascade News said only this:

‘We have already cooperated in full with the appropriate authority – the PCC.’   

The PCC is satisfied that the Mail’s apology and the removal of the online article satisfactorily closes the matter. Despite having published damaging and incorrect information, the paper does not have to print a correction, no matter how small. Nor is there any clear acknowledgement, anywhere, that the Mail has breached the industry’s code of practice.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the PCC has not taken any steps we know of to ensure that the Mail improves its processes for checking news agency copy – meaning that there is no reason to believe the same thing will not happen again this week or next week.

A few weeks after the Mail sent its half-hearted apology, the Care Quality Commission awarded the Robert Frew Medical Centre its top ‘five star’ rating, commenting on the high standards of care, support, protection from harm, staffing and overall management of the practice.

You might have thought that the Daily Mail, if it sincerely wanted to make amends for the distress caused by its damaging article, would have reported this impressive award. It didn’t.

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.