Last November, the Guardian published in full, on page 10 of the print edition, a PCC adjudication that it had breached clause 1 of the Editor’s Code in three articles about the role of Queen’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt.
The PCC described this as a “particularly concerning case” because:
“the inaccuracies were central to the reporting; they appeared across all three items; and they directly contributed to the newspaper’s criticisms of the nature of the complainant’s role and his personal suitability to fill it”.
This was noteworthy for a number of reasons. The PCC only made 37 adjudications in 2013. In only 12 were the complaints upheld. It appears that this is the only one in which the adjudication was published in full by the newspaper.
The case raises a number of important issues about inaccuracy in journalism and what a press regulator does about it. Although the Guardian published inaccurate articles and (as we will see, has not properly correct them even now), it is nevertheless important to recognise that – despite its scandalously unfair treatment by the PCC in the past – it has gone out of its way to cooperate.
But despite a cooperative newspaper and a determined complainant, very little was in fact achieved. This is a case study in regulatory inadequacy.
Let’s begin with the publications. On 8 May 2013 the Guardian published two articles about Sir Christopher Geidt and his alleged role in the Royal Charter on Self-Regulation of the Press. The first, on the front page, was entitled: “Royal official handling press charter won damages over reporter’s SAS claim“. Then there was a profile entitled “Christopher Geidt: the suave, shrewd and mysterious royal insider”. Finally, there was ‘a leading article entitled “Press Regulation: you couldn’t make it up”.
The justification for publishing these pieces was said to be that Sir Christopher Geidt was, as a result of his role as the Queen’s Private Secretary, “tasked with handling the creation” of the royal charter; “jointly responsible” for setting it up, “the man who is now charged with establishing” the royal charter, and “one of the final arbiters of press regulation“.
These claims are, as anyone with a basic knowledge of the constitutional role of the British Monarch would realise, manifest nonsense. The Queen acts on the advice of her ministers – she does what she is told. Neither the Queen nor Sir Christopher Geidt had any role in setting up the Royal Charter, much less acting as an “arbiter” of press regulation. The Queen’s private secretary is merely a part of the arcane but routine process of royal rubber-stamping of decisions already taken by Government minister.
These matters were pointed out to the Guardian shortly after publication. It did not, however, withdraw any of the articles. Instead, it amended them. Its leading article now described Sir Christopher Geidt as “one of the people involved” in the royal charter. It attached, to the online versions of each article, the following statement:
“This article was amended on 31 May 2013 to remove a number of inaccuracies regarding Sir Christopher Geidt in the article, which overstated his role as the Queen’s private secretary in relation to the royal charter for the press. We have also clarified aspects of his legal action against John Pilger and Central Television. We apologise for the errors”.
The thrust of the articles remained: that there was something questionable and worthy of comment about the “involvement” of Sir Christopher Geidt in the process of approval of the royal charter on press regulation. This is plainly wrong and Sir Christopher Geidt rightly objected. As the PCC noted in its adjudication
“The complainant said that the continuing publication of the amended articles online was unacceptable; they remained inaccurate and derogatory”.
So how did the PCC deal with this patent and continuing breach of its own Code? After over 6 months, it issued its adjudication. This pulls every punch. The manifest inaccuracies and misrepresentations in the Guardian’s report are described as containing “serious overstatements, presented as fact” about Sir Christopher Geidt’s role. Then, after properly acknowledging “the newspaper’s early recognition that remedial action was necessary” the PCC goes on to say, inexplicably, that
“The wording it had ultimately offered corrected the position and included an appropriate apology”.
This is conclusion is bizarre and wrong. It is entirely contrary to the points made by Sir Christopher Geidt which, rather than being addressed, are simply ignored. The Guardian has patently not “corrected the position” – it still continues to publish an article which, amongst other things, falsely describes Sir Christopher Geidt as the “royal Official “tasked with handling a royal charter to regulate the press”.
Furthermore, the apology “We apologise for the errors” is as minimal and weak as it is possible to be. As Sir Christopher Geidt said in his complaint, the articles remain inaccurate and derogatory.
The Guardian has a proud history of high quality journalism but this story is one which should never have been published. After it was published – apparently as a result of elementary errors and misunderstandings – it should have been quickly removed from the website and a correction and full apology published. When this was not done an effective regulator should have intervened and required these steps to be taken.
What, in fact, happened is that after 6 months the PCC produced a feeble adjudication which, effectively, endorses the Guardian’s continuing inaccuracies and lack of proper apology. This is the system of complaints handling which, despite its condemnation by Lord Justice Leveson, is going to be transferred wholesale into the “new” press regulator, IPSO.