“I totally disagree with George Clooney about The Daily Mail” the comedian John Cleese tweeted, “They are much, much worse than that.” As has now been widely reported Clooney condemned The Daily Mail after it wrongly claimed that the mother of his Lebanese fiancée objected to their wedding on religious grounds. But you can see the point that John Cleese is making.
On average twice a week The Mail and its Internet spin off Mail Online is having to withdraw major stories; and almost every time it makes the same lame excuse, the copy was provided by a trusted freelancer or news agency.
Last month it pulled a truly terrible false accusation that British celebrity chef Robert Moses and his wife Sharon had been keeping a girl as a slave in France.
The wording of the little apology the Daily Mail agreed to publish stands testament to the ghastly journalistic mess beyond.
“Our article of 11 December “British couple charged with human trafficking and keeping their au pair as a ‘slave’ in France” incorrectly stated that Robert and Sharon Moses had been ‘charged with human trafficking’. We are happy to make clear that the couple did not face any criminal charges. The hearing was part of a civil case brought by the au pair seeking damages and compensation for inadequate payment; the claim was later rejected. We apologise to Mr and Mrs Moses for the error,” reads the Daily Mail correction.”
It turns out that a little mistake by a provincial French court reporter who mixed up the “parquet” (the prosecution) with the “partie civile” (the victim claiming compensation in a French criminal case) built up into a disaster.
But if you don’t check that is what happens.
In the nuclear industry if a power plant explodes it is hardly an acceptable excuse for the company to say nobody bothered to check the bolts holding the fuel rods. Why should the newspaper industry be any different?
And how come the Press Complaints Commission still refuses to investigate why The Mail is continually running big stories which turn out to be dressed up agency copy that it has not bothered to check?
Sir Alan Moses, the new Chair of IPSO, the successor to the PCC, may care to worry about the second of these questions and how shamefully an innocent couple, who happen to be his namesakes, have been treated by this utterly spineless and discredited body.
But for once we can dissect the slovenly practices and mistakes that led up to this journalistic disaster.
The conclusion is that The Daily Mail lacks proper direction from the management. Editors spend all day toning things down, discarding rubbish and developing a second sense about when something is wrong.
Except at the Mail where, it seems, the management appear to urge ever greater risk taking and corner cutting; then they never, ever apologise when it goes wrong unless absolutely forced to do so.
No other UK newspaper ran this story. Two months later when the judgment was given The Times reported [£];
“An au pair who claimed to have been kept as a slave by a wealthy British couple in France was seen lounging around their swimming pool and playing on their computer, according to a court ruling that dismissed her claim.
Sahobilalaina Vonintoa 28 from Madagascar made the allegations only so she could lengthen her stay in France, Judge Jean-Louis Galopin ruled.”
The “trafficking” claim was a civil one, and in the opinion of the judge, was completely unfounded.
The original report put out by the French news agency Agence France Presse contained a fundamental error.
The court reporter had attributed an accusation to the prosecutor when it should have been attributed to the victim’s lawyer and the entire story rested on this error, including the inflammatory headline “British couple charged with human trafficking”.
To be fair to the Mail, a number of French newspapers were also misled by the mistake. But they quickly ran corrections.
The Daily Mail by contrast compounded the error by running an even more misleading follow up the next day, and unlike The Times it did not carry a report of the judgment and only ran any correction at all months later and after the intervention of the Press Complaints Commission.
But there were tell-tale signs all along this path to disaster that something was badly wrong and nobody at The Daily Mail bothered to check.
The original hearing took place on Monday 9 December in the divisional court at Draguignan in the Alpes-Maritimes and was covered by an agency reporter and turned up first under the Agence France Press (AFP) label in Le Parisien, the Paris-based tabloid with a circulation of around 500,000.
The lead paragraph on that story translates as “A British couple were charged on Monday with “human trafficking”.
The French version goes on to say Mr and Mrs Moses “étaient poursuivis sur citation directe du parquet «pour traite d’être humain.”
Approximately that translates as the prosecutor accused them in court of human trafficking. Which is the gist of the story that later came out in The Mail.
I asked Agence France Presse to show us the original French version of the story it put out. It refused.
But from versions that were published elsewhere it is possible to piece together what went wrong.
It seems there was a mistake in reporting of who made the accusation – the agency reporter mistook the partie civile’s lawyer for the prosecutor.
A corrected version run in a French local paper read,
“Deux résidents de Lorgues (Var) faisaient par ailleurs l’objet d’une citation directe de la partie civile pour traite d’être humain.”
By mixing up the slang “parquet” – prosecutor – with “partie civile” – victim – at a key point of the story it looks for a moment as though the couple have been charged by the prosecution not by the lawyer representing the au pair.
Only if you read on does it become clearer that there is no prosecution, just a claim which is disputed.
You get similar mash ups in provincial agency copy sent into nationals. This one just happened to have got onto the French wire service and into a Paris newspaper.
None of that matters this side of the English Channel if somebody makes a few checks when things look odd, if there is an properly trained sub editor overseeing the process and if the editor is doing his job properly so that if a mistake is made it is quickly corrected.
Instead The Daily Mail ran a follow up the day after repeating the false accusation with more decorations:
“A BRITISH chef and his wife kept an au pair as an unpaid slave at their home in the South of France, a court heard yesterday. Robert Moses, 46, who is said to have cooked for the Queen and several film stars, and his air hostess wife Sharon, 49, hired Sahobilalaina Vonintsoa to look after their three children in 2008 but allegedly made her work as a domestic servant.”
Presumably the new and unsubstantiated Royal angle appealed enough to give it a second run.
The Daily Mail did not however see fit to print a story about the final verdict two months later, when all of the allegations were dismissed.
Because in Britain at the moment there are no real consequences if the story turns out to be hokum.
Most people can’t afford to sue and the complaints handler never investigates properly.
The Daily Mail is never properly exposed for taking risks with other people’s lives and reputations – risks that in any properly regulated industry would have the regulator demanding the licence to practice of all involved.
Because Mr Dacre knows that he can get away with running a story about human trafficking that never took place and a piece of tittle tattle about a cook who might or might not have spiced up the Queen’s dinner.