In the wake of the Leveson Inquiry, several newspaper groups created a new self-regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (“IPSO”) in place of the discredited Press Complaints Commission (“PCC”). IPSO isn’t independent at all – like the PCC, it is funded and controlled by big newspaper groups – but editors talked up the new organisation. They claimed it would provide the toughest regime of press regulation in the world, and talked about million-pound fines. So are they really worried?
If they were, it would show up in radically different attitudes in newsrooms towards reporting sensitive subjects such as immigration and private grief. Just one month in from the launch of IPSO in September 2014, we started to track breaches of the Editors’ Code of Practice – instances where newspaper editors appear to have broken the editorial standards they themselves have signed up to. We looked at printed editions of national newspapers – and what did we find?
The severity of some of the breaches was breathtaking.
The Daily Mail appears to have broken a lifelong anonymity court order for Maxine Carr by alerting readers to social media sites where users claimed to identify the town where she was living and details of her appearance, which would make her clearly identifiable. In doing so, the paper appeared to breach a High Court injunction granted in 2005 to protect her new identity and to prevent information about her whereabouts from reaching the public domain. Just a year earlier, in 2013 two men who published photographs on social media sites, said to show the killers of James Bulger, received suspended jail sentences. In that case the Attorney General stressed that it was in the public interest to ban identification as it mitigated the “very real risk of serious physical harm or death” to anyone who might be identified – correctly or incorrectly – as being one of the two convicted killers.
The Sunday Mirror published a clearly identifiable picture of the new home of a convicted rapist who had moved house because of receiving death threats. This appears to be a clear contravention of clause 3 on privacy. The Editors’ Code Book [pdf] says that:
“Publishing details about a celebrity’s home without consent, for example, could constitute a breach, especially because of security problems and the threat from stalkers. The key test in such cases is not whether the precise location has been disclosed, but whether the information published would be sufficient to enable people to find the whereabouts of the home.” (p.32), and that:
“The rules that protect the famous from unjustified intrusions into privacy apply equally to the infamous. Even notorious criminals do not automatically forfeit their rights under the Code. The judgment, as ever, is whether publication would be in the public interest.” (p.34)
In the story, no evidence is cited to justify a public interest defence, such as the rapist living near particularly vulnerable people or a rape support centre. Publishing an image of a convicted criminal’s distinctive home which would enable people to find the whereabouts of the house, and which exposes the rapist – or someone mistakenly identified as him – to threats of or actual violence, is clearly not in the public interest according to the editors’ own standards.
The Sun published medical details of the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, Peter Sutcliffe, who is incarcerated in a secure hospital. This is a breach of the Editors’ own code on privacy particularly as it relates to hospitals: “the restrictions on intruding into privacy are particularly relevant to enquiries about individuals in hospitals or similar institutions” (Article 8 (ii)). However heinous their crimes, all of these criminals have a right to privacy.
And then there were instances of inaccuracy that taken together, show up the papers’ ideological opposition to the EU, and their prejudice towards immigrants and ethnic minorities. The Daily Mail published an article by the justice minister, Chris Grayling, who claimed that not all judges in the European Court of Human Rights were ‘legally qualified’. This is not correct – what he should have said is that not all ECHR judges are qualified to be senior judges in the UK. Whilst the Daily Mail did publish a correction, it took more than a month to do so, and even then, only after a complaint by a human rights lawyer. The correction, published on 11 November 2014, read:
“Justice Secretary Chris Grayling wrote in a recent article about the European Court of Human Rights that not all of its judges are ‘legally qualified’. We are happy to clarify that he meant that although they all hold legal qualifications, they are not all qualified to be senior judges in the UK. The article also said that, under the Convention, ‘states should not torture, nor imprison people without trial. It set out the right to free speech and to marry, and to hold religious views – but always with the caveat that the interests of society as a whole had to be respected too.’
We are happy to make clear that the right not to be tortured is an absolute right, not subject to any caveat.”
Another Daily Mail article reported that a former Immigration Minister had used the word “flood” to describe the number of immigrants coming to the UK, even though no such word was used. The use of the word “flood” is primarily an inaccuracy, but it could be argued that it amounts to discrimination as well. Again, whilst the Daily Mail did publish a correction, in this instance it took almost two months to do so! The correction, published on 26 November 2014, read:
“A comment article in September repeated a previously published claim that former Immigration Minister Barbara Roche had used the word “flood” when describing the arrival of numbers of asylum seekers. Ms Roche has asked us to make clear that she did not in fact use this word.”
Other inaccuracies and discriminatory remarks about immigrants, ethnic minorities and the EU continued to abound. Corrections published by the national papers admitted that they had incorrectly reported the cost to the NHS of immigrants with HIV; and had incorrectly reported 600,000 “benefit tourists” living in the UK when there was no evidence to support this figure.
Then there was the startling claim – most prominently on the front page of the Daily Mail but also appearing in other papers – that “4 in 5 new nurses on NHS wards are foreign” when the real figure was in fact more like 1 in 5 – as clarified by the Health and Social Care Information Centre which stepped in to correct the figure. But the damage of a mega font headline had already been done. The tiny correction on page 2, which provides a string of numbers without citing the straight-forward fact of the ratio being ‘1 in 5’, continues to obscure the real number.
The Daily Mail included the religion of people charged with criminal offences in the title of two salacious stories, in one case pointedly juxtaposing the ethnicities of the victim and alleged perpetrator: these cases are in clear contravention of Clause 12 on Discrimination which states that a person’s characteristics, including race and ethnicity, should “be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story”.
At the same time the Daily Express incorrectly claimed that UKIP – with its Eurosceptic and ‘anti-foreigner’ agenda – had “surged” to second place in the polls, when it actually hadn’t. In fact, the YouGov poll showed that UKIP was still in third place with 15%, behind the Conservatives on 33% and Labour on 34%. The Daily Express had in fact misled its readers by pronouncing a UKIP lead based on the voting intentions of Sun readers, not the general public.
There also continue to be examples of cases where national papers have caused emotional distress to ordinary people, or – through reckless reporting – compounded the grief of other traumatic events.
The Sunday Times apologised for publishing a photograph of a soldier’s mother without her permission, a full five years after his death. The Mail on Sunday reported that someone had been accused of rape when they hadn’t, resulting in the named man receiving death threats.
In a third case, there was a story related to what West Mercia Police referred to in a statement as a “potential murder-suicide by gunshot” of an elderly couple in Herefordshire. After being called to the house, the police said that they had recovered a shotgun and that no third party was being sought in relation to the incident.
The papers however focused on a young woman from a traveller community, the allegation being that her planning application had provoked the suicide. Headlines included: “Devoted husband fighting gipsy camp next door driven to murder and suicide” (The Daily Telegraph, front page); “Man who feared travellers were surrounding his home shoots dead wife and himself” (Daily Mail); “Tragedy of couple driven to suicide by travellers’ site on their doorstep” (Daily Express, front page); “Man shoots ill wife then turns gun on himself over traveller site plans” (Daily Express); “Gypsy agony suicide” (The Sun).
As well as ignoring advice from the Samaritans not to speculate on the state of mind of someone who had killed himself, this reckless reporting damaged the young woman’s business and has seriously affected her well-being. In the race to keep up with breaking news, other papers published the same allegation without checking the facts. With four papers committing eight code breaches in this single instance, the risks of “churnalism” are clear.
Following a complaint to the PCC, all of the papers printed apologies. The Sun on Sunday, for example, printed the following statement:
“PCC: Only last week retired managing director John Knott, 71, killed himself and wife Elizabeth, 70, after fearing their Herefordshire home would be surrounded by travellers’ camps. Correction: in an article headlined “Gypsy Agony Suicide” (August 14) we reported comments from neighbours that a planning application from a family of travellers caused John Knott to take his own life and that of his wife. We would like to make clear that Mr Knott was also struggling with his wife’s terminal illness and this was likely to have been a major contributing factor to his actions. Further, the application was for one family rather than two. We are sorry for the misunderstanding.”
(Original article printed in The Sun on Sunday, August 17 2014. Correction published November 27 2014.)
Compared to the demonisation of the innocent neighbours, the permanent damage that we know has been inflicted upon them and the lasting prejudice or suspicion that some readers may continue to harbour, these small apologies are a completely inadequate remedy. More importantly, small printed corrections do nothing to deter papers from recklessly printing similar stories again or to encourage them to conduct basic checks before publishing such stories in future.
The ‘tough new regulator’ IPSO has in fact made no difference at all. Flagrant breaches of the Editors’ Code continue to happen far too often, and we will provide monthly round-ups of the worst examples.
This post originally appeared on the Hacked Off website and is reproduced with permission and thanks