On 12 April this year the front page headline of the Sun was ‘NOT IN MEG BACK YARD’. The report began: ‘Prince Harry and Meghan have infuriated Royal Household staff at Windsor by banning them from using a car park — because it overlooks their new home.’
The allegation was false: the couple had not banned anyone from using a car park. That may not come as a shock; after all, only 7 per cent of the population say they would trust a Sun journalist to tell the truth, and in any case, who cares about royal car parks?
None the less there is something revealing and important about this story and the way the Sun behaved. It illustrates extremely well how easily fiction, masquerading as journalism, gets into print and into public conversation. And although this particular front-page fiction happens to have been about royalty, the next one could be about you or me or anyone else. So it matters. Here is what happened.
The day before its report appeared, the Sun told the royal household it was working on a story about Prince Harry and his wife banning staff from the car park. In response, a representative of the couple stated that, although the arrangements for use of the car park had changed, that decision had nothing to do with the Sussexes.
Why did the Sun think otherwise? It would report that a ‘royal staffer’ had told its reporter the following: ‘To say we’re upset and annoyed is a massive understatement. We can only assume that Harry and Meghan don’t want to look out of their window and see cars coming and going and members of staff walking into the club.’
That was the sum total of the paper’s evidence that the couple were responsible. No documents. No named source. Just an unnamed person, vaguely described. And even by the Sun’s own account this person did not actually state as fact that Prince Harry and his wife imposed the alleged ban, merely that ‘we can only assume’ it was them.
As we’ve seen, despite the denial the Sun went ahead and published a front page lead story presenting the allegation against the couple in outraged terms. Three headlines, a picture caption and two paragraphs appeared across the front page and a further three headlines and 12 more paragraphs on page seven.
The first seven paragraphs described, in tones of indignation, an apparently high-handed decision by the royal couple – hinting strongly that it was made by the duchess. The result was inconvenience and expense for ‘low-paid’ royal staff, it was said, and all because the couple did not want their view spoiled.
Then in the eighth paragraph, nearly halfway down the section that appeared on the inside page, the Sun reported:
‘Last night a senior source at Windsor Castle insisted Harry and Meghan had not demanded the change. They said the car park would not be closed entirely but confirmed fewer people would be able to use it. They added the decision was made as a result of a review by the superintendent of the castle.’
After this the angry story of the unreasonable royals resumed as before.
What happened next?
Twenty-four hours after publication, following a complaint made on behalf of the Sussexes, the Sun removed the article from its website. Within days it also offered to publish on page two a correction stating: ‘We now accept that the parking changes were not requested by the Duke and Duchess. We are happy to correct the record and apologise for any distress caused.’
Pause for a moment here. Not one new fact had emerged, yet suddenly the Sun was ready to admit its story was wrong. What does that tell us? It tells us that the Sun knew all along that it could not defend its story.
The paper only admitted the story was wrong after it had splashed the unjustified allegation over its front page and its website, allowing word to spread among its readers and beyond for a whole day. Then, once the damage was done, it swiftly offered a brief correction to be buried on page two.
Why the Sun felt comfortable acting in this way becomes clear when we look at the consequences of its action, or rather the absence of consequences.
The role of IPSO
Prince Harry and his wife knew that few readers would notice a short paragraph on page two. The false allegation had been made on the front page so they said the correction should be there too, or at least a short notice drawing attention to it. When the Sun refused, they took the matter to IPSO, the puppet complaints body of the corporate press.
Feeble though IPSO is, it does promise to ensure that corrections receive ‘due prominence’, and the royal couple felt they had a strong case. They underestimated the shamelessness of those they were dealing with.
While IPSO made no attempt to defend the Sun’s claim that the couple were responsible for the ban, it declared that the ‘wording and promptness’ of the paper’s correction proposal were ‘sufficient’ and that putting the correction on page two would be ‘sufficiently prominent’. The Sussexes’ claim was thus rejected.
How was this justified? Prepare for some vintage IPSO doublespeak.
The so-called regulator stated: ‘The front page headline “NOT IN MEG BACK YARD” was a play on words which did not, in isolation, suggest that the complainants were behind the changes to the car park…’
The key words here are ‘in isolation’. It’s true that if you saw those five words out of context you would struggle to find meaning in them. But as IPSO knew very well they were not presented in isolation.
They appeared alongside a large photograph of the Duchess and a mugshot of her husband with the caption: ‘Ban… Harry and pregnant Meghan’. And the article below, to which the reader’s eye was artfully drawn, began bluntly: ‘Prince Harry and Meghan have infuriated royal household staff at Windsor by banning them from using a car park…’
No one in their right mind could deny that the message of the front page was that the couple were responsible for the supposed ban, but – like Nelson putting the telescope to his blind eye and saying: ‘I see no ships’ – IPSO’s complaints committee arbitrarily chose to view the headline ‘in isolation’ and see no allegation at all.
There is more
Next, IPSO expressed its approval that the royal couple’s denial had been ‘included’ in the Sun’s report – taking no account of the fact that it was buried halfway down page seven.
And finally, IPSO ‘noted that the claim under complaint was not one of a personal nature about the complainants, relating to their private or family life, but rather related to actions relating to royal staff, and the external affairs of their official residence’. The implication of this bizarre observation seems to be that the Sun should be less accountable for lies about royalty when the lies merely concern how they deal with their staff.
Such were the shameless contortions of logic in which, just a few weeks ago, IPSO was prepared to engage to justify refusing to make the Sun correct on its front page a demonstrable and harmful falsehood that it had published on its front page.
Consider what this means. For the Sun there is almost no downside to publishing on its front page a story which it has been told is false and which it has no means of justifying. All it has to do to satisfy IPSO is to mention the denial low down on an inside page and – some time later – offer a one-paragraph correction at the bottom of page two.
Now ask yourself this. How many times has the Sun done this? Since it has every interest in putting sensational fictions on its front page and since there is nothing to stop it, we may assume that the answer is many times. And the same applies to all its principal rivals. None of them is accountable to the people they write about.
Finally, consider this. If they are doing this to a popular royal couple who have media teams and lawyers at their beck and call, what are they doing to ordinary people who cross their path? What are they doing to innocent victims of tragedy, to young sports people and others who suddenly find themselves famous, to friends and relatives of the well-known? They trample over their lives too. And yours may be next. We need Leveson 2.
This post originally appeared on Byline.com and is reproduced with permission and thanks