Sunday, 25 October 2009

How the PCC doesn't work

A couple of weeks ago, this blog revealed the extraordinary effort needed to make Richard Littlejohn and the Daily Mail withdraw the obviously incorrect claim most robberies were committed by Eastern Europeans. While you would think it would be easy to correct something so obviously bogus, it was a lengthy process because the Mail decided to ignore the Press Complaints Commission for over a month, and Littlejohn tried to repeat the claim in the clarification.

If you thought that was bad, read on.

The same reader who complained about Littlejohn also contacted the PCC about Carole Malone's claim that immigrants get 'free cars' when they arrive in the Britain. Thankfully, the article has been removed from the News of the World site but if you Google the headline 'I’ll give you a real benefits sob story!' it is still available on elsewhere.

In a column full of frothing anti-immigrant myth-making, Malone spewed:

All you have to do to get everything Britain has to offer is to turn up illegally with some sob story of how your own country is too dangerous or that you're a lesbian who'll be shot if you stay there and Hey Presto, it's like you've won the lottery! And, in effect, they HAVE. Free houses, free cars, free healthcare and free money. Hell, they don't even have to work or speak the language. Even the suggestion they should is seen as racist in Brown's Britain.

It's a dismal and depressing couple of paragraphs. But here's your starter for ten: who is she on about?

'Turning up illegally' implies illegal immigrants. But they wouldn't need a sob story to stay, and certainly don't get any benefits.

The 'sob story' and 'free houses and money' implies asylum seekers, but they don't turn up illegally and aren't allowed to work.

This becomes an important point in the correspondence that followed. But more on that later.

Because of the strict PCC rules on complaints, especially about columns such as Littlejohn's or Malone's, the complainant stuck to one fact: no one gets free cars.

Not only did this violate Clause 1 of the Code of Practice that the:

'Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information'

but also ignored the PCC Guidance Note on Reporting on Refugees and Asylum Seekers, which highlights:

the danger that inaccurate, misleading or distorted reporting may generate an atmosphere of fear and hostility that is not borne out by the facts.

To their credit, the Deputy Managing Editor of the News of the World responded within a few days. The evasion started immediately:

Ms Malone is a famously trenchant columnist with forthright views and the tenor of her writing makes it clear that she is expressing an opinion.

Stating that people get treated like they have 'won the lottery' - as Malone does - is an opinion. It happens to be totally misleading and overblown (£35 per week is like winning the lottery?), but it is an opinion.

Claiming people get 'free cars' is not an opinion. It's either true or it isn't. And it isn't, so it breaches the Code.

But what was their excuse for the 'free car' claim anyway? Believe it or not, this:

Ms Malone is referring, for example, to the widely accepted and unchallenged reports of the £28,500 Toyota Prius that Omar Bakri Mohammed obtained from Currie Motors with a grant from the Government's Motability scheme.

Yes, really. Note the 'for example' as if this is just one of many they could list. Instead, they point to one example from over four years ago, where someone was granted a car because of a disability after being in the country legally for over a decade.

Clearly that does not justify the claim that someone turns up illegally and 'hey presto' they get a free car.

The paper also tried to explain who Malone was referring to:

Throughout the piece, Ms Malone refers to 'immigrants' and never once to 'asylum seekers'

before going on to explain that she only refers to 'illegal immigrants' in the paragraph before the 'free cars' one.

So the Deputy Managing Editor confirms Malone was referring to illegal immigrants having a sob story in order to stay in the country and as getting free houses, cars, money and healthcare. Clearly, all that is completely wrong. And suggests that neither he, nor Malone, nor the paper have a clue about what terminology they should use. Indeed, he went on to claim:

I believe it would be abundantly clear to any of Ms Malone's readers that this is to demonstrate the vast range of people who might benefit from this country's largesse.

So he does think illegal immigrants get those benefits. And in other words - we can chuck any word describing immigrants around and we don't care if they're right or not. As long as readers know they're all getting benefits and cars, it's job done. It's arrogant and it's stupid.

So to reiterate: Carole Malone and the News of the World think illegal immigrants turn up in the UK needing a sob story that their own country is too dangerous so they can stay and receive free money, houses, cars and healthcare. And these illegal immigrants aren't even made to work for it.

Needless to say the complainant rejected this explanation out of hand, highlighting all the problems it raised.

The response of the News of the World? This:

Perhaps a way forward might be for Mr (...) to write a letter which I would be happy to consider for inclusion in our letters column. While items in our printed letters column are relatively short and to the point, I would also be prepared to consider a somewhat longer version to be published online.

Pathetic. Note it's not even guaranteed for publication, but would be 'considered for inclusion'. And which of the News of the World readers would take note of a short letter from some unknown member of the public rejecting a claim by one the paper's star columnists?

Needless to say, our complainant rejected that out of hand, making it clear that any correction had to come from the paper. With the News of the World not even engaging in discussion on the substantive points, the complainant said there seemed to be little option but for the Commission to adjudicate.

A month passed and the PCC was back in touch. The Commission had met and discussed the issue.

And their decision? Err, they didn't make one.

Whether through cowardice or ignorance, the Commission suggested that a further negotiation begin between paper and complainant to agree the wording of a clarification. The PCC never explained why they avoided adjudicating as the complainant had asked. Are they so desperate to avoid any ruling against a newspaper that they abdicate all responsibility now?

So the PCC got a wording from the paper for consideration:

A comment piece of 26 July about immigration issues suggested that those arriving in the UK from abroad generally received “free cars”. We emphasise this was a broad comment and fully accept that this will generally not occur.

Notice the very same tactic as the original Littlejohn wording - try to repeat the claim while pretending to withdraw it. By saying it will not 'generally occur' suggests it may occur, in some cases. On top of that, they didn't even want to name the writer who made the claim.

It was a feeble effort but the PCC added:

such a proposal...would appear to fall in line with the Commission’s general view on the matter

In other words: take it or you get nothing. Our complainant rejected it anyway and suggested the following:

In Carole Malone's column of 26 July, she claimed illegal immigrants receive 'free cars' among other benefits. We now accept illegal immigrants do not receive any such benefits and apologise for the error.

This was never going to be accepted by the paper - claiming illegal immigrants get benefits is a tabloid staple - but it was worth a try, eventhough it didn't cover asylum seekers and immigrants generally.

The paper responded, and this wording was forwarded by the PCC:

On July 26, our columnist Carole Malone claimed illegal immigrants receive 'free cars' among other benefits. We now accept illegal immigrants do not receive such a benefit and regret the error.

Now the paper was trying to say although illegal immigrants don't get cars, they do get other benefits. The hair-tearing was increasing. The complainant rejected that wording, and also suggested that rather than 'regretting' the error they should be apologising for such a damaging and potentially inflammatory lie.

On top of that, he wondered why the original article had not been removed from the paper's website, as is normal when a complaint is ongoing. Only then did the paper take Malone's stupid column down and offered this wording:

On July 26, our columnist Carole Malone claimed illegal immigrants receive 'free cars'. We now accept illegal immigrants do not receive such a benefit and apologise for the error.

This corrected some of the problems with the previous wording, but others remained. If the News of the World admits that the 'free cars' bit referred to 'illegal immigrants' then the free house, money and healthcare did as well. So why wouldn't it be willing to correct those claims too?

The PCC note accompanying the latest News of the World offer added:

the Commission would consider this to be sufficient under the Code.

This left the complainant in a hopeless position. To accept it would mean something inadequate would be published. To reject it would almost certainly mean that nothing would be published. The Commission would have ruled that 'sufficient' remedy had been offered and so would probably have found against the complaint.

The complainant asked the PCC if they would push the paper to clarify the point about other benefits. The PCC confirmed they wouldn't:

The point about “free cars” is demonstrably untrue and, as such, the newspaper is willing to correct the point and offer an apology. It has also removed the article from its website following your request. Personally – and the Commission has already considered the matter initially – I think that this would be seen to be enough.

The PCC added:

I think that the problem relates to the manner in which the article was written, as it is not entirely clear to whom the reference in question refers.

So eventhough the PCC admits the terminology used is dreadful, they were basically saying: this is the best you will get.

The complainant was essentially cornered by the paper and the PCC. On top of that, after two months of wrangling, he was just fed up and disillusioned with the whole process - especially after having to deal with the Mail complaint too.

So our reader agreed to the wording. He asked that it appear on the same page as the next Carole Malone column. The paper refused, instead offering to place it in an above-the-fold box on page 19 (where the original column appeared) or earlier. The reason was that as the apology:

carries the weight of the News of the World as a whole

it wasn't appropriate to be on her page. You know, where people who might have read the original claim might see it. But being fed up and just wanting it over, the complainant agreed.

Although the paper has not published it on their website, as they should have, it appears on page 18 of today's edition. In a very small box. Hardly noticeable. Far more noticeable, is Carole Malone's latest column, which is another rant about how immigrants are getting everything, 'British people' aren't and that is why the BNP succeed.

Rather, she should be thinking the BNP succeed when the public believe there are no border controls and that immigrants get priority in health care and social housing because she, like most the tabloid media, keeps telling them it's true. Eventhough it isn't.

But back to the free cars, and this is not the way a complaints system should work. The News of the World and the PCC both knew that the claims made by Malone in that paragraph were bullshit but made it as hard as possible for the complainant to get any remedy. The process ground on for two months, with the paper having to have a vaguely suitable wording wrung out of it. And the PCC let them get away with it, by not helping the complainant push the paper for a entirely justified fuller correction.

By appearing to be on the side of the paper - as it so often appears - the PCC shows it is not doing the job a newspaper regulator should be doing. The press would be the first to complain if any other institution regulated itself. So why is it different? Other regulators - such Ofcom - are firmer, and can issue fines. Why can't the PCC?

These two complaints by our intrepid reader do raise another question, as highlighted by 5CC. What exactly is the PCC policy on third-party complaints?

In neither of these cases was the issue raised by either paper or PCC. Yet when the complaints started to flood in about the Jan Moir hate-fest, the PCC's initial reaction was to dismiss them as third-party complaints. As a rule, they say they will only deal with a complaint if the person who is the subject of the article is the one who complains.

Perhaps the Gately family were regarded as 'first-party' in that case. In these articles, aimed generically at Eastern Europeans and illegal immigrants, there was no 'first-party'. Yet in the past, this has meant the PCC would reject such complaints too.

It does make it all look rather arbitrary and like the PCC is just too cosy to the print media. Hardly surprising when there are newspaper and magazine editors all over the Commission's committees.

When everything is so weighted against the complainant, no wonder so many people don't bother complaining, and no wonder the press continue to get away with printing so much rubbish.


  1. An excellent article. I'm very impressed with the way you managed to convey the whole complex story.

    It does leave one despairing somewhat.

    I think the problem is that no politician is really brave enough to take on the press and give the PCC any teeth because they know that if they do, they're taking on the whole of the print media.

  2. Here's my new rules if I was running the PCC.

    Make an error or print outright lies, and you need to print a retraction, correction and apology of at least the same size as the original article, and on the same page in the same position.

    On top of that, you need to donate equal space in the newspaper to free adverts for charities chosen by the PCC.


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