Tuesday, 21 July 2009

PCC rejects complaint against Mail story, despite the evidence

The Press Complaints Commission has rejected a complaint from former London Mayor Ken Livingstone over an article that appeared in the Daily Mail in March. It seems as if the PCC goes out of its way to produce the most perverse and senseless decisions you can possibly imagine.

The Mail story - Ken 'zero-tolerance' Livingstone escapes fine after being caught 'dodging train fare' - made it quite clear that Ken had escaped punishment for not having a ticket because of who he was. It revealed:

Despite failing to pay the £7.50 single fare from Paddington in London to Slough, Berkshire, he escaped the 'automatic' £20 fine for the offence.

Mr Livingstone, 63, admitted his error at the ticket barrier but was simply waved through by staff and allowed to buy the fare from a ticket machine.

There's then an anonymous 'witness' who confirms the conspiracy:

However, a witness said the former mayor was greeted with smiles by staff, who gave no warning. He added: 'Mr Livingstone had the good grace to look embarrassed. The staff seemed to think it was funny'.

And just to be more outraged, some entirely superfluous information:

Mr Livingstone has a lucrative career as a £13,000-a-night public speaker and hosts a radio show on London station LBC.

Which is, of course, followed by a quote from the Taxpayers' Alliance's Mark Wallace, who roars:
He has been let off just because he is famous.

An open and shut case. Well, not really. Here's the evidence Ken gave to the PCC:

The complainant said that the paper’s failure to contact him before publishing the articles led to the omission of some key facts: that a suicide on the Jubilee tube line had delayed his journey, meaning that he had arrived at the station just two minutes before the train’s departure and with no time to buy a ticket; that the ticket collector on the train had not reached him before he arrived at Slough, meaning that he could not buy a ticket on board; and that he himself had approached station staff to say that he needed to purchase an extension ticket.

It was inaccurate to suggest that he had ‘admitted his error’, had been ‘warned not to do this again’ or – as a witness had stated – ‘had the good grace to look embarrassed about it’. He had not received preferential treatment or provoked a ‘public furore’ as the coverage had suggested. Indeed, the train company had confirmed that ten other passengers had avoided a fine for similar reasons.

A version of events which makes the Mail story look petty and not exactly newsworthy. In its defence to the PCC, the Mail said the article had made clear he was late and had to run for the train. It just neglected to mention the bit about the suicide.

But here's how the PCC reacted to all that. Take the 'public furore' quote, which appeared in a short diary piece by Mail columnist Richard Kay the day after the article appeared. The PCC ruled:

critical statements made by third parties about the incident were sufficient grounds to support the columnist’s summary of the issue as a ‘public furore’.

Which appears to be suggest that if the Taxpayers' Alliance issue some idiotic quote based on half the facts, there is a 'public furore'. That really is a frightening thought.

The PCC also states:

Whether or not it was technically correct that the complainant had ‘admitted his error’ was not significant given that he had accepted that he had approached station staff to tell them that he did not have a ticket.

Which tranlsates, roughly, as: 'Eventhough this wasn't correct, we don't care'. What does 'technically correct' mean? If you are complaining about an article being accurate, or not, surely being correct - technically, or otherwise - is rather important.

But the final line of the judgment is most bizarre of all:

Finally, it did not consider that failure to mention that ten other individuals had avoided the fine...would have altered the general understanding of the situation.

Clearly, this is total bullshit. The whole article was structured around the fact Ken got special treatment for who he was. Indeed, many of the messageboard comments are along the lines of this one: 'One rule for him and another for the rest of us' (Glenda, Ammanford., 18/3/2009 07:15).

And remember the quote from the Taxpayers Alliance:

He has been let off just because he is famous.

If ten other people were involved, and had also avoided the fine, then it would have entirely altered the 'general understanding of the situation'. To claim anything else is pathetic and totally incomprehensible.

Incidentally, Paul Dacre, Editor of the Mail, is Chair of the Editors' Code of Practice Committee, which oversees the Press Complaints Commission code of standards.

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