Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Apologies round up

A few weeks ago, The Sun ran a letter from Stephen Nutt, son of Professor David Nutt, after the newspaper had run a pathetic smear story on him simply because of who is dad is.

Although brokered by the Press Complaints Commission, the letter meant that the Sun didn't have to apologise or retract anything. Moreover, they didn't publish Nutt's letter on their website because they never put any letters on their website, despite the fact the original article had appeared online.

The Mail, who pilfered the Sun's article in order to try and smear Prof. Nutt on its own website, has got off even more lightly:

The complaint was resolved when the newspaper removed the article from its website, and made clear it had no intention of republishing the text or the pictures.

In other words, it can pretend as if nothing has happened.

The Sunday Times, by contrast, has been forced to publish a PCC ruling, after the regulator upheld a complaint against it. Printed on page eight of last Sunday's edition, it revealed the disgraceful behaviour of one of its freelance journalists in contacting the sister of recently deceased student:

Shortly after the article was published, the mother complained to the PCC that the piece was inaccurate and insensitive. While this complaint was ongoing, another reporter from the newspaper contacted the complainant's daughter via Facebook and, despite the fact that the daughter made clear that the family did not wish to speak, asked for information about the PCC complaint (including sending her a copy of the article so that the family could highlight what was wrong with it). This upset the complainant's daughter.

The newspaper apologised for this second approach to the family, and explained that the reporter was a freelance and unaware of the PCC complaint. It accepted, however, that the reporter should not have continued to question the complainant's daughter once she had mentioned the complaint. The paper also offered to send a private letter of apology to the family.

The PCC upheld the complaint.

And rightly so.

The mother had also complained about the accuracy of the article, although this was rejected by the PCC. She said that the article was:

salacious and insensitive, and that it had taken information from her son's outdated MySpace page which had been created as a spoof some years previously. She was concerned about the use of web material where the information was irrelevant and ‘cobbled together as a joke'. The resulting inaccurate impression was that her son was a deeply troubled boy under insurmountable pressure.

The newspaper's reply was to say that as the MySpace page was in the public domain it was fair game, no matter when it was written or why:

The MySpace information existed in the public domain, regardless of whether it was contemporaneous, and it was not clear when it was uploaded as it had appeared on undated pages. It was willing to remove these references from the online article as a gesture of goodwill.

The PCC decided this wasn't enough to rule against the paper on accuracy, but wrote a letter to the Sunday Times instead:

The Commission could understand why the complainant felt aggrieved that this type of detail was used so liberally in an article that reported such a recent tragic event. In the circumstances, the Commission asked its Chairman to write to the newspaper, to emphasise its concerns.

Well, that'll teach 'em.

One final point about the original article deserves mention. It carried the headline 'Harry Potter' student found hanged in his Oxford room. This heavily implied that the student in question had starred in one of the Potter films. In fact, he had once sold a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to pay for his studies. As Stephen Brook wrote in the Guardian:

quite what the news value was in that I cannot see.

The problem with misleading headlines needs to be tackled by the PCC. Although not as serious an error as, say, the Peaches Geldof one, it emphasizes the need for the Editor's Code of Practice to contain a mention of headlines somewhere. Currently, it doesn't.

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