Tuesday, 28 September 2010

'I began to see why so many people have given up on the PCC'

There is another highly recommended article on Martin Robbins' Lay Scientist blog today.

This one is written by Richard Wilson and it explains his seven-month battle to get the Daily Mail to correct an article - 'The Great Asbestos Hysteria' - by Christopher Booker.

The Mail eventually published this clarification but the wording suggests they substantially stand by the original piece.

But Wilson's reflections on the process of dealing with the PCC (and, indeed, the Mail) are worth noting:

The newspaper's claim that an HSE study had found the dangers of white asbestos cement to be "insignificant" was also easy to disprove: Booker had made the self-same claim in the Sunday Telegraph back in 2008, and been rebutted in detail by the HSE.

Neither was it hard to show that the Mail had got it wrong in claiming that "it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre" from white asbestos cement. An HSE lab report from 2007 notes that "the claim that respirable airborne chrysotile fibres are not able to be released from asbestos cement products was refuted by the individual airborne fibres sampled during the breaking of the test sample with a hammer".

In theory, this should have been the end of the matter. According to the PCC's code, "a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence". What happened instead, in my view, speaks volumes both about the character of the Daily Mail, and the credibility of the newspaper industry's self-regulatory body.

After a delay of several weeks, the PCC forwarded me a dismissive response from the Daily Mail's executive managing editor, Robin Esser. While acknowledging some minor errors, Esser insisted that the disputed HSE study did indeed back up Booker's views on asbestos. The fact that the HSE had put out a statement explicitly rebutting this merely proved that "those responsible for HSE press releases are similarly unable to grasp the significance of findings published by their own statisticians". For good measure, Esser accused me (falsely, just in case you're wondering) of being "allied to a well-organised and well-funded commercial lobby", who "stand to benefit financially" from the "anti-asbestos campaign".

Rather than take ownership of the process, assess the various bits of evidence and come to a judgement, the PCC instead asked me to go through this new set of claims and produce a further response. Here I began to see why so many people have given up on the PCC. If a newspaper digs in its heels and simply denies all the evidence that's been presented, there doesn't seem to be much that the PCC can do except bat the issue back to the complainant.

And having been through this process, what of the PCC's 'fast, free and fair' slogan?

More time-consuming exchanges followed, with long gaps in between, while we awaited a response from the Daily Mail. In the end we won, sort of. The newspaper agreed to make some amendments to the text of the article, publish a short correction, and write a private apology to Michael Lees over Booker's comments about his wife. But to get even this far has taken seven months, and a substantial time investment, while the Daily Mail seems to have been able to drag the process out with impunity. "Free", perhaps – but hardly "fast", or "fair".

When someone complained about Richard Littlejohn's claim that most robberies in the UK were committed by Eastern Europeans, the Mail took nearly six weeks to reply to the PCC. In total, it took the paper two months to correct a claim that was obviously false.

Here's what Mail Editor Paul Dacre said in July, when he argued that fines for serious breaches of the Editor's Code shouldn't be introduced:

It cannot be said too often that the imposition of sizable fines would result in complainants and particularly the press having to use lawyers to defend their interests - signalling the death of a FREE fast system of complaints adjudication.

If it is taking seven months to resolve a complaint, this system is neither fast nor alive and well.


  1. Paul Dacre is arguably one of the great threats to press self-regulation. His untenable position within the PCC and his ludicrous position on those who dare to criticise either the PCC or the Daily Mail's hysterical, fear-mongering content make me hope that we soon have a more robust body. A body that does act within days not weeks or months, enforces the regulatory codes and imposes substantial and punitive financial punishments on newspapers and their editors for knowingly and willingly publishing complete and utter tawddle.

  2. As much as I hate to even come close to agreeing with one of the most vile men alive in the UK, I do think his point bears thinking about.

    If serious fines are introduced (they would have to be serious enough to dissuade the printing of a profitable lie and taking the fine over printing a boring truth), you can be sure that lawyers would be much more heavily involved. A PCC that could fine newspapers would have to be subject to legal challenges, which there would undoubtedly be. The PCC would then have to decide to act based on the strength of a legal case, and employ its own lawyers to defend it's position, and unfortunately legal intimidation works.

    I'm not saying the PCC doesn't need a serious reform, and arguably the problem is as much in our legal system that it slanted towards the rich, but any change involving fines would have to be careful to ensure that it isn't weakened say, for example, only being able to make a limited number of challenges because of the cost involved in any legal proceedings.

  3. The PCC is ridiculous. I recently complained about Wolverhampton's Express and Star using the words 'plagued' and 'invaded' to refer to Travellers in the area, in a front page 'news' article (the online version attracted a horrendous amount of nakedly racist comments).

    The reply was that the clause on discrimination applies only to individuals, not to groups.

    So I asked them whether that meant I could say 'Jews are mean' but not 'X is mean because he's Jewish' and the reply was that yes I could, though it might breach the rules on 'accuracy'.

    So my complaint about Travellers is being dealt with under the 'accuracy' clause. Ludicrous.

  4. In this particular case the paper must have known soon after publication that the story didn't stand up. A quick correction or clarification would have probably put the matter to bed. Instead the paper seem to have done everything possible to drag the matter out. By dragging it out they wasted the time of the complainant and should be punished accordingly.

    I don't see how requiring a paper to publish a swift correction after they have published information that is proved to be factually incorrect is an attack on the freedom of the press.


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