In March last year I wrote about the mainstream newspapers’ reaction to the recommendations of Sir Brian Leveson after his far-reaching inquiry into press practices. My feelings then, as they are now, were that those who opposed the recommendations were those with the most to lose.
And by ‘lose,’ I mean, ‘be held to account for’. Those who shouted the loudest were, unsurprisingly, the subject of the most complaints to the Press Complaints Commission. Continuing to lead the table by a significant margin is DMG Media, owner of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday. During the first four months of this year, DMG topped the complaints chart with a hefty 48.6% of all actual or ‘probable’ breaches of the PCC’s editors’ code of practice. The Daily Mail alone accounted for 36.4% of the total.
- In 2003 Juliet Shaw received a request from a freelance journalist writing for the Daily Mail to take part in a feature about the benefits of moving from city to the country. The article ran in the Femail section of the Daily Mail in September 2003 (‘Sex and the country. What happened when four singletons, fed up with shallow urban lives, upped sticks for rural romance.’) Juliet was appalled by the resulting article. It bore little or no relationship to her reality or the interview.
- You can read Juliet’s account of what happened; about the impact a deliberately misleading article had on the life of an ordinary person; and her ensuing battle for justice on the No Sleep ‘Til Brooklands blog here and here on the JusticeGap.
- Sketch by Isobel Williams. You see more of Isobel’s drawings at www.izzybody.blogspot.co.uk.
The PCC is due to be replaced by a new body in September; the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). IPSO’s remit is limited to breaches of the editors’ code of practice which, briefly, covers the need for accuracy; the right to reply; respect for privacy; prohibition of harrassment; intrusion into grief or shock; regulations concerning children; restrictions on reporting from hospitals; restrictions on the reporting of crime; use of clandestine devices or subterfuge; coverage of victims of sexual assault; discrimination; financial journalism; use of confidential sources; witness payments and payments to criminals.
IPSO may – ‘but is not obliged to’ – consider complaints. So there’s the first catch: there is no obligation on this new regulator to even investigate complaints. If a complaint (from the subject of a breach of the editors’ code, from a representative group which has been the subject of a breach, or from a third party complaining of a significant accuracy) is upheld, IPSO can ask the complained-of publication to issue a correction and/or an adjudication, ‘unless the complaints committee at its discretion dispenses with such requirement’.
Intrusive and gleeful
So this ‘new, tough, independent organisation’ (IPSO’s own words) has no obligation to investigate complaints. If it does and finds a complaint is valid, it doesn’t actually have to do anything about it. It’s the PCC with a new hat on: an organisation formed by the press, for the press.
Why does it matter? Because the behaviour of certain sections of the press in the months since Leveson demonstrates that nothing has changed. Coverage of the deaths of Peaches Geldof, L’Wren Scott and Robin Williams has been intrusive and gleeful. The deceitful sting operation Tulisa Constontavlos was subjected to was spiteful and served no purpose other than to increase sales. A story printed about the mother of Amal Alamuddin, the fiancee of George Clooney, was ‘at the very least negligent and more appropriately dangerous’. Clooney elicited a very rare public apology from the Daily Mail, which he swiftly rejected, using simple (and easily researched) facts to illustrate the paper was ‘either lying originally or [it’s] lying now’.
It’s this casual disregard for the facts and the flagrant, frequent breaches of the editors’ code which demonstrate why IPSO will not be enough. My own experience at the Daily Mail’s hands was recounted when I was asked by Hacked Off, the group acting for victims of press intrustion, to submit a written statement to the Leveson Inquiry. The newspaper’s response, submitted to the inquiry, continued to defame me, calling me ‘misleading and unreliable’ and saying I was ‘not to be trusted’.
Inaccuracies were repeated as fact, correspondence was quoted from selectively to distort the truth and my personality was derided in an official, legal statement. This was despite my case reaching court a decade earlier and all my evidence being scrutinised by a respected and experienced defamation judge, who deemed it sufficient to proceed to a full trial for defamation. Once again, the country’s biggest-selling newspaper had lied about me without producing a single shred of evidence.
I, however, did have evidence; I submitted it all to the inquiry with a second statement and was assured that it had been considered.
The Daily Mail has never, in the whole sorry mess, produced a single document which backs up its version of events. It can’t, because there are none, because the story it printed was not true.
My own experience pales into insignificance in comparison to the gross invasions of privacy, breaches of trust and smear campaigns others have been subjected to. But if some sections of the press are doggedly determined to lie, distort the truth and disregard good practice in the face of the courts, the Leveson Inquiry and on the world stage, what hope does a toothless organisation handpicked by the press itself have of bringing them to account?
It’s important not to lose sight of why we need to hold the press to account. Certain sections of it are as exemplary as others are rotten: this is not a tirade against the media as a whole, or a foot-stamping demand to curtail free speech because I have an axe to grind. A free press is essential to the operation of a fair society, but without effective regulation our press is not free and our society is not fair. Without effective regulation, certain sections of the press are free to distort and represent with impunity, using their publications to manipulate opinion and drive their own agendas while those who are wronged remain unheard and facts go unchecked.
As George Orwell wrote, the people will believe what the media tells them to believe. Without effective regulation, a handful of people are free to promote their own ideals and agendas using the public as pawns, safe in the knowledge the public have no way to fight back.
Juliet Shaw is a copywriter and communications consultant and is in the first year of a law degree at Salford University.