[Updated, 30th July] As the phone hacking storm raged, and the PCC Chair claimed that she was lied to by the News of the World over phone hacking, two newspapers might have thought they could breathe a sigh of relief. At least the scandalous goings on at the News of the World may have deflected some attention from the Sun and the Daily Mirror – who have been in the High Court facing charges of contempt of court.
Dominic Grieve QC said the nature of reporting from the two tabloids after the arrest of Ms Yeates’ landlord Chris Jefferies was “so exceptional, memorable and adverse” that there was “substantial risk of serious prejudice” to any trial he might have faced.
The Sun and Daily Mirror deny their reporting could have impeded or substantially prejudiced any future court proceedings.
So as well as the allegations of the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone and deleting of voicemail messages (which must have been distressing for her parents, as well as interfering with the police enquiry), we can see that newspapers have been responsible for publishing articles that might have risked jeopardising a trial. Regardless of whether the Sun and Mirror are guilty of contempt of court, the articles they published amounted to character assassination of an innocent person. What a sad state of affairs.
[Update: eight newspapers have paid libel damages to Chris Jefferies - The Sun, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Daily Record, Daily Mail, Daily Star, The Scotsman and Daily Express. In other news, the Daily Mirror and the Sun have been found guilty of contempt of court and fined £50,000 and £18,000 respectively.]
The day-to-day misbehaviour of the English media has been well-documented by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News (and by a number of bloggers online). Whether helping to breed a climate in which racism is fostered, printing untruths about important medical advances such as new vaccines, or exploiting sad stories in order to spread more of their unthinking anti-union bile, the media has a lot to answer for. Unfortunately, they don’t really seem to have anyone to answer to – unless you count the PCC.
The PCC sanctions (critical adjudication, and reference to the publisher) amount to nothing more than giving the papers “a bit of a telling off” and asking them not to do it again. We can see how effective these sanctions have been in deterring misbehaviour by the number of inaccurate, misleading, and distorted articles that appear on an almost daily basis. We can see how effective they have been by looking at the high profile phone-hacking scandal. We can see how effective they’ve been by finding the number of complaints made against the Daily Mail – it’s been widely reported* that Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail have been referred to the PCC more than any other title (as well as being editor of the worst newspaper in Britain, Dacre is also the Chair of the PCC’s Editors’ Code of Practice Committee). We can see how effective they’ve been as a deterrent by reading the reports of the contempt of court hearing and remembering the shameful articles published at the time. (The PCC claims their sanctions must be effective, as complainants rarely sue after making a PCC complaint. An interesting measure of success…)
Self-regulation doesn’t have to be toothless to the point where it is entirely ineffective – look at the Advertising Standards Authority, for example – but the PCC currently is not fit for purpose.The Media Standards Trust had some recommendations for reform of the PCC in 2010 and have more on their press self-regulation project here.
I’m not sure whether reform is viable. Perhaps replacement of the PCC, rather than reform, will prove to be the solution to the thorny problem of press regulation. It looks like this might just be one of those rare occasions where David Cameron agrees with me:
Of course it is vital that our press is free.
That is an essential component of our democracy and our way of life.
But press freedom does not mean that the press should be above the law.
Yes, there is much excellent journalism in Britain today.
But I think it’s now clear to everyone that the way the press is regulated today is not working.
Let’s be honest: the Press Complaints Commission has failed.
In this case – in the hacking case – it was, frankly, completely absent.
Therefore, we have to conclude that it is ineffective and lacking in rigour.
*I haven’t fact-checked this claim. I emailed the PCC to see if they had the figures handy, but apparently they don’t. And I can’t be bothered to go through their reports right now and get the data for myself (assuming that’s even possible). I figured it would be OK for me not to fact-check this, as long as I highlighted it. After all, it’s only one claim. It’s not like I systematically publish claims without checking them. That’s the job of journalists. According to Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, only 12% of key factual statements in media reports showed signs of having been thoroughly checked.
Something you can do for me: when you’re linking to a story published online by a newspaper like the Daily Mail, please use istyosty. As recommended by the Press Not Sorry blog:
The Istyosty proxy, for cached pages from the Mail, Express, Sun, Star and Telegraph. Routing links through this proxy reduces the number of site hits gained by papers that you may conscientiously object to.