The Press Complaints Commission issues a Code of Practice which has in its first paragraph a stipulation as to ‘Accuracy’. It provides as follows:
‘1. Newspapers and periodicals should take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material including pictures.
2. Whenever it is recognised that a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distorted report has been published, it should be corrected promptly and with due prominence.
3. An apology must be published whenever appropriate.’
The NUJ Code has a similar provision:
‘4. A journalist shall rectify promptly any harmful inaccuracies, ensure that corrections and apologies receive due prominence…’
Any lawyer who acts for claimants against newspapers will know the vigour with which newspapers generally resist any suggestion that the prominence of the retraction and/or apology has anything like the prominence of the offending article.
In particular, newspapers vigorously resist any suggestion that a front page apology/retraction should result from a front page transgression. A front page apology can sometimes be achieved, but it is normally necessary to threaten the newspaper with the expense of libel proceedings in addition to reminding them of their PCC Code obligations in order to do so.
It is probably too much to hope that this will all change as a result even of some unequivocal statements made by the PCC Chairman Sir Christopher Meyer to the Culture Media and Sport Committee on 21 May. Rosemary McKenna MP took Sir Christopher to task saying that one witness that she had spoken to had said: ‘We won our case but we felt we lost, because the retraction and apology was so poor, and buried.’
Sir Christopher replied that one of the messages he was communicating to the press was ‘that when they do apologise or a correction has to be published or a negative adjudication comes out, these things should be at least as prominent as the original transgression.’
Pressed on this subject, Sir Christopher repeated his assertion:
‘Yes, otherwise it is ridiculous. They should be, as I said, at least as prominent as the original transgression.’
On the issue of front page ‘transgressions’ he said:
‘What I am saying is this. If we go to formal adjudication, you come out with a formal adjudication, and had there been some hideous transgression on the front page, then I would expect the adjudication to be published, or at least start on the front page, depending on how long the adjudication was going to be. I think that would be entirely reasonable.’
It will be interesting to see whether his views are adopted by editors in the future and, if they are not, whether Sir Christopher will turn these statements into a change of policy on the part of the press. Only at that point will the term in the PCC Code ‘due prominence’ have any real meaning.