Paragraph 1 of the Press Complaints Commission Code (“Accuracy”) places two vital obligations on the press:
- The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
- A significant inaccuracy misleading statement or distortion … must be corrected … with due prominence.”
Paragraph (i) of the Code clearly has no force whatsoever unless paragraph (ii) is effectively policed by the PCC. Sadly it isn’t.
The statements of the PCC Chairman to Parliament on prominence
In his evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in May 2003, the PCC’s Chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, said this on the issue of prominence in the PCC Code:
“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 by the Committee on this subject, Sir Christopher repeated this assertion:
“Yes, otherwise it is ridiculous. They should be, as I said, at least as prominent as the original transgression.”
Despite the plain meaning of these words the PCC maintains in speeches by its chairman and correspondence with complainants that when Sir Christopher made those statements to the Committee, he did not actually mean that apologies and corrections should be at least the equivalent in size and/or position as the offending article. What Sir Christopher actually said is here (you will find Sir Christopher’s comments in answer to questions 985, 986 and 987).
Sir Christopher’s comments are, however, directly in line with the Resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted on 26 June 1998, of which paragraph 14(iii) reads:
“When editors have published information that proves to be false, they should be required to publish equally prominent corrections at the request of those concerned.”
It is difficult to believe that the Council of Europe meant anything less by this resolution than that corrections should be of equal size and position of the offending article.
The first subsequent adjudication by the Commission on prominence
Less than 6 months after Sir Christopher’s representations to the Committee, the issue of prominence came before the Commission when a complainant was offered an apology which was a tiny fraction of the original article. The Commission had the opportunity to adjudicate (in the context of Sir Christopher’s representations to Parliament) a complaint where the issue was what prominence should be given to the apology offered by the newspaper.
The complaint concerned an offer by a newspaper of an apology which was 6% of the size of the original article. The Commission deemed this adequate according to the “due prominence” provisions of the Code in direct contradiction of its Chairman’s remarks to the Parliamentary Committee. It clearly did not take kindly to being invited to abide by the remarks of its Chairman, judging by the tone of its adjudication.
The most recent PCC statements on the issue of prominence
A more recent complainant was told on 17 January this year that the Commission had not ever required that “published apologies cover the same amount of space on the page as the original article”. The complainant was told that rather than “due prominence” meaning what the PCC Chairman had suggested, it did not mean “equal” prominence. Some might think that these statements are difficult to reconcile with those of Sir Christopher to Parliament on the issue of prominence.
The Commission cited a number of factors in determining prominence, such as (for example) “the promptness of the newspaper’s co-operation in seeking to resolve the complaint”. This means that the number of readers of the newspaper who actually learn of the misinformation which they have read will decrease depending on how quickly the newspaper co-operates with the PCC. This does not appear consistent with the need for such corrections being sufficiently widely read to prevent the public being misinformed.
The complainant was also told by the PCC that the newspaper has effective control over the prominence of apologies in other ways; for example, by being permitted to insist that the number of words in the apology is a tiny fraction of those contained in the original article. The fact that the original article was given added prominence by the inclusion of photograph(s) was apparently no reason for the PCC to insist that the apology also be accompanied by a photograph.
The PCC also specifically rejected any correlation between the amount of space taken up by the original article and the space taken up by the apology. It is invariably the view of the newspaper that the correction is less important than the original story. The newspaper is therefore permitted by the PCC to decide the appropriate prominence of a story on publication by according it substantial prominence measured by the size and position of the article, and then resile from that decision when it comes to the correction by publishing one which is a tiny fraction of the prominence of the original.
The “column inches” accorded by a newspaper to a story is of course the real measure of prominence when it comes to news. In advertising, “prominence” is sold by the newspaper industry by column inches/position in the newspaper in fully mathematical computation. The complainant was told that this measure is, however, rejected by the PCC when it comes to granting remedies for breaches of the Code. The according of equal prominence to apologies would of course take up valuable advertising space.
The complainant was eventually told to expect the Commission to adjudicate as adequate an offer of apology which was a fraction of the size of the headline of the article complained of, just as it had done in 2003. In this case the correction was even smaller – less than 5.7% of the size of the original. The complainant was also warned that (as with the 2003 adjudication) the likely consequence of the Commission adjudicating that the offer made by the newspaper was adequate would be that the sole remedy offered by the Commission (ie the publishing of the apology) would then be lost. The complainant therefore had no option but to accept the newspaper’s offer.
Whatever Sir Christopher Meyer did or did not mean to say to our elected representatives, the unfortunate reality is that newspapers continue to interpret the term “due prominence” for corrections as allowing a tiny fraction of the size of the original article, and that interpretation is then endorsed by the PCC. The term “due prominence” is therefore in practice whatever prominence the newspaper (rather than the complainant) chooses to accord to the apology or correction.
For well heeled complainants there are the options either of libel proceedings (if the article is defamatory) or to judicially review PCC adjudications (if it is not) which fly in the face both of the statements of its Chairman and the plain meaning of its Code. A judge would surely have little hesitation in interpreting Sir Christopher’s words according to their plain and obvious meaning.
For the overwhelming majority of us the reality is that the term “due prominence” means an apology/retraction which is likely to be little more than 5% of the size of the original article. If the Commission had any degree of independence from the newspaper industry, this would surely change. Its replacement by Ofcom is long overdue.