31 May It’s All In The Headline – Unless It’s A Complaint

As the Press Complaints Commission slowly fades away into unfortunate memory, so its legacy, its errors and omissions become ever more clear.

CLEAR has challenged the newspaper coverage of cannabis in every form, of every type, at every level. If the PCC had been able to enforce the Editors’ Code, which surely should have been its principal mission, then a great deal less misinformation would have been published.

As a consequence, policymakers would have been able to base their decisions on evidence rather than concern for the reaction of the press. The principal culprit in this corruption of drug policy is, of course, the Daily Mail. Its editors, journalists and writers are responsible for a great deal of human misery and suffering, not to say the denial of personal liberty and the prevention of access to cannabis as medicine. They have inflamed and misinformed public opinion and intimidated politicians away from evidence and towards scare stories.

CLEAR has brought the worst excesses of the press about cannabis under control. Every editor in Britain knows that any inaccuracy will be challenged. Although our complaints are rarely upheld, we hold the press to account. Often a resolution has been agreed and we have had a letter or a correction published but even when our complaint has been rejected, we have forced editors to justify their actions and they have now become much more careful about what they publish.

There are two areas where we have been unable to enforce the truth, where deliberate misinformation still prevails. These are where the replacement for the PCC must focus itself for there are lessons that apply in general for honourable and honest journalism

Firstly in headlines, which as every journalist knows, is the most crucial part of any story. Many readers notice only the headline and may skim the body copy, if they read it at all. Editors and journalists know this very well. Indeed, they rely on it. The very essence of the journalist’s craft is in phrasing a headline. It is where all effort and skill is focused. Yet, according to the PCC, a complaint cannot be considered about a headline alone. This is the most blatant and crass hypocrisy by those professional journalists who sit on the commission.

Secondly, the clause of the Editors’ Code under which nearly all cannabis related complaints have been made states that newspapers must not publish “…inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.” In practice though, the only word that is considered is “inaccurate“. Thus, a complaint about the headline “Monkees star Davy Jones on cannabis when he died”, fails both because because it is a headline and because it is strictly accurate, even if it is grossly misleading. Simlarly, a complaint about the headline “Men sentenced after cannabis factory found in their home” fails despite the fact that the full story is that class A drugs, two handguns and a 100 rounds of ammunition were also found.

So, on both these counts, the practice of the PCC has provided the press with a way to publish misleading and false information with impunity. Provided you confine a lie to a headline, you can say anything you want. Provided you stay strictly accurate, you can mislead as far away from the truth as you wish.

I have discussed both these points with Lord Hunt, who is charged with creating the replacement for the PCC. I know he understands these issues and I have confidence that he will do his best to devise a fairer process for the future.

In the meantime, it is a fact that headlines, particularly in the Daily Mail, can never be relied on as truthful.