17 May UPDATE on PCC Complaint. The Mail On Sunday, 13th March 2011

The original complaint and the PCC’s decision can be seen here.

A further complaint has been submitted to the Independent Reviewer, Lt Gen Sir Michael Willcocks, concerning the commission’s handling of the original complaint.

—– Original Message —–
From: Peter Reynolds
To: Tonia Milton ; [email protected]
Sent: Tuesday, May 17, 2011 1:19 PM
Subject: Re: Press Complaints Commission complaint no. 111428

Dear Sir Michael,

I am concerned about the way that the commission has handled my complaint concerning an article in the Mail On Sunday/Daily Mail by Peter Hitchens.

I understand that you are concerned only with the way that the commission has handled my complaint and not with the substance of the complaint itself. I make no secret of the fact that I find the commission’s decision on this complaint inexplicable. However, I believe the reason that it has arrived at what I consider to be an absurd decision is because of the way that it handled my complaint.

The commission’s decision addressed my complaint under clause 1.i) but failed to address my complaint under clause 1.iii) at all.

First of all, the commission states that newspapers are “entitled to publish the views of individuals, provided that they are distinguished from fact”. It states that the article in question “had clearly been presented as a comment piece” apparently solely because the article was written in the first person.

The Editors’ Code requires the press to “distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”. This clearly requires positive action from the publisher, not simply passive assumption that because it is written in the first person, readers will be aware that it is comment. Furthermore, the commission’s judgement of whether readers will be aware of what is comment assumes detailed knowledge of the structure and content of newspapers. The average reader does not distinguish for him or herself between comment, conjecture and fact. As far as he or she is concerned, if it is published in a newspaper, it can be expected to at least have some basis in fact and certainly not to be blatantly untrue.

Assumption that readers will know what is supposed to be comment and what is supposed to be fact is insufficent. The code requires the difference to be clearly (and actively) distinguished.

Even if an article is clearly distinguished as being comment, the requirement “…not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information…” still stands. It is no defence to a complaint that something is inaccurate and misleading to say that it is comment.

In summary:

1. the commission failed to deal with my complaint under 1.iii) at all
2. the commission failed to require the publisher to distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact and assumed that “readers would be aware”
3. the commission allowed a defence of comment (even though not clearly distinguished as such) to override blatant inaccuracy and distortion

This failure to handle my complaint properly led directly to the commission upholding the publisher’s description of cannabis as a “poison”, which is inaccurate, misleading and distorted.

I am grateful for your attention to this matter. It seems to me vital that the commission must preserve the clear intention of the code which is that newspapers must publish accurate information. The alternative is that any lie or deception can be published provided it is described (or just assumed) to be comment.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Reynolds