Tuesday, 13 May 2014

It's Only Comment...?

Lord Leveson once remarked that there was an important difference between mainstream journalists with "a powerful reputation for accuracy" and bloggers and tweeters who were "no more than electronic versions of pub gossip". This from the same man who produced a report, following a public inquiry, on newspaper standards by copying and pasting inaccurate information from Wikipedia.

With this in mind I can reveal I have now received a decision regarding my ongoing complaint with the Press Complaints Commission over an article in the Telegraph by Mats Persson regarding Norway's relationship with the EU.

As I noted at the time I was under no illusions of a positive outcome, largely because I suspected that the PCC would be acutely aware that to uphold my complaint would go against the position of every newspaper, all three main parties and the Prime Minister. This despite that even Norway itself acknowledges its influence and representation as a member of the EEA. I was more intrigued on how the PCC would attempt to wriggle out of upholding it.

Thus it comes as no surprise that the PCC found no breach - I reproduce the judgement in full below (my emphasis throughout):
The complainant raised concerns about an article discussing the potential difficulties should the UK leave the European Union. He said that the newspaper had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The complainant stated that it was inaccurate to refer to Norway’s relationship with the EU as “regulation without representation” and subsequently to draw the conclusion that there was “no good off-the-peg model”. He also said that it was misleading for the article to suggest that, under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, EU member states and institutions would be able to block the UK’s market access, as this would contravene international law.
The Commission wished first to note that the article in question was clearly signposted as a comment piece. Clause 1 (i) of the Editors’ Code of Practice states that “the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.” Clause 1 (iii) makes clear however, that the press are free to report comment and conjecture, provided that it is clearly distinguished from fact. The Commission first considered the complainant’s objection to the description of Norway’s model of European involvement as “regulation without representation”. The complainant acknowledged that this term had been used to characterise the situation in 2012, by Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Eide. The Commission noted that the complainant did not agree with this assessment and considered that it did not address the complexity of the Norwegian model. However, the article was representative of the columnist’s views on how the UK could maintain a relationship with Europe after leaving the Union.  The reference to the lack of a good “off-the-peg” model was clearly the journalist’s own personal opinion.  Readers would not have been led to believe that the article presented an in depth factual analysis of post-EU options for the UK, or of Norway’s relationship with the EU. As such, the Commission did not consider the use of this quotation to be inaccurate under the terms of Clause 1.
The complainant was further concerned by the article’s suggestion that if  Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty were to be invoked to facilitate Britain’s exit from the EU, other member states and institutions “could block market access” for the UK. The Commission noted the complainant’s position that such a course of action would not be compatible with international law. In this case, the statement was clearly a matter of conjecture on the part of the journalist, which, under the terms of Clause 1 (iii), newspapers are free to publish, as long as it is clearly distinguished from fact. The article made clear that the effects of Article 50 were “so far untested”, and the Commission was satisfied that any discussion of them was clearly speculation. As such, there was no breach of the Code.
I do like the term "as long as it is clearly distinguished from fact" - I'm not quite sure if that's a Freudian slip.

What's interesting is the PCC has not attempted to dispute my points and indeed has ignored some of them from my subsequent clarification email which it requested. One such point was regarding Persson's argument that:
“Under Article 50 [of the Lisbon Treaty] and in continuity deals, France, the European Parliament and others could consistently block market access for the UK’s exporters of IT, insurance, banking and other services." 
Yet if the UK invoked Article 50 it still remains a fully fledged European Union member state until either exit negotiations have been concluded or after two years when the EU treaties cease to take effect automatically. Therefore while negotiations are ongoing with regard to a UK exit, for the EU to take such an action against an EU member state would be in fundamental breach of its own treaties and the basic four freedoms of the Single Market. Mats Persson's assertion is just plain wrong - and the PCC ignored it.

And the PCC ignored it by hiding behind the "comment" clause highlighted in bold above. Clearly in their conclusion any lies can be written in a newspaper as long as it is defined as comment.

Strangely then we learn that this principle doesn't always seem to apply to others. Christopher Booker's article in the Sunday Telegraph is listed under comment. This can been seen quite clearly in the screen grab below (and even just by the URL itself):

Yet Mr Booker who has written extensively about the EU, climate change and family courts has long been subjected to PCC complaints and rulings. To give but two random examples:
Mr Bob Ward of the LSE's Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined "Rise of sea levels is ‘the greatest lie ever told'" published in The Sunday Telegraph on 29 March 2009 was inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice.
The PCC's adjuication began:
Newspapers are obliged, under the terms of Clause 1, to take care not to publish inaccurate information, and this applies as much to scientific matters as any other. Indeed, the PCC often considers, resolves and adjudicates on complaints about science reporting.
Yet this clause below quoted to me is nowhere to be seen in Booker's adjudication, despite his column clearly listed as comment:
Clause 1 (iii) makes clear however, that the press are free to report comment and conjecture, provided that it is clearly distinguished from fact. 
Another example:
Sir Nicolas Bratza, a former President of the European Court of Human Rights, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that a column by Christopher Booker had inaccurately reported details of his involvement with a conference at the Council of Europe, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice.
And a PCC resolution despite it being "comment":
The complaint was resolved after the PCC negotiated the following correction and apology, published in Mr Booker's column:
Although my complaint wasn't upheld at least we have further confirmation of another "above the line" organisation eager to maintain the establishment status quo regardless of the facts. The PCC's reluctance to dispute the detail of my complaint however does mean we may have potential should a newspaper attempt to report Norway's "democracy by fax" in an article that is not comment...

But then what do I know? I'm only an electronic version of pub gossip.