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BBC Radio 4: Unreliable Evidence examines English libel law

April 22nd, 2010 | No Comments | Posted by in Broadcasting, Journalism, Legal

The same evening political parties fought it out at the Libel Reform Campaign’s Free Speech Hustings in London, there was an excellent programme on BBC Radio 4.

Clive Anderson and guests, including Lord Hoffman, Gavin Millar QC, Adrienne Page QC, and solicitor Jonathan Coad, discussed “fears that Britain’s libel laws are being used to stifle free speech” on Unreliable Evidence.

Listen again at this link…

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What does it take to get a front page apology?

One of the points of confusion and controversy in the Press Complaints Commission code for newspapers is that:

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.

Furthermore, the editors’ codebook states:

“the positioning of apologies or corrections should generally reflect the seriousness of the error – and that would include front page apologies where appropriate.”

(my emphasis)

This was an issue raised in front of the House of Commons select committee in Feburary last year: that the apologies offered were inadequate for the mistakes made.

Jonathan Coad, head of the litigation group at Swan Turton Solicitors showed the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee a copy of the Daily Star carrying front page allegations about Peaches Geldof’s sexual behaviour. Following complaints against the article, a correction was made which was 2.6 per cent of the size of the original article and appeared on page two of the newspaper, he said.

“The newspaper agreed – as they could do no other – that the story was inaccurate but what they wouldn’t do was put the correction on the front page,” said Coad. Corrections favour newspaper groups rather than a complainant or the general public, he added. The PCC is in “favour of those who set it up in the first place,” he said.

But the PCC maintains that a system is in place. When I interviewed the director of the PCC, Stephen Abell in February this year, he said that the length and terms of adjudications already change:

[The PCC] can control how much the newspaper has to print by the length of its own adjudication. I think the process is already in place.

(Update: In the comments below, the PCC emphasises this comment was made in regards to ‘adjudications’ not specifically ‘apologies’)

When the select committee published its recommendations last month it said: “The interpretation of the Code’s requirement for an apology to be printed with ‘due  prominence’ remains a matter of controversy”.

In oral evidence to us, the then Minister Barbara Follett acknowledged that the placing of apologies was a problem: “From my own personal experience, the offence can be on page two in large type and the apology basically somewhere around the ads in very small type, and that is something which I would like to see changed.”

The committee recommended:

The printing of corrections and apologies should be consistent and needs to reflect the prominence of the first reference to the original article. Corrections and apologies should be printed on either an earlier, or the same, page as that first reference, although they need not be the same size. Newspapers should notify the PCC in advance of the proposed location and size of a correction or apology; if the PCC indicates that the requirement for ‘due prominence’ has not been fulfilled and the paper takes no remedial action, then this non-compliance should be noted as part of the published text of the correction or apology. We recommend that this should be written into clause one of the PCC Code.

So, under the guidance of the select committee, we could see a strengthened apology and correction system come into play (the PCC is considering its recommendations at the next meeting of the Commission).

Could this mean more front page apologies in the UK? We might look to the US for encouragement.

Tabloid Watch and Regret the Error recently noted that Indiana’s Star Press newspaper went the extra mile with a detailed apology on its front page, correcting a mistake about Ball State athletic director Tom Collins and his employment intentions. I contacted its author, sports editor Greg Fallon, to find out why the decision had been taken.

“We felt that a typical correction buried inside the newspaper or a story on the sports front would not sufficiently set the record straight,” Fallon said.

“Beyond that, I’ll just say that we were not only sorry to Tom Collins for the error and wanted to correct it, but we also owed an explanation to our readers on how, exactly, the error happened.

“That transparency, we feel, strengthens the relationship between reader and newspaper. In the end, we were able to explain it all best in a column.”

Wow. I’m with Tabloid Watch on this one: “It’s almost impossible to imagine a British newspaper – particularly a national – writing something such as this on their front page. And yet, why shouldn’t they?”

But what a cultural shift we’d need to see this happen. Newspapers might not be holding the front page quite yet, but they should take heed from the Geldof vs Daily Star case.

As the Guardian reported in January 2010, Geldof, represented by Jonathan Coad, was unsatisfied with the PCC ruling and 2.6 per cent apology on page 2 and took the matter to court. The Daily Star was forced to pay (undisclosed) substantial damages and legal costs:

“The defendant refused to publish a retraction and apology on its front page but instead published it on page two,” said Coad.

“As the publication was substantially smaller, the claimant considered this to be unacceptable as it was not, in her view, adequately prominent.

“The Press Complaints Commission adjudicated upon the prominence and found it to be proportionate.

“It is for this reason that the claimant now wishes to make this statement in open court to make the falsity of this allegation a matter of public record.”

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How Westminster students covered last week’s Journalism in Crisis conference

I got a peek behind the stage curtain last week, at the University of Westminster / British Journalism Review Journalism in Crisis conference (May 19/20). Geoffrey Davies, head of the Journalism and Mass Communications department, gave me a mini-guided tour of the equipment borrowed for the event – it allowed the live-streaming of the conference throughout; a real bonus for those at home or in the office.

Jump to video list here (includes: Mark Thompson / Nick Davies / Paul Lashmar / Boris Johnson and a host of academics and journalists from around the world)

The Journalism.co.uk beat means that we cover a fair few industry and academic conferences, and so we get to compare the technology efforts of the hosts themselves. While Twitter conversation didn’t flow as much as at some events (not necessarily a negative thing – see some discussion on that point at this link) the students’ own coverage certainly made use of their multimedia skills. I contacted a few of the students and lecturers afterwards to find out a few more specifics, and how they felt it went.

“We streamed to the web via a system we borrowed from NewTek Europe, but might purchase, called Tricaster. It’s a useful piece of equipment that is a television studio in a box,” explained Rob Benfield, a senior lecturer at the University, who produced the students’ coverage.

“In this case it allowed us to add graphics and captions downstream of a vision-mixer. It also stores all the material we shot in its copious memory and allowed us to store and stream student work, messages and advertising material of various sorts without resorting to other sources.

“Some of our third year undergraduates quickly mastered the technology which proved to be largely intuitive. We streamed for two solid days without interruption.”

Conference participants might also have seen students extremely diligently grabbing each speaker to ask them some questions on camera  (making Journalism.co.uk’s cornering of people a little bit more competitive). The videos are linked at the end of this post.

Marianne Bouchart, a second year at the University, blogged and tweeted (via @WestminComment) along with postgraduate student, Alberto Furlan.

“We all were delighted to get involved in such an important event,” Bourchart told Journalism.co.uk afterwards. “It was an incredible opportunity for us to practice our journalistic skills and gave to most of us a first taste of working in journalism. I couldn’t dream of anything better than to interview BBC director general Mark Thompson.

“We worked very hard on this project and we are all very happy it went on that well. My experience as an editor managing a team of journalists to cover the event was fantastic. We encountered a few scary moments, some panic attacks, but handled the whole thing quite brilliantly in the end – for inexperienced journalists. I can’t wait to be working with this team again.”

A sample of the Westminster students’ coverage:

If you missed the Journalism.co.uk own coverage, here’s a round-up:

Videos from the Westminster University students at this link. Interviewees included:

  • Paul Lashmar, Is investigative journalism in the UK dying or can a ‘Fifth Estate’ model revitalise it? An examination of whether the American subscription and donation models such as Pro Publica, Spot.US and Truthout are the way
  • Haiyan Wang, Investigative journalism and political power in China —A case study of three major newspapers’ investigative reporting over Chenzhou corruption between April 2006 and November 2008
  • Maria Edström, The workplace and education of journalists – myths and facts
  • Shan Wu, Can East Asia produce its own “Al-Jazeera”? Unravelling the challenges that face channel NewsAsia as a global media contra-flow
  • Yael .M. de Haan, Media under Fire: criticism and response in The Netherlands, 1987-2007
  • Esra Arsan, Hopelessly devoted? Turkish journalism students’ perception of the profession
  • Professor James Curran, ‘Journalism in Crisis,’ Goldsmiths College
  • Marina Ghersetti, Swedish journalists’ views on news values
  • Igor Vobic, Multimedia news of Slovenian print media organisations: Multimedia on news Websites of delo and žurnal media
  • Anya Luscombe, The future of radio journalism: the continued optimism in BBC Radio News
  • Tamara Witschge,The tyranny of technology? Examining the role of new media in news journalism
  • Juliette De Maeyer, Journalism practices in an online environment
  • Colette Brin, Journalism’s paradigm shifts: a model for understanding long-term change
  • Dimitra Dimitrakopoulou, Crisis equals crisis: How did the panic spread by the Greek media accelerate the economy crisis in the country?
  • Matthew Fraser, Why business journalism failed to see the coming economic crisis
  • Michael Bromley, Citizen journalism: ‘citizen’ or ‘journalism’ – or both?
  • Vincent Campbell, ‘Citizen Journalism': A crisis in journalism studies?
  • Martin Nkosi Ndlela, The impact of technology on Norwegian print journalism
  • James S McLean, The future of journalism: Rethinking the basics
  • Mathieu Simonson, The Belgian governmental crisis through the eye of political blogging
  • Nick Davies, freelance journalist and author of Flat Earth News
  • Boris Johnson, Mayor of London
  • Jonathan Coad, partner at Swan Turton solicitors
  • Mark Thompson, BBC director-general
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