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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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INM signs £40m print deal in Northern Ireland

September 16th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Newspapers

Amid all the ominous news surrounding Independent News&Media a more positive story for the company has surfaced:

A £40m print deal will make Northern Ireland one of the biggest producers of daily newspapers in Europe, after INM signed contracts with the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror.

INM will now be printing all Mirror titles and the Telegraph titles, as well as the Sun, News of the World, the Daily Express and Sunday Express, the Daily Star and the London Independent.

The Belfast Telegraph reports:

“The first deal sees all sections of the Daily Telegraph printed in the company’s high-tech plant at Newry for the next 15 years. The second deal brings the Daily Mirror to the Belfast Telegraph print plant for a seven-year term.

“The deals represent two of the longest print agreements signed in the region and have been made possible by an IN&M investment strategy which has seen more than £50m spent on new presses in both centres.”

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Jon Bernstein: Sorry Guido, the BBC did for Duncan

Three high-profile political figures mired in controversy, two thrown out of their jobs, one suffering a humiliating demotion – all thanks to internet activists of differing political hues from green to darkest blue.

Hang your heads in shame video-sting victim Alan Duncan, and Smeargate’s Derek Draper and Damian McBride. Take a bow Tim Montgomerie, Guido Fawkes, and Heydon Prowse.

But was it really the web wot done it? I’m not so sure.

Or at least I don’t think the web could have done it without the traditional media, television news and newspapers in particular.

Clearly this is at odds with Guido’s reading of the situation.

Writing on his blog this morning yesterday Paul Staines (for it is he) asks who forced Alan Duncan from his role as shadow leader of the House of Commons.

Not Tory leader David Cameron, that’s for sure. Rather it was the unlikely pairing of Tim Montgomerie and Heydon Prowse, ‘the blogosphere’s shepherd of the Tory grassroots and the angry young man with a video-cam’.

Of Prowse, who filmed Duncan on the terrace talking of ‘rations’ in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, Guido notes:

“Heydon Prowse, who is he? He just destroyed the career of a greasy pole climbing Westminster slitherer. No house-trained political nous, no insight, in fact a little naive. He still did it.”

And Guido is in no doubt what this means in the wider context:

“The news is now disintermediated.”

The same applies, apparently, to the sacking of Damian McBride and Derek Draper, both prime ministerial advisors in their time. McBride and Draper were outed for their parts in a plot to use a pseudo-activist blog to spread rumours about various high-profile Tories.

The emails incriminating the two men found their way to Guido/Staines, and were in turn picked up by the media.

(Ironically, the site was meant to be the left’s answer to right-wing blogosphere attack-dogs, Guido among them.)

This week saw the story take another twist. Would-be smear victim Nadine Dorries MP carried out a threat to sue Draper and McBride and enlisted the help of Guido and fellow blogger Tory Bear to be servers of writs.

No one is doubting the origin of both stories, nor the journalistic craft in exposing the men at the heart of them. But it took the mainstream media to push these events into the public consciousness, into the mainstream.

And it took the attentions of the mainstream media to effect the sackings and demotion.

On the day it broke, the Duncan story led the BBC 10 o’clock News and featured prominently on other channels. In the ensuing 48 hours it spawned dozens of national press stories – the Daily Star went for ‘Dumb and Duncan’, The Mirror for ‘Duncan Donut’, others were more po-faced – as well as leader comments, opinion pieces and letters.

The coverage continued into the weekend and despite Duncan’s very swift apology and Cameron’s initial willingness to draw a line under events (“Alan made a bad mistake. He has acknowledged that, he has apologised and withdrawn the remarks.”) the drip, drip of media focus eventually forced the Tory leader to act.

It was a similar pattern with Smeargate.

Would PM Gordon Brown and Cameron have acted if these had remained just web stories? Not in 2009.

Is the news disintermediated? Not yet. Instead we have a symbiotic – if dysfunctional – relationship between the blogosphere and the traditional media.

The latter fears and dismisses the former in equal measure, but increasingly relies on it to take the temperature of various constituent parts of society and, yes, to source stories. Guido is such a good conduit through which to leak precisely because the media reads him.

The former, meanwhile, is disparaging about the latter (sometimes for good reason) but nonetheless needs it to vindicate its journalistic endeavours.

A final twist to the Alan Duncan story. Heydon Prowse offered Guido first refusal on his secret video recording back in June. Guido turned it down. “D’oh!” he later wrote in a confessional blog post.

Guido always has the good grace to admit when he’s goofed, as he did earlier this year over James Purnell’s fictitious leadership bid.

Will he accept with equally good grace that the mainstream media were a vital ingredient in the sackings and demotion of McBride, Draper and Duncan?

Jon Bernstein is former multimedia editor of Channel 4 News. This is part of a series of regular columns for Journalism.co.uk. You can read his personal blog at jonbernstein.wordpress.com.

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Rebekah Wade’s first public speech in full

January 27th, 2009 | 2 Comments | Posted by in Events, Journalism, Newspapers

If the Wordle and other coverage isn’t enough, here’s the Hugh Cudlipp speech by the editor of the Sun, Rebekah Wade, in full [note: may have differed very slightly in actual delivery]:

The challenging future of national and regional newspapers is now the staple diet of media commentators.

If you have been reading the press writing about the press you’d all be forgiven for questioning your choice of career.

I’m not denying we’re in a tough place – we are.

But I don’t want to use this speech to make grand statements on the future of our industry.

I want to talk to you about journalism.

More »

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Independent.co.uk: Interview with the female editor of the Daily Sport

October 13th, 2008 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick

An interview with Pam McVitie, the new editor of the Daily Sport. That means there are now three women editing titles which rely on scantily clad female content: McVitie, the Sun’s Rebekah Wade and the Daily Star’s Dawn Neesom.

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New study measures social media success of national newspapers

September 18th, 2008 | 1 Comment | Posted by in Newspapers, Online Journalism

This week Martin Belham, of Currybet.net, released his study into the nationals newspapers’ use of web 2.0 tools, such as news aggregation and social media sites.

His aim was this:

“I wanted to examine, firstly, how well British newspaper content was performing on prominent social media sites, and secondly, see if there was any correlation between the placement of icons, widgets and links, and the presence of newspaper content on these services. In short, I wanted to measure UK newspaper success with social media services.”

In order to do this he monitored eight popular social bookmarking and link sharing sites for a month, checking for the presence of UK newspaper URLs on their front or most ‘popular’ pages. Between July 15 and August 14 he counted just over 900 URLs from 12 major newspapers across the services (the Daily Express, Daily Mail, Daily Star, Financial Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Mirror, News Of The World, The Scotsman, The Sun, The Telegraph and The Times)

Here’s a peek at some of the findings:

  • The Telegraph was the most successful UK newspaper in this study, with 243 prominent URLs on social media sites between July 15 and August 14 2008.
  • The poorest performances amongst the nationals were from the Daily Star (4 links), and the Daily Express and The Mirror (3 links each)
  • The correlation between having an ‘icon’ or ‘button’ for a specific social media service, and success on that service appears to be weak or non-existent.

The full study can be downloaded from here, for £25.

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