A little while ago, we wrote about some pretty poor lightweight reporting of a serious judgment. Initially, our attention was drawn to a terrible headline from Sky, but it soon became clear that most of the papers were writing in similar terms about the case – focusing on the significance of a text message signed with an x to the exclusion of the fact that the case was really about a judge finding a father had raped a mother (and done some other heinous things to the family pets too). It became clear that the similarity between the various pieces arose from the fact that all the reports were based on Press Association copy, and that either the outfits who decided to use that copy had not checked the published judgment for accuracy and balance, or had checked it but didn’t much care.
Our original blog post is here : Hi Sky, Corrected your misleading headline, love TP xxx.
Following that post, we wrote to a number of the outlets who published these stories, complaining that the stories as published were not an accurate representation of the judgment they were covering. Here’s how we did.
Well, this was a bit disappointing. Sky never responded to multiple tweets from us and others, even to tell us to go away or to defend their headline. And when we emailed the only email address we could locate on their site, the email bounced. Although there is an editorial policy on their site (quite well hidden) we could find no complaints procedure or contact that related to online content.
Whilst Sky News is regulated by OFCOM (the broadcast regulator), OFCOM do not regulate Sky’s online text-based content, only their broadcast and video-on-demand content.
However, it seems as if Sky maybe did get wind of either our complaint or realise that their headline was not the best, since this is what you now get if you follow the link to the headline Man loses court fight over wife’s ‘flirtatious’ kisses on text messages.
So, that’s strike one on Sky. But we give them a big thumbs down for communication skillz.
The complaint was about this piece : Signing off text messages with a ‘x’ is NOT being flirtatious rules judge as he finds in favour of estranged wife in family case.
The Mail took a few days to provide a lengthy reply, saying (in extract) :
…our report picks up on information published by the Sun, which is credited. The Sun’s report was drawn from PA copy.
You claim the copy `seriously misrepresents the issues of the case by the omission of core information’.
In reporting a highlighted decision from a lengthy and complicated family court case we are exercising our right to be selective. We deny it is a distortion or misleading…
We do not `minimise the issue of domestic abuse,’ in highlighting one aspect of the workings of court that our readers can relate to. It is firmly in the spirit of making transparent the workings of our family court by successfully engaging readers. We note the same report has been used extensively, as reported by your blog.
The decision was reported accurately. It is not a law report, but was intended for general readership. We are not obliged to consider the wider litigation or all the issues.
We note that you do not detail `core information’ that you feel should have been included, the issues that should have been covered or the inaccuracies which you claim cause our report to `fall short’. You also request a `transparent correction’ at the foot, but do not detail what exactly you are requesting is corrected.
Further, detailing the full abuse and linking the judgement could potentially lead to the speculation or attempts by readers to identify the child involved or the woman, who would appear to be a victim of sexual abuse. With reference to adding a link to the full judgement, it may help to know that news publishers are not obliged to link to full judgements of the cases they cover, or to report entire hearings.
Thank you for drawing our attention to your blog. Please note we do not comment on other publications, including blog posts, which contain opinions, freely expressed.
We think that the Mail implying that it didn’t link to the judgment in order to prevent identification of a judgment that a judge has considered it appropriate to publish, when the Mail has a reputation for regularly publishing salacious information about the private lives of various people, is risible.
We’re not quite sure what the reference to our blog is there for. The Mail are already well aware of it from the previous occasions on which we’ve made complaints about them to IPSO. Perhaps they just want to convey the message they’ve got their beady eye on us! You can subscribe to the blog with a click of a button from our home page, chaps.
Props to The Independent. They aren’t regulated by IPSO but they are often the most responsive to complaints, as in this instance :
Thank you for contacting The Independent. We are always pleased to hear from our readers, whether feedback is positive or negative.
While the article did correctly report one aspect of the judge’s findings, I agree that there was an absence of the details about the extent and nature of the abuse within the marriage. We have therefore amended the article to include more information about the allegations against the father and the findings of the judge. I do not agree that a correction is necessary or appropriate in this instance, as we did not include inaccurate or misleading information, but feel that the amended article will give readers a fuller understanding of the extent of the abuse.
Thank you for taking the time to get in touch and for sharing your concerns,
We’re happy with that. Thank you Independent.
In short, The Sun responded promptly to our complaint with a polite ‘Kiss off!’. They said they did not think there was a breach of the IPSO Editor’s Code clause 1 because :
It was open to the paper to focus on one aspect of the ruling, so long as that did not render the article inaccurate or misleading. The article did not purport to be a report of the full Family Court ruling, and it made clear that the Judge had concluded that the man had abused the woman.
On 10 January we covered the Judge’s findings that the man had killed his wife’s cat and had thrown sausages containing razor blades into her garden. I have attached a copy of that article for you.
The article that they attached was a paper clipping from a print piece about 60 words in length, that never appeared online and shared no common features with the article complained of to enable a reader to clock they were one and the same, and so could not have been cross referenced by a reader, so we think that is a bit of a sleight of hand.
The Express’ legal counsel rang us personally to speak about our complaint, and then emailed asking which email address they should send their response to. Which is all super efficient until we realised we haven’t actually received the response…. We’ve chased. [Update 14 Feb 19 – we’ve got a response. See here].
Some wider issues
This particular batch of complaints has highlighted some frustrating aspects of the regulatory framework around online content.
Firstly, not everyone is regulated by IPSO.
Secondly, while OFCOM regulates Sky News’ Broadcast and (to a more limited extent) video-on-demand content, the text-based content on the website is not covered. This means there is an absence of an effective external mechanism to deal with complaints of this sort about Sky News’ online content.
Thirdly, the source of all this was Press Association copy. It would have been so much easier if we could make a complaint about the source material rather than five separate and similar but not identical complaints. But ultimately it is the publishers who decide they are happy to rely on PA copy, who decide whether to ignore or even to check for accuracy or balance, and who tweak and select the headline, who snip this and add that. But the regulatory scheme is not able easily to deal with the speedy and widespread propagation of agency material effectively. And sometimes the newspapers we complain about have complained that its not fair of us to complain about their article when another newspaper (also relying on PA copy) has published something almost as bad. The insinuation is that we somehow have a responsibility to seek out and to complain about each and every iteration of a PA report.
The economic reality is that newspapers these days are heavily dependent on this model of agency material to fill their pages. It does not require any real journalistic input from the individual paper and is speedy to get up and out. Individual complaints are unlikely to change this model of working.
Should we escalate our complaints?Some of them cannot be escalated because there is no applicable regulator. The Independent we think has adopted a sensible approach and whilst we’d have liked it if they had linked to the judgment, we aren’t going to argue with them on that, since they have rebalanced their article. We aren’t going to escalate the complaints to IPSO however, because we think that the headline which really crossed the line into inaccuracy was the now deleted Sky one – because it wrongly implied (with the use of the word ‘over’) that the case had been about flirtatious texts rather than anything else (Arguably the Mail’s headline had suggested the case supported some wider proposition that such texts never be treated as flirtatious, rather than being a finding about a specific set of facts, but we have to pick our battles and that isn’t one we think is proportionate to pursue).
We think that the publication of these articles without any thought as to the real context is a demonstration of pretty weak editorial decisions, especially as it has the effect of minimising domestic abuse. We think it was right to raise the issues and to pursue complaints, but we don’t think that there is really scope under Clause 1 of the Editor’s Code (accuracy) to successfully pursue these matters, which inevitably the newspapers will argue are within the limits of editorial discretion. Indeed they are, but that does not stop us from saying they should never have been published in the form that they were.
Feature Pic : quilt by Heather Acton on Flickr – creative commons – thanks.