This post represents opinion and comment from Sarah Phillimore and should thus not be take as representative of the views of all members of the Transparency Project – but she hopes it is.
On September 6th 2016 four family lawyers complained to the Daily Mail about their article published on 31st August 2016. We asserted that it seriously misrepresented the views of the President of the Family Division by reporting he considered money spent on lawyers in care proceedings was being ‘squandered’.
The substance of our complaint is set out here: At the Daily Mail we take great pride in the quality of our journalism. In brief, we were very concerned that this kind of inaccurate reporting inhibits pubic understanding and informed discussion of issues of great importance – in this instance the issue being the availability of legal aid for parents facing the State taking their children away.
The Daily Mail rejected our complaint on 8th September. We had no expectations whatsoever that our complaint would be recognised by the Mail. However, we thought it would be an interesting exercise, and helpful to the Transparency Project in the development of its Court Reporting Watch, to track this complaint from the Mail to IPSO.
We did not have high hopes that IPSO would uphold our complaint, but we were rather taken aback to find out that it would not even consider it. ISPO responded via email on 7th October 2016:
The Complaints Committee has now considered your complaint against The Daily Telegraph.
The Committee noted your concern that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). Regulation 8 of IPSO’s regulations states that:
“The Regulator may, but is not obliged to, consider complaints: (a) from any person who has been personally or directly affected by the alleged breach of the Editors’ Code; or (b) where an alleged breach of the Editors’ Code is significant and there is a substantial public interest in the Regulator considering the complaint, from a representative group affected by the alleged breach; or (c) from a third party seeking to correct a significant inaccuracy of published information. In the case of third party complaints the position of the party most closely involved should be taken into account”.
You said that Clause 1 had been breached because the article misrepresented the views of Sir James Munby in the document, ‘A View from the President’s Chamber’.
In accordance with IPSO’s regulations, in determining whether to take forward your complaint under Clause 1, the Committee took into account the position of the party most closely involved. The alleged inaccuracy related directly to Sir James Munby and the views he expressed in ‘A View from the President’s Chamber’. The Committee noted that whilst we know what Sir James said in the document, it would not be possible to determine whether his remarks had been misconstrued without his input. As such the Committee took the view that it would not be possible or appropriate to investigate your complaint without Sir James’s input.
The Committee would like to thank you for giving it the opportunity to consider your concerns.
This is a very odd response for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious is that we were not complaining about the Daily Telegraph – we were complaining about the Daily Mail. This is an easy mistake to make of course, as the Daily Telegraph comes a very close second to the Mail when one is considering inaccurate and partial reporting about the family justice system. However, it does cause a little unease about how carefully the Committee undertook its duties, if it couldn’t even identify which newspaper was actually being complained about.
Further, we accept that the complaint was not made by the President, nor did we make the complaint with the permission, encouragement or endorsement of the President. The reason that we did not consider this necessary was primarily because we did not agree our complaint related ‘directly to Sir James Munby’ and the views he expressed. Our very serious concerns, as should be clear from the original complaint, were about the quality of the Mail’s reporting and the likely detrimental impact this would have on proper public debate and discussion about issues of such importance.
Additionally, we were surprised that IPSO took issue with lack of personal complaint from Sir James Munby. We assumed IPSO were aware that they must treat judges differently from other ‘subjects’ of articles. English judges may not generally engage with the media and would not directly complain, even where the article was clearly inaccurate.
We think this refusal by IPSO to consider our complaint is serious. Given the inhibitions on serving Judges to make public comment on sensitive issues, the only way to ensure that judgments and extra-judicial speeches etc are accurately reported is to allow ‘third parties’ to complain about misreporting. And, if newspapers know that judges are not going to complain, they will feel more free to misquote them and write whatever they like about them. The only way to ensure accuracy is for others complain – because judges certainly are not going to do so themselves.
Some may dismiss our complaints as the usual whining of the Fat Cat Legal Aid lawyers, aghast at this threat to their nests feathered at public expense. People are entitled to their opinions, however misinformed, but hopefully they will take time to think a little more about the likely reality of a the ‘lavish lifestyle’ of the publicly funded lawyer.
We also appreciate this isn’t by far the most serious or the most egregious of the Daily Mail’s history of misreporting. It’s just one example amongst many. See for example, Tom Pride’s Daily Mail Timeline of Shame.
It’s just one example that caught our eye as family lawyers, who knew immediately that this was a serious misrepresentation of what the President said. It is just another drop in a billowing ocean of careless or even deliberately inaccurate manipulation of facts to produce a ‘story’ that satisfies an agenda. Another example of why those of us who wish to promote transparency and openness about the family justice system begin to feel despair at the nature of the task ahead. Even if we can succeed in opening up the family courts to greater scrutiny – who will come to see? And what will they report?
In 2015 the Daily Mail was the most popular newspaper in the country, in print and on line with 23,499,000 readers a month, compared to its nearest rivals the Daily Mirror at 17,484,000 and the Daily Telegraph at 16,357,000. So it must be giving its readers what they want. What a great shame that what they want appears to be deliberate misreporting to satisfy an agenda. And what an equal – if not greater – shame that the body set up to police such misreporting refuses to take action, on such flimsy grounds.
Let’s hope that Daily Mail readers are alive to the old adage; be careful what you ask for – you might get it. Because when all legal aid is finally stripped away and access to justice depends entirely on your access to money to buy it – they might miss legal aid lawyers when we are gone.