Dear PCC… We’re NOT fucking stupid!

I feel a bit of a rant coming on and I should warn you in advance – if the title isn’t already a dead give away – that it may get a bit sweary in places, although I will try to hold it together for the sake of putting up a reasoned argument.

What’s pissed me off on this occasion is a piece at Left Foot Forward in which the LFF crew have given the PCC, through its public affairs director, William Gore, an opportunity to respond to some of the trenchant criticism that’s been flying in their direction since the phone-hacking scandal erupted in earnest. Before kicking things off, I should congratulate LFF for securing a response from the PCC and stress that nothing of what follows is in any sense directed towards them. It’s the PCC that are bunch of patronising arseholes.

Okay, so let’s get down to business and, straight away, I should point out that out of this entire response I am only interested here in one sentence, a sentence that has nothing much to do with phone hacking or any of the other tabloid shenanigans that have caused the PCC to cop for a bit of flak of late. The sentence I am interested in relates to an ongoing and, in the eyes of many bloggers, extremely serious issue, the practice of routinely burying corrections, retractions and apologies when newspapers published articles containing serious material errors of fact, and on this matter the PCC has this to say:

Corrections and apologies are now very rarely published further back in the offending title than the original transgression – despite what some might believe.

I think I can speak for many established bloggers, and particularly for a number of first-rate media blogs (and bloggers) including Tabloid Watch, Angry Mob, Five Chinese Crackers, Obsolete, Enemies of Reason, Minority Thought and for Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads fame/notoriety when I say – as a direct response to this comment…

Do not try and patronise us. We are NOT fucking stupid!

We all know perfectly well that the legendary ‘apology buried on page 37 next to the advert for the big slipper’ is nothing more than a semi-humourous metaphor for a range of common practices that are routinely used by the tabloids and by mid-market titles, i.e. the Daily Mail and – before it quit the PCC altogether – the Daily Express, in order to call as little attention as possible to any corrections, retractions or apologies they may be compelled to publish after getting things badly wrong. The way in which the tabloids go about the business of burying corrections and apologies is somewhat more complicated and subtle than that.

As its apparent that the PCC intend to continue to feign ignorance on this point, it seems only right that I should lay out, in some detail, how (and why) tabloid newspapers go about the business of burying corrections/apologies and outline some of the tricks and tactics they use to ensure that, on the rare occasions that they are forced to correct a factual errors, the do so while calling the least possible attention to the fact that got something wrong, and in some cases badly wrong.

The first and, in many respects, most important trick that the tabloids pull in order to bury corrections is that of delaying the publication of a correction/apology for a long as humanly possible.

Newspapers, at least in so as their print editions are concerned, are disposable commodities; most are thrown away, sent for recycling or end up being used to line the bottom of a budgie’s cage within a matter of days of being purchased. The tabloids know this, the PCC knows this and, of course, pretty much everyone else knows this, which is why this knowledge has been encapsulated in the aphorism ‘It’ll be chip paper by Wednesday’, which is more of less the first piece of advice you’ll be given should you ever find yourself on the wrong end of the tabloids’ not-so-tender ministrations.

The PCC, as a general rule, do not issue an adjudication on a complaint about factual inaccuracies until it has first attempted to negotiate an informal resolution of the complaint, and the tabloids exploit this negotiation process to full in order to ensure that if and when they are forced into making a correction, at least several weeks – and, more often than not, several months, will have passed since the publication of the article to which the complaint relates. What this, of course, means is that by the time a correction is made, the overwhelming majority of the papers’ readers will have little or no recollection of the contents of the original story and, therefore, very little idea of exactly what the newspaper is actually correcting or apologising for.

Unless a correction/apology relates to an extremely high profile story, corrections made and acknowledged in the print edition of a newspaper several weeks/months after the fact are the next best thing to useless, and the tabloids know this perfectly well.

This is why the process of negotiating an informal resolution of a complaint most often resembles the Battle of Stalingrad, with the newspaper taking on the role of Soviet 62nd Army and fighting a concerted rearguard action designed to delay things for as long as possible. At the very least, a delay of three to four weeks can be achieved by using the simple tactic of dismissing complaints out of hand, irrespective of their merits, at the first time of asking, forcing the PCC to restate the complaint at least twice in order to obtain any kind of substantive response from a newspaper, and this can usually be spun out into a delay of several months by wrangling over the precise wording and placement of any correction/apology, once the newspaper finally gets around to acknowledging that they might just have a case to answer.

By the time a correction/apology is eventually wrung out of a tabloid newspaper – if that happens at all – the newspaper will have done everything it can to:

a) delay publication for as long as possible,

b) keep the number of words used in the complaint/apology to an absolute minimum,

c) construct the wording of the correction/apology in such a way as to provide the least possible amount of information about what it is that the newspaper is corrected and/or apologising for, and

d) ensure that it has much freedom as possible when it comes to the placement of the correction/apology so as to permit them to publish the correction/apology where it will attract the least amount of attention.

It must be remembered here that correcting factual errors and inaccuracies in tabloid newspapers is not just a matter of correcting discreet but erroneous statements. The most egregious examples of tabloid misreporting commonly involved the publication of articles that are based on an entirely false or erroneous premise with the result that the entire article may be factually incorrect from start to finish. What this mean, in practice, is that a correction and/or apology relating to a lengthy article containing numerous serious errors of fact and/or gross inaccuracies with typically occupy much the same amount of space, when published, as a minor correction relating to single erroneous statement of fact. In effect, complaints relating to articles running to several thousand words which are pretty much inaccurate from start to finished can be blown off by a tabloid newspaper with a correction/apology which runs to mere two or three sentences.

In regards to the placement of corrections/apologies, the exact page on which these are published are one factor in either giving them due prominence, which rarely happens, or burying the correction as far as out of sight as possible, which is by far the more common outcome.

Newspaper editors are keenly aware of the importance of placement when running articles and know perfectly well where and how to run articles for maximum impact and, of course, to generate the maximum amount of interest in their readers and, therefore, maximise their sales.

The front page of the newspaper is, of course, the most important place in any newspaper, but beyond that – and unless a story is given a full or near-full double page ‘splash’ – all newspapers follow the same basic rules when it comes to drawing their readers’ attention to the stories they consider to be important.

Rule no 1 is always place important stories ‘above the fold’, i.e on the top half of the page.

Rule no 2 is always place important stories on odd numbered, i.e. right hand, pages. With the exception of some men, who tend to start with the sports pages and read the paper back to front, most people will read a newspaper from front to back and this ensures that articles that appear on odd numbered pages are the first ones they see when they turn the page, and

Rule no 3, of course, requires that important stories are given a prominent headline is large, bold type.

By following these basic rules, newspapers can exert a considerable degree of influence over which stories do, and don’t, capture the attention of their readers and by working with, and around, these rules its also possible to successfully draw attention to even relatively minor stories without giving them the full splash by the simply expedient of running those stories alongside a major story, i.e. on the same page as a sidebar item.

Conversely, if you want to bury a story – or a correction/apology – then as an editor you take the opposite tack by publishing the piece below the fold, on an even numbered page, in small print and under the least interesting headline you can possibly concoct. For added obscurity, stories you want to bury should be run in the NIBs (news in brief) section which is, in essence, nothing more than half-page to a page of short filler articles cribbed from agencies. wire copy and local newspapers which national newspapers run merely to occupy a bit of space and ensure that the day’s page count is sufficient to accommodate the paper’s advertising copy. If, for any reason, you can’t bury a story in the NIBs – and you don’t want to make the burial obvious by hiding the story in amongst the small ads, then your next option is to dry and drop it into an inside sidebar in a special interest section. The tabloids know their readers’ preferences and prejudices very well, so they know, for example, that most of their male readers will tend to skip right past the touchy-feely lifestyle and women’s sections of the paper, that female readers will commonly avoid a motoring section like the plague and that older readers will steer clear of most of the showbiz section, especially the gossipy bits, as long as it has nothing much to with soap opera or whatever’s on the telly over the next few days. Depending on the exact story or correction you’re trying to burying, all these sections can provide excellent opportunities for minimising the number of readers who get around to noticing copy that you really, deep down, would rather they didn’t get to see.

Bearing all that in mind, the PCC’s stock mantra about corrections being published ahead of the ‘original transgression’ in terms of the pages on which they appear is nothing more than a bunch of patronising nonsense which is being spun out on the assumption that most people don’t understand the first thing about how newspapers are actually together and how readily the careful placement of articles can be used either to call attention to a news story or bury a correction/apology in a location which, to all intents and purposes, means that the newspaper might just has well have not bother to run it all for all that its readers’ actually noticed it.

All this, of course, assumes that a complaint actually results in the publication of a correction/apology, which is anything but a certainty and on that score it would be most remiss of me not to mention a recent innovation by the PCC, the Littlejohn defence, which more or less offers some newspaper columnist carte blanche to bullshit their readers to their hearts’ content without fear of ever being called out for publishing material errors of fact.

The Littlejohn defence stems from a complaint submitted to the PCC by Primly Stable in September 2010 in relation to the following statements, which appeared in one of Littlejohn’s weekly rants in the Daily Mail:

“During the General Election campaign, David Cameron promised that his government would help people who did the right thing. How does that square with the news that Lance Corporal Craig Baker and his family have been refused a council house after he returned home to Bracknell ­following a tour of duty in Afghanistan? Especially as any Afghan climbing off the back of a lorry in Dover goes automatically to the top of the housing list.”

The claim that ‘any Afghan climbing off the back of a lorry in Dover goes automatically to the top of the housing list’ is, of course, complete and utter bullshit and has no basis whatsoever in fact – so ‘Primly’ submitted a complaint to the PCC on the grounds that this claim was both inaccurate and misleading.

Three months later – see what I mean about delays – the PCC rejected this complaint, giving the following justification:

Commission’s decision in the case of Stable v Daily Mail

The complainant considered that the article falsely stated that “Afghans climbing off the back of a lorry in Dover” were given precedence in the allocation of council housing.

The Commission acknowledged the complainant’s concern over the statement; however, it had to consider the remark in the context of the article in which it appeared. The article had been clearly presented as a comment piece, in which the columnist expressed his concern that a soldier who had served in Afghanistan had not been granted a council house. The Commission considered that the columnist had exaggerated and simplified the example of housing immigrants for the purpose of stressing his assertion that the “system of government exists simply to punish those who do the right thing”. It emphasised that the newspaper should take care when using such rhetorical methods of expression that readers would not be misled into understanding that they reflected statements of fact. In this instance, on balance it considered that readers would be aware that the columnist was not accurately reflecting the government’s policy on the housing of immigrants, but that he was making an amplified statement for rhetorical effect. It was therefore the Commission’s view that, on this occasion, readers generally would not be misled in such a way as to warrant correction under the terms of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code of Practice.

The key passage here, which constitutes the core of the Littlejohn defence is this one:

on balance it considered that readers would be aware that the columnist was not accurately reflecting the government’s policy on the housing of immigrants, but that he was making an amplified statement for rhetorical effect

In short, provided that a columnist has carefully cultivated a public reputation as pig ignorant bullshitting fucknut then, by the PCC’s light, they are free to lie to their readers with impunity because, in the PCC’s opinion, it should be perfectly obvious to their readers that they are bullshitting them.

What this ignores, completely, is that the tabloids’ core business model is predicated almost entirely on feeding the ignorant prejudices and preconceptions of their core readership. The tabloids keep their readers happy – and buying newspapers, of course – by telling them exactly what they want to hear, regardless of whether this bears any relationship at all to the facts. The people who read Littlejohn’s column and hang on his every word absolutely believe him when he claims that Afghan refugees go straight to the top of the housing list no soon as they climb off the back of a lorry in Dover because that is precisely what they already believe and all Littlejohn is doing, in their eyes, is confirming as a matter of ‘fact’ what they already ‘know’ to be true.

That’s why the tabloids go to such great lengths to bury any corrections/apologies they’re pushing in to making – however ineffectually – by the PCC, because the very last thing that the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Daily Express want to do is admit to its core readership, openly and transparently, that the bullshit they’ve been feeding, in some case for many years, is a complete and utter load of bollocks which based, almost entirely on lies, distortions, fabrications and misrepresentations. The tabloids have built their publishing empires on a swamp and what they fear most in all this is that an independent press regulator could force them to admit that fact to their core readership, to the people who pay their salaries, fear that those readers will simply walk away should the tabloids be put in a position where they can no longer pander to their readers’ prejudices without fear of swift, open and honest correction.

I should stress, at this point, that I do not believe that newspapers should be subject to the same rules of impartiality and balance that apply to the BBC, ITN and Sky News.

Newspapers should be permitted to engage fully in the democratic process and present their readers with an open, politically biased, view of events in their editorial opinion columns and in the editorial selection of which stories they do and don’t choose to run with.

That freedom to editorialise the news does not, however, legitimately extend to deliberate distortion, misrepresentation and fabrication of the facts. When newspapers do that, and the tabloids do that as matter of routine, then they are not presenting their readers with the news they are feeding them propaganda.

National newspapers do not, as a general rule, identify themselves with the clearly defined political constituency. They may identify themselves as ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’, or as ‘small l/c’ liberal or conservative, or as supporting a particular political party at a particular time, or as even as representing the views of a mythical place called ‘Middle England’ but, in terms of transparency, this is very different thing from acting as the mouthpiece for a specific political constituency, as is the case with, for example, Socialist Worker or the Catholic Herald.

My own position here is more or less the same as that set out by George Orwell in his proposed preface to ‘Animal Farm’ which addresses, on both its title and its content, ‘The Freedom of the Press‘ but which, somewhat ironically, was not actually published until 1972, and in particular I would draw your attention to the following passages, which – in common with much of Orwell’s best work – remain as relevant today as they were when then were written back in the 1940s:

Obviously it is not desirable that a government department should have any power of censorship (except security censorship, which no one objects to in war time) over books which are not officially sponsored. But the chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the MOI [Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.

Any fairminded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines-being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals…

…It is important to distinguish between the kind of censorship that the English literary intelligentsia voluntarily impose upon themselves, and the censorship that can sometimes be enforced by pressure groups. Notoriously, certain topics cannot be discussed because of ‘vested interests’. The best-known case is the patent medicine racket. Again, the Catholic Church has considerable influence in the press and can silence criticism of itself to some extent. A scandal involving a Catholic priest is almost never given publicity, whereas an Anglican priest who gets into trouble (e.g. the Rector of Stiffkey) is headline news. It is very rare for anything of an anti-Catholic tendency to appear on the stage or in a film. Any actor can tell you that a play or film which attacks or makes fun of the Catholic Church is liable to be boycotted in the press and will probably be a failure. But this kind of thing is harmless, or at least it is understandable. Any large organisation will look after its own interests as best it can, and overt propaganda is not a thing to object to. One would no more expect the Daily Worker to publicise unfavourable facts about the USSR than one would expect the Catholic Herald to denounce the Pope. But then every thinking person knows the Daily Worker and the Catholic Herald for what they are. What is disquieting is that where the USSR and its policies are concerned one cannot expect intelligent criticism or even, in many cases, plain honesty from Liberal [sic — and throughout as typescript] writers and journalists who are under no direct pressure to falsify their opinions.

[As a skeptic and an atheist, the references here to the ‘patent medicine racket’ and to the difficult one faces when criticising certain pressure groups seems particularly ironic, even if, in view of the recent child abuse scandals, the Catholic Church is no longer quite as bomb proof as it might have been in Orwell’s day]

…I am well acquainted with all the arguments against freedom of thought and speech — the arguments which claim that it cannot exist, and the arguments which claim that it ought not to. I answer simply that they don’t convince me and that our civilisation over a period of four hundred years has been founded on the opposite notice. For quite a decade past I have believed that the existing Russian régime is a mainly evil thing, and I claim the right to say so, in spite of the fact that we are allies with the USSR in a war which I want to see won. If I had to choose a text to justify myself, I should choose the line from Milton:

By the known rules of ancient liberty.

The word ancient emphasises the fact that intellectual freedom is a deep-rooted tradition without which our characteristic western culture could only doubtfully exist. From that tradition many of our intellectuals arc visibly turning away. They have accepted the principle that a book should be published or suppressed, praised or damned, not on its merits but according to political expediency. And others who do not actually hold this view assent to it from sheer cowardice.

In regards to Orwell’s comments on the silencing of unpopular ideas, the right-wing tabloids, in particular, like to present themselves to their readers as the publishers of supposedly unpopular ideas that an amorphous mass, known colloquially as ‘the left’, would like to silence – or at least, they like to do that when they’re not busily engaged in presenting themselves as the supposedly authentic, popular, voice of ‘the people’ – while studious ignoring the fact that have no difficulty whatsoever in ranting on about “political correctness”, “elf ‘n’ safety” and all the other bullshit that is actually rather popular with their readers, for all that most of it is complete bullshit. In truth, the tabloids should here be cast not in their preferred role as publishers of unpopular ideas but rather as the ‘intelligentsia’ that Orwell castigates for its craven acceptance of political expediency, as the supposedly ‘unpopular’ ideas one finds in the tabloids, and in particular in the Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Sun are anything but unpopular amongst their readers, and that is ultimately all that these newspaper actually care about.

Censorship and censure, which is actually what happens when the Daily Mail’s succeeds in kicking off a shit-storm on Twitter, are two very different things and its the PCC’s near abject failure to do the latter with any degree of effectiveness that most justifies the criticism that has been levelled at the organisation over the last few years, long before they became embroiled in the current phone-hacking scandal.

I’m a firm believer in the principle that the press should ‘publish and be damned’ – the real problem with the PCC is that when it comes to the ‘be damned’ part of that statement, its routinely fall down on the job because that’s precisely what it was designed to do all along.