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October 19, 2011

Will Moy from Full Fact’s presentation to the Leveson Inquiry seminar, full text

Will Moy from Full Fact’s presentation to the Leveson Inquiry seminar on 12 October

I have been asked to speak to you about self-regulation from the user’s perspective. Full Fact as a fact-checking organisation is certainly one of the most regular users of the PCC if not the most, and as Paul Dacre said earlier this year, accuracy is the cornerstone of the PCC, and as the PCC itself will tell you, it is the overwhelming cause of complaint, and so our field is very much at the heart of what the PCC do. But I should also be suitably modest about the role of the fact-checking. Neither politics nor journalism can reduced simply to facts. There’s a lot more to both of them than that. So we do the foundations. Other people build the house, if you like.

I should also mention that the Daily Mail’s welcome decision to introduce a corrections column on page 2 first came to my notice in response to a correction we’d been pursuing in the Daily Mail with the PCC, and we are grateful for that development.

The PCC is the wrong place to start talking about self-regulation. Self-regulation should mean just that, journalists and papers upholding high standards themselves. The regulator should be a backstop. The corrections we have obtained have been to unambiguous factual errors. We believe that it should not have been necessary to go to a regulator to get these corrected. As the Code says, papers should correct errors themselves promptly when they are pointed out, but in fact only a couple can be relied upon to do this.

For example, we saw a claim in a Financial Times editorial that we thought was dubious, emailed, they checked their source, found they had misinterpreted it, and two days later the story was corrected online and in the paper, conspicuously labelled as a correction at the end of the letters. That’s self-regulation. Equally, other newspapers failing to do that is self-regulation failing.

It’s not just newspapers. Individual journalists can be excellent too. Journalists from both the Guardian and the Daily Mail have replied to correction requests, explained problems and arranged corrections. Both blamed sub-editors for the inaccuracies.

Unfortunately these are exceptional examples. What usually happens is that there is no specific contact for dealing with corrections, we cannot contact the journalist or we get no reply, we get no reply from the newspaper using any contact we can find, so we give up and go to the PCC.

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When we do get through some responses are extraordinary. When we asked one political editor to correct something he attacked us for checking his facts rather than joining his cause and told us without any shame: ‘I know journalists, myself included, are guilty of some wilful acts of inaccuracy.’Such acts are harmful and should be seen as shameful.

We rang one journalist to say there might be a mistake in one of his stories, got as far as mistake when he interrupted with ‘I stand by my story.’So I asked ‘would you like to know what we think might be wrong?”I stand by my story,’he said again, ‘if you have a problem e-mail my editor.’So we did.

It was a straightforward inaccuracy. To get the big drop in adoptions that the article reported you had to compare two unrelated numbers from two separate tables. I will not speculate on how the paper did that but it took 2 months, 19 emails and many phone calls to get a full response to our complaint. The article was amended online only; a printed correction was never discussed. That is fairly typical of trying to obtain a correction directly from a paper.

What do we conclude from this? Some journalists really care about the standards in the Code. They work at all kinds of papers and they would probably care about those same standards whether the Code existed or not. Some newspapers really care about the Code too. Overall, though, newspapers cannot be trusted to regulate themselves and that is why a regulator is essential.

One part of a self-regulatory system, though, should probably be readers’ editors. If nothing else, it is helpful to have an advertised address for corrections to be addressed to and they have a bit of independence. They are not a panacea. We had one take two months to respond to a complaint once. Another spent a long time saying a correction was not necessary when we knew it was under the Code. We had to go to the PCC to get that story corrected. Nevertheless we see potential for indirect regulation via readers’ editors. The regulator would provide quality control, gather data from them for intelligence-led investigations, and act as a second tier for complaints. This might provide a fairly quick, cheap and informal first tier system, where newspapers bear more of the costs of their own complaints.

It may surprise you to learn that the PCC actually has a much more helpful complaints process than the BBC, even though its effectiveness leaves much to be desired. Some of the things the PCC does well include the ease of making a complaint; acknowledgements; direct contact with human beings, round the clock if necessary; and helpful staff who persist with a complaint until the complainant is satisfied. All these basics are missing at the BBC, where your web form disappears into the ether and in our experience usually doesn’t even get a response.

We weren’t surprised when the House of Lords Communications Committee recently excoriated the BBC complaints process and Jeremy Hunt threatened to hand it over to Ofcom. But it is interesting to note that the PCC isn’t the only system of self-regulation that has been put on notice: the BBC for failures of customer service, the PCC for failures of behaviour by those they regulate, that is, for failures of regulation.

Nonetheless, through the PCC our factchecking has led to corrections in nearly every national newspaper. We have twice had seen newspapers forced to reprint corrections which were not printed with due prominence. We also know of an occasion when PCC complaints staff spent a lot of time writing around independent blogs (for which they are not responsible) to try to get a bad story taken fully out of circulation. PCC staff deserve credit for giving the best service they can with the power they have.

So what is wrong with the PCC? Five things:

First. The problem with the Express and Star speaks for itself. We recently factchecked a Daily Express front page that read ‘HOUSE PRICES SET TO SURGE’. They had a briefing from a housing expert which concluded ‘we believe [house prices] will fall by around 7 per cent.’The Express took one sentence from that briefing which, in isolation, sounded positive and quoted it to support their ‘house price surge’ headline. It is hard to see how that might have been done accidentally and therefore hard to see any point asking the Express to correct it. But the Express of course has walked out of the PCC so there is no comeback at all.

Second. The PCC’s object is essentially to resolve complaints. It should be charged with serving citizens and consumers like Ofcom and upholding the Code. Being almost completely complaint-dependent makes the PCC seem inert. It also ought to have, similarly to other regulators, a duty to promote public confidence in what it regulates.

Third. The user experience is controlled by the newspapers but the complainant has to provide all the energy.

Complaining via the PCC is much like complaining directly to a newspaper, except that correspondence is passed through the PCC. Newspapers–at least some newspapers–still make as few concessions as possible as slowly as possible.

For example, first, they deny any breach. In the next letter, they annotate their cuttings, amend the article online, or offer an unsuitable correction wording. Once you have cleared those hurdles they offer to print the correction the next time they cover the same topic, then in the first 12 pages, the first 6, the first 4… each small step another letter and another argument, usually against a trained lawyer. It is draining.

I would have preferred to give a specific example but the indefensible PCC secrecy rules prevent that.

It should not be the complainant’s job to argue over due prominence. I don’t know how much PCC staff are empowered to step in and determine such things but it’s not enough. This is why the regulator’s job needs to be upholding standards not just resolving complaints because complainants give up, either because it is tiring or because they wrongly think they have got the best offer they can get.

This behaviour probably does not reflect newspapers eager to uphold the spirit of the code. The regulator needs powers to set deadlines for responses and to prevent abuse of its processes. Most important, where serious doubt has been cast on the accuracy of an article, it should be for the newspaper to justify it to the regulator, whether or not a complainant remains involved.

Because of the delays caused by publisher obstruction and its own weaknesses the PCC seems incapable of playing a useful role during election or referendum campaigns. Significant inaccuracies in three papers about the Yes campaign’s financial interest in the result were only corrected at the end of June in two cases and the end of July in one.

This ‘print now, correct much later’ culture is at best a very weak incentive for media outlets to ensure that inadvertent errors have not crept into their reports. At worst it allows newspapers wilfully to distort information. At such a distance from the original inaccuracy, corrections are virtually meaningless as a sanction.

That takes me to my fourth point. The PCC needs effective sanctions for deliberate or repeat offenders and the will to use them. We have just seen a number of newspapers repeat a claim which we spent four months getting corrected earlier this year. It doesn’t enhance your faith in the system.

Fifth. Some of the interpretations of the Code adopted by the Commission ought to be revisited. For example, there is a persistent practice of running stories that are inaccurate with a final or very late paragraph which effectively negates the story. As Ben Goldacre notes these paragraphs ‘permit a defence against criticism, through the strictest, most rigorous analysis of a piece. But if your interest is informing a reader, they are plainly misleading.’The PCC’s general policy of reading a piece as a whole to determine accuracy is a good one. Being too legalistic about it creates a loophole. Another area for improvement might be creating a thoughtful Code for the difficult area of headlines.

There is plenty of evidence of a wide range of standards among practising journalists. That is the same as any profession. But the baseline is too low and the reactive PCC, despite its high service values, is not equipped to raise it. Users ultimately want high standards, they don’t want to be complaining in the first place. So the PCC or its successor needs more independence, more powers and a slightly different remit. But it is really the editors we look to, to set the standards.

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