The Daily Record’s ‘name and shame’ campaign against drug dealers – it has now named more than 200 – has been given the all clear by the Press Complaints Commission in a significant move which backs newspapers keeping their sources confidential.
It represents a reversal of the commission’s past policy, which has decreed that newspapers must not use "confidential sources" as a trump card in their defence.
The PCC had received a number of complaints under the accuracy clause of the Editors’ Code of Practice, and some under the privacy clause, from individuals named by the Record as being involved in the supply of drugs but who denied the allegation.
At a recent meeting, however, the commission noted that, over eight months and in 75 editions, the newspaper exposed more than 200 people it believed had been involved in drug dealing and no actions for defamation had been taken against the Record. Only a handful of complaints had been received by the commission.
In a letter to complainants and Record editor Peter Cox, the commission said it had decided it could not deal with the allegations and "wished to underline its view that campaigns of this sort involving allegations of serious criminal activities – where newspapers are seeking to protect public health and safety by exposing alleged wrongdoing – are matters of public interest under the terms of the Code of Practice."
A jubilant Cox said: "This is an absolute triumph for our campaign. It has been going since November and, having named something like 225 drug dealers, we haven’t had even one action for libel. A total of four cases went to the PCC. They are dealers – we have them bang to rights – and they saw the PCC as a soft option."
In making its decision, the commission said it took into account that the Record’s defence would rely on confidential sources of information.
Nevertheless, it decided that "newspapers – particularly in such cases – must protect their sources, and the code enshrines their right to do so. While the commission has previously stressed that it is unacceptable for newspapers to use confidential sources as a ‘trump card’ to justify publication of otherwise unsubstantiated claims, the particular and unique circumstances of the matter at issue had to be taken into account."
More importantly, it considered the allegations were of such a serious nature – involving criminal offences – that they would clearly be defamatory of the complainants and any action could be settled in the courts.
Cox added: "I am just terribly grateful that a press watchdog is there to stand up for the press as well as criticise. I think the commission looked at it fairly and honestly and, because now we have that clearance by the PCC, I think other newspapers should go for it as well.
"They will have to be sure they can prove it because the libel court is an option. Otherwise the PCC is saying, ‘this is a worthwhile campaign – carry on’."
By Jean Morgan