The following article is reproduced to highlight a problem that can result from self-regulation, in this case self-regulation of the Press. The case illustrates how self-regulation can result in a failure to act against those who breach professional and moral standards.
It seems that rumour and gossip have become substitutes for fact and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is happy to give the benefit of (considerable) doubt to members of the press. Opinion is often confused with news, and for those papers with a political bias, truth and honesty take second place to their ‘Agenda’.
Two members of this (Third Way) Think-Tank were recently victims of such falsehoods masquerading as news. The Freedom of the Press must be protected but so must the privacy and integrity of individuals from vexatious gossip too. Clearly, only statutory regulation can do that and not the present self-regulation which acts only as a ‘fig leaf’ for disreputable journalism.
On October 31st 2010 the Sunday World newspaper published a number of false allegations about Patrick Harrington and David Kerr. Patrick and David both contribute to the Third Way think-tank. These were the subject of complaints by both men to the Press Complaints Commission.
Clause One of the Press Code of Conduct says that the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information and significant inaccuracies, once recognised, must be corrected. The article claimed that Mr Harrington ‘came to blows’ with a man called Jim Dowson and that he had been attacked by a political opponent who threw coffee over him in his former employment on a GNER train. The paper claimed that it had ‘impeccable’ confidential sources to back up its claim. Yet these sources remained anonymous. Mr Harrington has stated that he believes the source of the claims to be a mixture of misreporting Wikipedia and “lying tout” and “disgraced former British National Party fundraiser” Jim Dowson.
According to the PCC, if these anonymous ‘impeccable’ sources are quoted by a newspaper as a ‘claim’ rather than as truth then presenting the sources’ claims are not a breach of Clause One of the Code of Conduct. Put bluntly, the newspaper can publish any inaccurate, misleading or distorted information it likes as long as it represents it as a claim from a real or imaginary authoritative source. This is nothing short of a licence to lie.
On the ‘hot coffee’ issue, the PCC decided that it could not establish the veracity of an alleged incident from ‘several years ago’ but didn’t really trouble itself with the matter anyway as it was peripheral to the article; just one more falsehood in a tissue of lies, half-truths and distortions. It could not establish the veracity of the claim because the alleged incident never happened but nevertheless decided that the false claim did not breach Clause One of the Code of Conduct. In this la-la land, a falsehood is not inaccurate, misleading or distorted if it refers to something said to have happened ‘several years ago’.
According to the PCC’s ruling, the papers description of me as Mr Harrington’s ‘Belfast NF friend’ is not inaccurate; despite the fact that I ceased to be a member of the National Front 21 years ago. This article clearly implied that I am a member of the NF but as the paper did not explicitly state that I am a current NF member, my past membership means that I can be called ‘Belfast NF’ forever and a day with the PCC’s blessing; no matter how much my political position has changed since 1990. By this logic, Peter Mandelson is a Communist, Peter Hain is a Liberal and Jim Campbell is the Sunday World’s Official IRA (Stickie) hack.
In dealing with the paper’s claim that Mr Harrington wants to run the BNP in Ulster, the PCC ruled that as this claim was carefully posited as rumour, it did not have to be true. The paper had the right to report the existence of that belief, whether true or not. This suggests that any paper can say anything scandalous at all about anyone and get way with it as long as it is posited as a rumour or a belief rather than as a fact. They could even, perish the thought, make up their own rumours and report them afterwards. This is another licence to lie.
Clearly the editors of The Sun and the News of the World have missed a trick here. Instead of having to deal with super-injunctions to stop the publication of scandal stories, they could have taken the Sunday World’s line and published a story that many people believe that Ryan Giggs is bonking a TV z-list ‘celebrity’ or that there are rumours to this effect in circulation. In fact they could invent anything about anyone as long as they made it clear that they were just reporting rumours!
The PCC also ruled that it is acceptable for the newspaper to describe Mr Harrington in pejorative terms as a ‘nutter’ a ‘fascist’ or as ‘right wing’ as readers of the Sunday World would not be misled into thinking that this was a factual analysis of his nature. In other words, readers of the Sunday World would be well advised to note that it is fiercely partisan. It is not a paper of record. Lies, conjectures, opinions, fantasies and rumours are treated with the same or less consideration as facts.
The PCC decided that it could not conclude that the article was misleading or inaccurate when it claimed that Mr Harrington was ordered out of Ulsterby the UDA in the 1980s. The paper told the PCC that the UDA considered the National Front as ‘wankers’ and forced the closure of the party’s office in East Belfast. In fact, Mr Harrington never lived in Ulsterand was never ordered out of the country by the UDA or any other organisation. An article in the UDA’s magazine, Ulster criticised me personally and the NF in general for making a trip toLibya to promote the movement’s radical ideas. The term used in the article was ‘tosser’. I replied to the article with a letter pointing out that a UDA itself had visitedLibya after the 1974 Ulster Workers’ strike and persuaded that country’s government to stop arming the IRA. I did not receive a reply but the NF never had any more trouble from that quarter.
Contrary to the Sunday World’s claim, the paramilitary organisation did not force closure of theTemplemore Avenue office. The truth is more prosaic. The three-year lease on the premises ran out and it was too expensive to renew. The NF continued to operate inUlster and went on to contest council elections in Newtownabbey andEast Belfast without molestation by any paramilitary group. The only former NF member to fleeUlster was the International Third Position’s Stuart McCullough who received a death threat from the Provisional IRA.
The PCC dismisses Mr Harrington’s assertion that the article reported that he has supported pro-Irish republican politics since the 1980s saying rather that ‘Harrington left the National Front during a bitter split at the end of the 1980s but continued his strange mix of right-wing and pro-republican politics’. The PCC’s ruling goes on to miss the point entirely. Mr Harrington’s complaint was that he is not and never has been pro-republican and the newspaper is breaching Clause One by not correcting this misrepresentation of his political opinion. The Commission instead rules on whether or not the Sunday World was entitled to describe holding right-wing and pro-republican politics as a ‘strange mix’. Mr Harrington does not dispute this right.
The PCC then chases after a couple of red herrings in ruling that the Sunday World has not breached Clause One by describing Mr Harrington as an ‘IRA fan’ or by ‘reporting that he had refused to condemn the group in a Channel 4 documentary’. The newspaper claimed it was justified in this description and then brought a number of irrelevant diversions into play to bolster its false claim; the fact that NF members visited Libya in the 1980s, the fact that Mr Harrington had posed for a picture in front of ‘IRA murals’ and a false claim that he ‘had not acknowledged’ IRA death squads deliberately targeted civilians.
This affair needs to be placed in the right timeframe. At the time of the infamous Channel 4 Dispatches documentary (5/10/1988), the IRA had abandoned the random attacks on civilians that had been its hallmark in the early years of the troubles. It targeted members of the RUC, the UDR, loyalist activists, prison officers, judges and so-called ‘economic targets’. Mass attacks on civilians did not resume until the Shankill bombing in 1993. The IRA attack on a remembrance service at the cenotaph in Enniskillen in November 1987 which killed eleven civilians so embarrassed the PIRA leadership that it stood down the organisation’s so-called ‘Fermanagh Brigade’ claiming that the attack was a ‘mistake’. This botched attack came to be one of the turning points that led to the exploratory talks between the republican leadership and the British government which later emerged as part of the ‘peace process’. It had only occurred a few months before Mr Harrington’s Channel 4 interview and was fresh in his mind in what was intended as a nuanced response to the interviewer’s questions. His criticisms and condemnation of the IRA were carefully and maliciously edited out of the final broadcast.
Similarly, Colonel Qadhaffi’s government had not resumed supplying arms and explosives to the IRA until the Thatcher government allowed the United States Air Force to use British airbases to launch airstrikes onTripoli, one of which killed his adopted daughter. The Ulster NF clung to official denials thatLibyahad anything to do with the IRA. It was all just dismissed as ‘propaganda’ as this revelation was an inconvenient truth for the party. This became untenable after the French navy seized the MV Eksund full to the gunwales with arms and ammo for theProvosand the full extent of Libyan support for the IRA eventually became clear. Even then, some members of the party believed that they could emulate the UDA in 1974 and persuade Libyan officials to support an independentUlsterand abandon their support for the IRA. The delegation that went to Libya urged officials there against becoming involved in one side of a civil war and made their opposition to the IRA clear.
It does not follow, as in the Sunday World’s conflated assertion, that Mr Harrington’s support for the ideas propounded in Colonel Qadhaffi’s Green Book or his visit to Libya as part of a National Front delegation meant that he was an ‘IRA fan’. The PCC has been sold a pup by the newspaper by accepting this explanation, especially as the original article made no mention of Libya. By the same twisted logic, the UDA delegation’s visit to Libya in 1974 would have meant that Glen Barr, Tommy Lyttle and Harry Chicken were ‘IRA fans’ too.
For the record, Mr Harrington is not an ‘IRA fan’. In fact he has been the subject of a veiled threat in a critical ‘exposé’ in the Republican Movement’s newspaper An Phoblact/Republican News in its issue of July 7th 1990. The AP/RN article criticised Mr Harrington by name and the then newly formedThird Way movement as an MI6, British Security Services operation and published his then full home address inLondon. I drew Mr Harrington’s attention to the article at the time As a result of this article he sought and was given advice on his personal protection from the security services.
Mr Harrington has told the Sunday World in writing that their claim that he is an IRA supporter is wrong. The least that the newspaper could do was to publish an agreed correction or clarification pointing out that he denies it as they did for me when I complained to the PCC over a claim in the same contested article that I was seeking to take control of the BNP in Ulster in concert with Mr Harrington. The paper’s ‘offer to make a formal offer to contact Mr Harrington in regard to any future articles about him and publish his denials’ though welcome, does not undo the damage caused by the inaccuracies in the disputed article.
The Sunday World tried to back up their assertion that Mr Harrington is an IRA supporter because they have a picture of him in front of an IRA mural inBelfast, even though a production error meant that he was pictured beside me in front of a loyalist Red Hand Commando mural instead. In the picture, all that Mr Harrington, his wife-to-be and step-daughter-to-be are doing is the usual tourist thing; looking at curiosities. It’s not as if Mr Harrington is paying solemn respects to the glorious Fenian dead by laying a wreath or carrying a banner or something of that order. The picture the paper did publish in error showed him posing alongside me in front of a loyalist Red Hand Commando mural at the corner of Glenwood Street and the Shankill Road. By that logic, he must have been on the same afternoon simultaneously a supporter of both the IRA and their enemies, the RHC. It hardly seems likely, does it?
I would like to give some background evidence here. The pictures were taken in the Spring of 2009 when Mr Harrington brought his new fiancée and her young daughter over toBelfastfor the first time. They stayed at my home in the Shankill area ofBelfast. I gave them a walking tour of my part of the city over the weekend in question. We visited murals in the loyalist Shankill estate, theShankill Road, Woodvale and the peace line in Cupar Link. We then crossed through the gates atLanark Wayto the republican side of the peace line and down theSpringfield Roadwhere we joined the Falls Road on the way to the City Centre. We took photos of one-another at all the main murals and memorials on both sides of the peace line; loyalist and republican and some trade union ones on Northumberland Street and at the international wall around the corner.
The Sunday World claims that the images were passed to the newspaper from a confidential source and it was not aware of their origins. The PCC says it ‘was not able to determine the precise manner in which the images had been obtained’ which is odd, given that I wrote to them and told them. The Commission did not rule on the fact that the pictures were taken from my own private Facebook album and that of Mr Harrington and used without our permission.
It is a mystery to me why the PCC has ruled in this way given that the evidence runs so much in Mr Harrington’s favour. It is interesting, however that a large part of the Sunday World’s defence is that assertions, opinions, comments and distortions are perfectly acceptable provided that the paper can claim to have been told something by an ‘impeccable’ source, it can report the existence of a belief or rumour, or argue that nothing explicitly claimed as a fact can be understood to be factual. Given this PCC-approved licence to lie I can only say ‘Don’t believe a word of what you read in the Sunday World.’
The full judgement of the PCC is published below this article for those who wish to understand why many argue that voluntary regulation does not work and that statutory measures need to be introduced.
By David Kerr
Commission’s decision in the case of
Harrington v Sunday World
“The complainant, the subject of the article, complained that the newspaper had published an article which contained a number of inaccurate and unsubstantiated assertions about his past behaviour, political leanings and membership of organisations. He was further concerned that he had not been offered an opportunity to comment or respond to the story and the newspaper had intruded into his private life by publishing his photograph.
Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code states that the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information and significant inaccuracies, once recognised, must be corrected.
The Commission noted the complainant’s concern that the article was inaccurate when it reported that he “came to blows” with Jim Dowson and hot coffee thrown at him at GNER by an anti-fascist. The newspaper explained it was relying on “impeccable” confidential sources to corroborate this position. The complainant in correspondence had cited previous decisions where the Commission had concluded that in cases where a newspaper is unable to provide on-the-record corroboration or offer an opportunity to reply when the accuracy of an anonymous source is questioned; this raises a breach of Clause 1 of the Code. The Commission considered this matter thoroughly and noted that the reference to conflict between the complainant and Mr Dowson was plainly presented as a “claim”, rather than stated as truth. The newspaper was permitted, under Clause 1 (iii) to present this conjecture as it was clearly distinguished from fact. In regard to the “hot coffee” incident, the Commission was not in a position to determine the veracity of an anecdotal reference from “several years ago”. In any case, this was not a central aspect of the article. No breach of Clause 1 could be established on the above points. In circumstances where the complainant and David Kerr had been fellows of the National Front in the past and the article did not state that they were current members, the Commission could not conclude that it was inaccurate to refer to Mr Kerr as the complainant’s “Belfast NF friend”.
As with the claim regarding tensions with Mr Dowson, the allegation that the complainant “want[s] to run the BNP in Ulster” was carefully posited as rumour and the Commission took the view that the newspaper was permitted to report the existence of that belief.
While the complainant objected to the use of the terms “nutter”, “right-wing” and “fascist” as they were both pejorative and he did not fit those descriptions, the Commission considered that the newspaper was entitled to present its opinion of the complainant and readers would not have been misled into thinking it represented a factual analysis of his nature. There was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) on this point.
The complainant denied being ordered out of Ulster by the UDA. The newspaper argued that when the complainant was a National Front leader, the UDA considered him and his followers “wankers” and forced the closure of an office in East Belfast. The Commission was not, of course, in a position to reconcile this matter and, given that the assertion pertained to events that took place in the 1980s, it could not conclude that the article was significantly misleading or inaccurate on this point.
Contrary to the complainant’s assertion, the article did not report that he has supported pro-Republican politics since the 1980s. It stated that “Harrington left the National Front during a bitter split at the end of the 1980s but continued his strange mix of right-wing and pro-republican politics”. While the complainant may have denied that his politics were a “strange mix”, the newspaper was entitled to publish its interpretation of his politics in the manner it had.
The Commission could not conclude that the newspaper had breached Clause 1 by describing the complainant as an “IRA fan” or by reporting that he had refused to condemn the group in a Channel 4 documentary. The newspaper considered it was justified in this description, arguing that : had met with Colonel Gadaffi in an attempt to obtain funding at a time when the dictator was supplying arms to the IRA; posed in front of IRA murals; and had not acknowledged that the IRA was guilty of deliberately targeting civilians in its attacks. The complainant – although he pointed out that he had posed in front of murals from both sides of the conflict – had not denied his involvement with Gadaffi and accepted that the television show the newspaper was relying on had been heavily edited and, as such, did not include his criticism of the IRA. The Commission was satisfied that it had explained its grounds for describing the complainant as an “IRA fan”. No breach of the Code was established on this point. That said, the Commission welcomed the newspaper’s offer to make a formal undertaking to contact the complainant in regard to any future articles about him and publish his denials. This was a positive response and the Commission trusted that it would allow the complainant an opportunity to clarify his position regarding the IRA. Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply states that a fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for. On this occasion, no inaccuracies had been determined as to raise a breach of Clause 1 of the Code and it therefore followed that there was no breach of Clause 2. The complainant’s concern that the newspaper had failed to confirm the accuracy of the accusations against him prior to publication was not a matter covered by the terms of Clause 2. However, the Commission noted that this concern should be addressed in future by the formal undertaking offered by the newspaper.
The Commission then turned to the complaint surrounding the publication of the photographs. The complainant’s concerns in this regard were two-fold: firstly, the article wrongly stated that he was pictured “posing in front of an IRA memorial” when the images showed him standing in front of a Loyalist memorial and a non-IRA ‘Bill of Rights’ mural; and, secondly, the images had been obtained from a Facebook album and represented an intrusion into his private life.
The Commission noted that there was a clear discrepancy between the text of the piece and the images used. The newspaper had, however, demonstrated that it was in possession of a photograph showing the complainant in front of the “Roll of Honour” IRA memorial but explained that an editorial error had led to the inclusion of the “Red Hand” image instead. It was clear that a mistake had occurred with the images. However, the Commission did not find a breach of the Code. The article did not state that the photographs showed the complainant in front of the IRA memorial, merely that “Posing in front of an IRA memorial on the Falls Road is not what is usually expected from a right-wing fascist”. The fact remained that the complainant had indeed been photographed with his family in front of the memorial and the article had accurately stated that this was the case.
Clause 3 (Privacy) states that everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private life and that it is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent. It was not the case that the newspaper had photographed the complainant on this occasion: the images were passed to the newspaper from a confidential source and it was not aware of their origins. The complainant had explained that the photographs were published online in a Facebook album of a family trip to Belfast. While the Commission was not able to determine the precise manner in which the images had been obtained, it was able to consider the quality of the information contained within the photographs. The images, which showed the complainant posing willingly for a photograph in a public place, did not reveal anything particularly personal about the complainant or depict him engaged in a private activity. The publication of the pictures did not show disrespect for the complainant’s private life and the Commission concluded that there was no breach of Clause 3 of the Editors’ Code.”
PS June 20th 2011.
A series of allegations against a prominent Sunday World journalist, John Cassidy, have mysteriously appeared in Belfast.
These daubings brand the journalist as a ‘wife-beater’ and a ‘woman beater’ and claim that he broke his wife’s jaw in a drink-fuelled attack. These allegations may be true. They may be partly true but the result of an accident. They may be outrageous lies. I have no idea one way or the other.
However, according to the logic of the PCC’s recent decision, this doesn’t matter. I can get away with saying that according to an impeccable source, many people believe rumours that the journalist is a wife-beater so I don’t have to prove it. How can this be fair or just?