Clauses Noted: 1, 2
Publication: The Sunday Telegraph
Ms Esther Rantzen, a BBC television journalist, complained that an article in The Sunday Telegraph on 25 August 1996, headlined "Twist the facts" contained inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code of Practice and that the opportunity she was given to reply was unfair in breach of Clause 2 (Opportunity to Reply).
The article was written by John Ware, an investigative journalist also employed by the BBC. It commented on a particular programme in a series made by the complainant, which criticised the treatment of a patient at the British Home and Hospital for Incurables in London. The writer said he believed that "programmes like [the one in question] have the potential for seriously damaging the BBC's reputation for fair-minded journalism". He went on to describe how he had investigated the claims made in the programme against the background of his friendship with a patient at the hospital whom he said had been given "devoted and loving care". He concluded that the "journalism in this programme wasn't just sloppy, the programme was misleading and fundamentally unfair".
Following publication of the article, the complainant wrote to the newspaper, objecting to the accusations - which she said were inaccurate - and asking for an opportunity to reply in the form of an article to be published the following week. After negotiation, the complainant accepted the editor's offer of a 750 word letter from her, which was subsequently published.
The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in its criticism of the programme makers' approach and in its description of the patient who was the subject of the programme. She further complained that the letter which had been published did not constitute a sufficient opportunity to reply since it only enabled her to correct alleged inaccuracies rather than answer the "general attack" made on her journalism.
The newspaper responded that most of the relevant points made by the complainant under Clause 1 of the Code had been addressed in the published letter. Nevertheless, it disputed the complainant's contentions that the article had been inaccurate. It said that the complainant had initially asked for a 1,000 word article in which to respond and did not accept that a 250 word shortfall rendered the response inadequate.
The Commission noted that the care at the hospital had been the subject of investigation by the complainant and the writer, both distinguished journalists. It believed that the article was clearly presented as the findings and beliefs only of the named writer. Clause 2 of the Code of Practice requires that "a fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies should be given to individuals or organisations when reasonably called for". It considered that the complainant should have had an earlier opportunity to comment. However, given that a letter from the complainant had been published prominently in which she addressed what she considered to be the main points of inaccuracy - disputed by the newspaper - the Commission did not consider that there was any remaining breach of the Code.
The complaint was rejected.
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