Clauses Noted: 1
Publication: Daily Mail
The BBC Litigation Department complained to the Press Complaints Commission on behalf of Sir Christopher Bland and Mr Greg Dyke that an article headlined “Blair, the BBC and a shameful use of cronyism” published in the Daily Mail on 21 May 2001 contained inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code of Practice.
Following an offer to resolve the matter by the newspaper, the complaint was not upheld.
The article said that the Labour MP Keith Vaz had complained to the offices of the BBC Director General Greg Dyke and its chairman Sir Christopher Bland about approaches made to him by BBC radio reporters while he was ill during the election. It said that Stephen Mitchell, head of BBC radio news, had responded by e-mailing a memorandum to colleagues stating that Mr Vaz was not be approached directly by BBC reporters and that if anyone wanted to talk to him they would have to seek permission from either the Labour Party or the Foreign Office. The piece – by a named columnist and well-known media commentator – was critical of the BBC’s involvement in the matter.
The complainants said that the article had misquoted the memorandum in order to level unfair criticism at the Corporation. In fact, the memorandum had only said that the Labour Party or Foreign Office should be approached for permission ‘if Mr Vaz is still saying he is unwell and is not campaigning’. Several hours after the memo had been distributed – and therefore before the publication of the article – the BBC received information that Mr Vaz was better and normal approaches were therefore resumed. The BBC added that no instructions were given to Mr Mitchell by the offices of either Mr Dyke or Sir Christopher and pointed out that neither of them knew about the complaint until after the memo had been sent out. The complainants said that the journalist had not approached the BBC press office to ascertain the true position in advance of writing the article and that the paper had not even seen the memo.
The newspaper replied that it had immediately offered to publish a prominent letter from the Director General spelling out his view of events and pronouncing his determination to persevere the BBC’s impartiality, especially during an election campaign. This offer had been rejected. Additionally, the paper said that shortly afterwards it published an interview that Sir Christopher had given to the paper’s City editor during which he put his point of view on the matter. The newspaper said that in any case the journalist had not written anything inaccurate given that it was not in dispute that Mr Vaz had complained to the offices of Mr Dyke and Sir Christopher and that Stephen Mitchell had issued a memo as a result – without further checking or consultation, according to the paper. The piece had been clearly marked as a columnist’s own view of the situation and he was entitled to draw certain inferences having read about the memo in The Times, which both parties acknowledged had reported its contents accurately.
The complainants thought that the newspaper should apologise and said that the published comments of Sir Christopher were not an adequate remedy to the complaint.
The Commission noted that there was no dispute that a memo had been issued, following a complaint from Mr Vaz, to the effect that journalists should not approach him while he was saying that he was unwell and not campaigning in the election. There were clearly differences of opinion between the parties about what the memo actually said, and while the Commission would not interfere with a newspaper’s right to publish partisan or critical pieces, it did consider that readers may not have been aware of the whole context of the memo from the published piece. In these circumstances the Commission considered that the most suitable way to have addressed any misleading impression about the contents of the memo would have been for the newspaper to have published a letter from the complainants putting the Corporation’s view. The Commission was pleased that they had immediately offered to do so, and while it regretted any breakdown in the relationship between the two parties over this matter it considered that the offer constituted a fair opportunity to reply under the Code. Had the offer not existed the Commission might have taken a different view but in the circumstances there were no matters to pursue under the Code.
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