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Complainant Name:
The Rt Hon Charles Clarke MP

Clauses Noted: 1

Publication: The Times

Complaint:

The Rt Hon Charles Clarke MP complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined "Blair ally leads push against Speaker" published in The Times on 9 February 2002 contained inaccurate material in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code of Practice.

Following an offer of remedial action by the editor to make the complainant’s position clear, no further action was required.

The article said that the complainant, the Chairman of the Labour Party, had come to regard the Speaker of the House of Commons as a liability. The piece said that the complainant had ‘told friends’ that the Speaker had ‘lost credibility’ and ‘become an embarrassment’.

The complainant denied that these were his views and said that the quotations that were directly attributed to him had been invented. He objected to the fact that no-one had attempted to contact him before publication to verify the alleged comments. He said that the editor had refused to publish a letter from him making his position clear.

The newspaper denied that the journalist had invented the quotations – the story was based on a confidential source that they were obliged to protect. The editor had in fact offered to carry a letter from the complainant but proposed some amendments with which the complainant had not been satisfied. After negotiation through the Commission the editor revised his offer and said that he would publish a letter very similar to the one that the complainant had originally submitted, omitting only the reference to the quotations being invented. The letter would have made clear his denials and asserted that the story was incorrect. It would also have outlined his disappointment not to have been given the opportunity to comment on the allegations before they were printed. The complainant did not accept this offer because he thought it important that the newspaper recognised that the quotations were invented.

Decision:
Sufficient remedial action offered

Adjudication:

The Code itself makes clear that journalists must protect confidential sources of information. However, the Commission has long been clear that newspapers cannot simply rely on this when defending complaints that material based on anonymous sources is inaccurate. In such circumstances the newspaper must be able either to produce corroborative material to substantiate the allegations or to demonstrate that the complainant has a suitable opportunity to comment on them. In this case, the material was based on alleged comments by the complainant to an un-named source and the newspaper had not provided any corroborative material. It was not possible for the Commission – which does not have legal powers of investigation or sub-poena – to decide whether the quotations had been invented or not given that there was a straight clash between the parties, and it could not therefore oblige the newspaper to accept that they were invented. However, while the newspaper stood by the reliability of the source it was incumbent on it to provide the complainant with a suitable opportunity to reply, given that he denied the allegations and there was no other material to support the newspaper’s claims. Taking all these circumstances into account, the Commission considered that the newspaper’s revised offer to publish a letter making the denial clear – and calling the original piece incorrect – was suitable under the Code. The Commission would have taken another view had this offer not been made but considered that the offer was a suitable remedy to the complaint and consequently concluded that no further action against the newspaper was necessary.

Report:
58



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