When is a reply a right?
One of the central claims made by Max Mosley in his court case against the News of the World last year, was that the allegations about his conduct should have been put to him prior to publication. The newspaper said it had not done so because it feared an injunction.
The PCC's view on this issue is that there cannot be an absolute requirement on newspapers to contact the subject of stories prior to publication. However, a failure to include all relevant sides of the story can, if left unremedied, sometimes lead to a breach of the Code of Practice. Two recent complaints illustrate the point that each case must be treated on its merits.
In November of last year, the Commission upheld a complaint against the News of the World from former butler Paul Burrell, after it published a story claiming he had boasted of having had sex with Princess Diana. In fact, Mr Burrell strongly disputed the claim, but his denial was not included in the story (indeed, part of his complaint was that he was not contacted beforehand). Nor was it published promptly and prominently in a subsequent edition. As a result, readers were likely to have been misled into believing that Mr Burrell accepted the allegations made about him.
So, on this occasion, the Commission said that the paper should have put the claims to the subject of the story. Failing that, the misleading impression should have been corrected quickly and prominently in a subsequent edition.
A recent complaint from Keith Vaz MP was somewhat different. The Daily Telegraph had reported on the contents of a letter sent by Geoff Hoon MP to the complainant, in which he thanked Mr Vaz for supporting the government Bill on the detention of terror suspects and expressed hope that he would be ‘appropriately rewarded'. Mr Vaz said that this would mislead readers (because he had not, in fact, been offered a ‘reward' of any kind), especially as the newspaper had not contacted him beforehand for his side of the story and had not, therefore, included his comments in the story.
The complainant argued that it was, "only fair and right that the subject of an article is given the chance to explain their side of a story before print". The Commission, however, did not agree and concluded: "On this occasion as there did not appear to be any doubt that the letter [from Geoff Hoon] was genuine - and as the complainant's denial about the offer of a reward was already in the public domain and repeated in the articles - there was no obligation under the Code to speak to him in advance of publication".
Several key lessons can be drawn from these recent adjudications: