Advice for complainants

MediaWise was founded by ‘victims of media abuse’ and our priority remains to provide confidential, free, professional advice for those with legitimate complaints about print and broadcast journalism.

WHEN PEOPLE suddenly find themselves in the media spotlight it can be a terrifying – especially if a story is wrong. They describe a feeling of powerlessness and despair, and a conviction that ‘everyone out there now believes the worst’.

Most complaints about accuracy are easily resolved, but the Press Complaints Commission decides whether an inaccuracy is ‘significant’ enough to warrant correction. One of our clients killed himself when the PCC ignored medical evidence that undermined claims in a sensational local paper story.

Some complain about the techniques used to obtain stories – accessing personal bank, telephone and credit records; secret recording; offers of cash or threats; people besieged in their homes, afraid to open curtains or take children to school. One reporter circled a house shouting “Come out and talk to us, we know you’re a whore!” One woman phoned us in panic after a neighbour warned her two men were in the garden taking photos through her windows. We were able to call them off.

By going for the sleazy option, some good stories are missed. One national opted for a ‘Priest in sex swap’ headline, ignoring the fact that the Catholic Church had ordained a woman.

Complaints handling
MediaWise allows people to talk. We explain media processes, and then dissect each story to advise whether it has breached print or broadcast regulations. We will act as advocates if asked, taking people through the complaints procedure, which can be daunting and doomed to failure if complaints are not couched carefully.

We prefer to resolve matters directly and only rarely do we refer people to lawyers. In 2004 we helped a charity worker in Montenegro win £40,000 in damages after a UK Sunday paper falsely accused him of child trafficking.

Crime reporting
Our largest single client group – victims of crime, their relatives, witnesses, and prisoners’ families – has included victims misrepresented in dramatic TV reconstructions; a man falsely accused of murder in a TV documentary; several women inaccurately described as having had affairs with criminals; relatives of prisoners cajoled into taking part in TV shows that exposed them to victim’s relatives.

Before the Rose West trial we alerted the authorities that witnesses were being offered money for their stories, and the then PCC Chair warned editors “to ensure that relatives of the accused and witnesses are not harassed or caused unnecessary anxiety.”

Old stories
Stories are often rehashed on anniversaries and this can re-traumatise victims of disasters or crime. Once someone has appeared in the media they are seen as ‘fair game’. The archives contain many inaccurate stories, including fabricated interviews, which may not have been corrected at the time, and repetition can hinder people’s right to return to anonymity and ‘move on’.

Third party complaints
Sensational and inaccurate coverage of whole groups (asylum-seekers, the elderly, Muslims, the mentally ill, ethnic minorities, Gypsies, etc) can exacerbate tensions in society. Yet the PCC rarely considers complaints unless they come from people named in a story. We campaign for acceptance of third party complaints, and have run projects to counter misrepresentation and stigma.

Regulation
We make submissions based on evidence and experience to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Ofcom, the PCC and the Editor’s Code Committee. Our position on codes, complaints procedures and guidelines are set out in Satisfaction Guaranteed? Press complaints systems under scrutiny (2004). We publish topical editorial comments on our website and distribute them to 2,000 journalists, academics and supporters.

What they say about our advice work
“Thank God for your call. You’ll never know how low I was feeling. It gave my husband and I new hope in exposing (the journalists) who have done irreversible damage to this family.”
Complainant

“Every time one of these twisted tales appears my telephone does not stop ringing. Enraged friends who know the true facts drive me to despair. I invariably go into a depression and succumb to shingles. The hurt caused in the name of circulation is very real. Thanks for being a friend.”
Complainant

“(MediaWise) enthusiasm and determination to obtain redress for ordinary members of the public who feel they have no power is probably their greatest asset. They are always keen to explain why and how things happen. It is a tribute to their exemplary communication skills that, even when dealing with highly sensitive issues, they are not afraid to say if a complaint is not justified.”
National family organisation

* For more information call 0117 93 99 333 or email: info@mediawise.org.uk