9 December 2003 – Six months after creating an urban myth about asylum-seekers with a blazing front page, The Sun has published a brief item headlined ‘Missing Swans’ – ON PAGE 41 of its Saturday 6 December edition – pre-empting PCC attempts to agree the wording of a correction and apology.
Anyone who found and read this item could be forgiven if they failed to appreciate that it was supposed to put right the entirely false impression given by a ‘splash’ headlined SWAN BAKE and a p.7 story ASYLUM GANG HAD TWO SWANS FOR ROASTING (The Sun, Sat 4 July 2003).
Numerous people complained to the PCC about the stories – which turned out to be, as the PCC would have it, ‘conjecture rather than fact’.
Ten refugees made a collective complaint, and investigated the story. Nick Medic, an exiled journalist from Eastern Europe, discovered that the Metropolitan Police had no record of the alleged offence. In a letter Detective Chief Supt Tristram Hicks told him:
‘Nobody has been arrested or charged in relation to offences against swans by the Metropolitan Police recently…
‘The Sun…referred to asylum seekers being responsible. We have no information at all that supports this contention and indeed when we spoke to… (reporter) Mike Sullivan, he agreed that this was a mistake on The Sun‘s part.’
The Sun and the PCC were sent a copy of this letter, and the complainants asked for the following correction and apology to be published with suitable prominence:
‘A report in The Sun of the 4th July, headlined on the front page SWAN BAKE, stated that gangs of Eastern European asylum-seekers were responsible for the disappearance of swans from southern England.
‘The story was based on unsubstantiated allegations made by unnamed members of the public who claimed to believe that swans were being killed and eaten by Eastern Europeans.
‘The police have confirmed that nobody has been arrested for such offences, and they have no evidence that asylum-seekers or Eastern Europeans are responsible for reported reductions in the swan population.
‘The Sun accepts that it is not possible to conclude whether the offences described actually occurred. We would like to apologise for any false impression that may have been given.’
The PCC adjudicated on their request, and told them:
‘In this instance the Commission noted that the newspaper was unable to provide any evidence for the story which, to its readers would appear to be a factual account.
‘Although the newspaper should have ensured that the article was presented as conjecture in the first instance the Commission noted that the publication had offered to print a clarification… to ensure that readers were aware that the statement was based on inconclusive material.
‘The Commission noted that your proposed draft clarification was more comprehensive than that suggested by the newspaper, but considered that the original proposal constituted sufficient remedial action…(and) concluded that no further action was required on the part of the newspaper…’
This decision itself is disgraceful – especially when viewed in the context of the PCC’s recent statement urging editors to be more accurate when covering asylum issues. But The Sun went ahead with their ‘clarification’ less than 24 hours after complainants asked to be consulted about how it would appear.
It is difficult to judge whose credibility has suffered most – the PCC’s or The Sun‘s. Meanwhile asylum-seekers have been wrongly branded as vicious poachers, and suffered abuse simply because of a false Sun front page which has never been put right.
Details of the original story, the complaint and Nick Medic’s investigation can be found here.
In the new year PressWise will be publishing its report on complaints procedures entitled Satisfaction Guaranteed?
Director, The PressWise Trust
(Bulletin No 95)