What lies behind the front page apology

19 March 2008 – Abject apologies to Kate and Gerry McCann on the front pages of the Daily Express and the Daily Star are unlikely to be the last words on the subject.

The apologies, which appear to exonerate the couple of any involvement in the disappearance of their daughter Madeleine, make no mention of the way both newspapers and their Sunday stable-mates profited by running hundreds of stories implicating the couple. Their main object was to increase sales by playing to the prurient interests of their readers. Speculation became news – the more sensational the alleged ‘revelations’ the better. It is this cynical abuse of power as much any additional hurt caused to the couple and their family, which should now be exercising the minds of editors, journalists and the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

The PCC will doubtless declare this resolution a triumph for self-regulation. It is nothing of the sort. The McCanns were wise enough not to use the PCC route, which never achieves the sort of climb down represented by this ‘out of court’ settlement.

Both parties have avoided a costly court process, and newspapers remain free to keep open all lines of enquiry into what has happened to Madeleine. (Some will now be keener than ever to undermine the credibility of the McCanns.) And there is nothing to stop any newspaper applying similar sales techniques when covering cases that excite public interest.

This case should also encourage the PCC and its paymasters – the newspaper and magazine publishing industry – to rethink their objections to fines and compensation for trouble caused when the Editors’ Code is breached. They argue that financial penalties would bring in the lawyers and reduce the likelihood of swift resolution. Their real concern is to avoid spending any money at all – Express Newspapers and the Star cut their losses to avoid even larger bills from Messrs Sue Grabbit and Runne. Perhaps this case will convince them that prominent corrections and apologies and a graduated scale of compensation payments would be a more effective reminder of their responsibilities to the public. If the PCC offered such a deal as an alternative to litigation it would truly level the playing field for those who cannot afford to take on the publishers.

At least the PCC could break its undignified silence about the tabloid persecution of the McCanns by issuing a cautionary reminder to editors on behalf Shannon Matthews’ mother Karen, who lacks the resources to mount her own challenge about character assassination.

However, the most significant aspect of this damage limitation exercise remains hidden. The offending stories have been removed from the newspapers’ online archives. This may be a satisfactory solution for the McCanns, although many others have been denied that privilege in the past. Rewriting history lets the newspapers off the hook in perpetuity. Stories which are proved to be inaccurate or otherwise in breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice, are supposed to be electronically tagged, so that anyone referring back to them is warned to be careful about repeating the error. If the stories aren’t there who will ever know what really happened? The newspapers should be required to tack the apology onto each offending story in their archives and indicate the facts and the fictions that hurt the McCann’s – and misled the public.

Mike Jempson
Director, The MediaWise Trust

(Bulletin No 147)

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