Sheffield Star: Who should be held accountable?

In Debate on July 2, 2009 at 10:57 am

The Press Complaints Commission has resolved a complaint against a Sheffield Star for an article headlined ‘Migrant crime toll rising’. The source of the article was a report by the Chief Superintendent of South Yorkshire Police which said that “It takes approximately three times as long to book in a person who does not speak English as it does an English speaker.”

The complaint was resolved when the newspaper agreed to publish “a prominent clarification and apology”. It also changed the headline of its online edition. That now reads: “Police costs of dealing with non-English speakers rise”.

It appears to have been resolved relatively quickly, with the article appearing on 16 April and the ruling appearing on the commission’s website on 30 June. The clarification and apology appeared on 10 June – too late to reduce any impact it may have had on people’s voting intentions in the European election a week earlier. BNP candidates were standing in the region.

The PCC does not usually resolve or adjudicate against complaints about a headline and usually only accepts complaints from people directly involved in the story. As the media select committee heard, the PCC and editors expect more latitude to be given for a headline. Only three of the last 78 cases resolved by the PCC were directly related to the headline.

This case also highlights the challenges for newspapers and the PCC operating online. The “prominent apology” does not appear on the online version of the article and the headline remains on the site, in the URL: On the article currently you would have no way of knowing that the article was the subject of a successful complaint.

The article carries the name of the journalist, Claire Lewis. She was probably not responsible for writing the headline but is the person who is publicly accountable for the article. The MST contacted her to confirm that she did not write the headline but she passed on the enquiries to the deputy editor Paul License on 30 June. He confirmed that the Star published the correction on 10 June but not who was responsible for writing the misleading headline.

The online reaction to the story is interesting, with a number of people recognising a problem with the article both on the newspaper’s own comment section and on With the data that the newspaper captures in the comments section, it wouldn’t be too difficult for the paper to contact all of the people who commented and to draw attention to the correction.

This case shows some of the strengths of self-regulation: a successfully resolved complaint, a complaint submitted by a third party, a prominent correction offline and a free service for the complainants. However, it also shows the unresolved difficulties of correcting articles sufficiently quickly, making corrections to stories online, and the problems associated with making sure the right people are held to account.

  1. Claire Lewis would not have written the headline for that piece, just as any journalist who writes a story and then has it presented by a sub editor. She is also a very honest person amd excellent journalist and I speal as someone who has known her for 12 or so years.

    • Thank you for your comment Ben, I’m sure that’s true and expect it’s probably being dealt with internally. It’s a shame, therefore, that the newspaper has not been able to clarify the situation publicly. I think the public expectation of accountability has changed from when the PCC system was originally conceived.

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