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Targets for self-regulation

In Debate on September 2, 2009 at 8:45 am

What is a reasonable amount of time to wait for an apology from a newspaper? One or two days is probably reasonable for a small, factual correction where the matter is not in dispute and a few more when the origins of a story need to be confirmed and months when the facts are disputed and the case subject to legal action.

For the ‘he said, she said’ sort of stories that are published in several newspapers, it would be a positive aspects of self-regulation if newspapers were able to resolve complaints quickly and publish an apology – perhaps within a week.

The Evening Standards published a story on 6 August which claimed that Chelsea players had had celebrated Salomon Kalou‘s birthday at a club called Whisky Mist. The report claimed that the festivities had cost £120,000. The emphasis had been on the glamour of the event, and the tone of the piece was described as “generally neutral” by Chelsea fan site, Vital Chelsea.

The club issued a statement in response the very next day (7 August) in which it said: “The club and the players totally deny the facts and implications of these reports. None of the Chelsea players spent these extravagant sums. Whilst many players attended their team-mate’s party, it was in fact hosted and generously paid for by friends of Salomon and even the sums involved have been greatly exaggerated.”

The club continued:
“We are consulting our lawyers on behalf of Chelsea and the players and it is guaranteed that formal complaints will follow”.

Notwithstanding the Chelsea statement the Daily Mail, Daily Express and The Sun all ran similar stories to the Standard the day after, talking about the lavish party. The Observer and the Sunday Times followed on that weekend (9 August).

Vital Chelsea described a change in tone of the reporting:
“In particular there was a piece in the Daily Mirror that used the language of a Class War fanzine, slamming these idle rich from being so profligate at the same time as ordinary people, presumably workers, were having such difficulties paying their matchday tickets in this time of crisis. Bizarrely, the cost of this indulgence rose from £120,000 to £140,000 according to the Daily Mirror, which had no reporter at the scene but somehow manage to increase the budget of the party by £20,000

The Evening Standard apologised first, with a statement published on page five, 15 days after the original story. This was followed by the Daily Mail, five days later on page 11, the Sunday Times (page 4 of the sports section) and the Observer (page 26) on 30 August followed by The Sun on 31 August (page 15) and the Daily Express yesterday on page 18.

Vital Chelsea reported:
“Astonishingly, in the corrections, the actual sums of money that were splashed out for this party were revealed. The total takings for the club that night were £20,000, and apparently Salomon’s birthday party cost … £6,000.

According to the website, the Daily Mirror is yet to apologise for its article.

In some respects the case highlights advantages of self-regulation. There was no limit to newspapers freedom of expression. Although lawyers were involved, the case did not go to court or take months to resolve. There are no reports of money changing hands. But if it takes Chelsea FC 24 days to secure an apology, given their resources, influence and the access they provide newspapers, one wonders how long it would take a member of the public.

There are three particular issues, highlighted by this case, which are central to whether the PCC is part of a self-regulatory system or just a complaints body for those unwilling or unable to seek legal redress:

  • If newspapers run follow up stories without significant extra information and the first newspaper apologises, shouldn’t they all follow suit at the earliest opportunity (the next editions)?
  • The newspapers have not told readers where the original story appeared, meaning that we are unable to assess the prominence of the apology. Wouldn’t this better demonstrate the benefits of self-regulation?
  • Wouldn’t it further demonstrate the benefits of self-regulation if newspapers had a target timescale for the timing of an apology and this target was regularly monitored by the PCC?
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