One of the things that has always struck me about the Press Complaints Commission is that it rarely seems able to punish newspapers even when they make serious errors – or worse they are caught out deliberately lying. Very often this means that the only way a member of the public can feel like any kind of justice has been achieved – or to even get any compensation for any distress they may have suffered at the hands of a newspaper – they must go through the expense of hiring lawyers.
Take this example from the PCC website posted on the 7 July this year:
Adjudication – Hampshire Constabulary v Aldershot News & Mail
Hampshire Constabulary complained to the Press Complaints Commission on behalf of two women that an article published in the Aldershot News & Mail in August 2010 identified them as victims of sexual assault in breach of Clause 11 (Victims of sexual assault) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
The complaint was upheld.
The PCC in their adjudication noted, in very strong terms:
This was a truly shocking case in which two alleged victims of sexual crimes had been identified by name. There was simply no justification for naming them – as the newspaper itself had recognised – and the women, who were in a clearly vulnerable position, should have been protected as the Code required. The newspaper’s mistake was an appalling one, and the Commission had no hesitation in upholding the complaint.
So, what would the punishment be? Well, here is what the PCC did:
Given the exceedingly serious nature of this case, and the catastrophic failure of the editorial process, the Commission agreed to refer the terms of its adjudication to the Chief Executive of Trinity Mirror, the owner of the Aldershot News & Mail, so that action could be taken to prevent this ever happening in the future. It requested that the response be referred back to the Commission.
They contacted the owners so that they could ensure it never happened again. All well and good you might think, but imagine of this kind of adjudication happened in any other walk of life. Would the tabloids be happy if a teenager found guilty of doing something ‘exceedingly serious’ was not punished in any way, instead the judge just passed on his thoughts to the parents in the hope that they could take the appropriate action?
What if the Chief Executive of Trinity Mirror doesn’t do anything? What would the PCC do in that case? What could they do in that case?
In reporting cases like this every single journalist, editor, sub-editor and so forth should have it drummed into them that they can never, ever reveal the identify of victims or alleged victims of sexual assault. Yes, mistakes do happen, but they cannot be undone and anonymity cannot be returned to these two women and therefore some sort of statutory punishment must be handed down to newspapers as a start reminders to others.
Just imagine the outrage of our spiteful, tawdry and hateful press if any other form of regulation was as woolly, powerless or self-serving as theirs.