A local paper caused outrage when it reported the suicide of a former mayor, complete with unsavoury details about the very personal health issues that drove her to it.
It was entitled to report every word because the facts were given in evidence at a coroner’s court; one the press have every legal right and, many would say, duty, to attend.
But it was not friends or family who complained to the newspaper watchdog. It was the former mayor herself. She cited a breach of the Editor’s Code: accuracy. She was not, she insisted, actually dead.
The paper, the Hertfordshire-based Hemel Today, had covered the inquest of someone else with the same name, giving the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso) one of its more bizarre cases.
There’s a reason I mention this. During an ethics lecture I gave to sixth-formers on media careers, a surprising number questioned why a paper would include such details — or even name her Ladyship at all — long before I got to the punchline.
I had to explain the long-established reliance on the media to ensure all public tribunals remain exactly that — open to scrutiny.
I cannot recall the JC ever exaggerating anyone’s demise but its readers have never been slow in pointing out anything they do not like, and that does not just mean telling us when we got something wrong but the editorial line and the right to publish at all.
We have a long record of adherence to the Editors’ Code of Conduct, as currently defined by Ipso, and the Press Complaints Commission and, for those old enough to remember, the Press Council before that. Its 16 clauses act as a guide to all we do and we are bound by its rules when it comes to correcting errors, clarifying the unclear or making amends when things go wrong.
We have been quick to clarify when readers have come forward with new information, occasionally amending headlines for the sake of nuance, updating stories online when accuracy and fairness demands it — and advertising the fact that it’s been done — and recording them in print.
But we have also stood firm and robustly contested claims that challenge our exposing of wrongdoing or when we have spoken out on behalf those victimised or taken advantage of.
But a worrying trend for the press as a whole is the growing assumption that the most legitimate sources of news should be off-limits. Such as the claim brought by one reader who took exception to a report on health inspectors’ raids on a restaurant, and another who claimed that the paper was putting the boot into someone by reporting the fact that they had appeared in court.
They are rare, thankfully. In fact, many complaints do not get as far as Ipso’s investigative process or even go to its committee of experts for a formal ruling and possible censure.
Their complaints process allows for a period of negotiation between parties and, quite often, simple errors can be corrected and misunderstandings resolved quickly without the need for adjudication.
Mistakes happen for all sorts of reasons: misunderstandings, misinformation accepted from third parties in good faith, contradictions, or official databases that have not been updated.
Often, it’s not about right or wrong but interpretation. Does the shouting of abuse at a public figure amount to antisemitism if the subject just happens to be Jewish? Is it right to suggest taunting gestures by football fans were Hitler salutes?
But there’s another side to it. Such as when people swear black is white until presented with evidence that it’s not — and then change tack and complain of something else, such as intrusion.
Happily, they are quite rare, too, but they underline the need to examine all complaints with the same level of scrutiny.
The key here is how a newspaper responds. It may publish in good faith but needs to keep that faith by acting appropriately when a complaint is made. So, if you have a concern, you can either email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact Ipso on 0300 123 22 20.
Richard Burton is the JC’s former managing editor who now works as an editorial consultant and the paper’s Reader’s Editor