The Sun’s ‘Queen Backs Brexit’ splash – issues for IPSO

A QUICK post on the dispute that has been thrown up by The Sun’s sensational splash claiming that the Queen support ‘Brexit’.

brexitsunsplash

The Palace has complained over the story to IPSO on the grounds of accuracy.

A reminder of what Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice actually says:

1.   Accuracy

i)  The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or  images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii)  A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii)   A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv)  The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

v)    A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.

I suspect that when IPSO considers this – assuming of course that no agreed remedial action has taken place -it will not boil down to a straight dispute with the Queen’s representatives denying she ever said such a thing and The Sun saying they stand by their sources.

I think that the crux of the matter will be the accuracy, or otherwise, of the headline.

If you read The Sun’s story it might be suggested by the Palace that it does not support the ‘Queen Backs Brexit’ headline. While it may suggest she holds Eurosceptic views which she has voiced in the two meetings mentioned in the story, this does not,in the Palace’s view, amount to ‘backing Brexit’.

It is to my knowledge, the first such complaint by the Palace on behalf of the Queen herself – though complaints have been made in the past on behalf of more junior Royals.

The Sun has robustly defended its story in the past couple of days, saying they had ‘other information’ that meant they were confident the story was accurate. If that information was from a confidential source that could not be mentioned in the story itself it might be enough to defend the story itself, but I am still not sure it shores up that headline.

Of course The Sun will got for the strongest headline possible – Queen expresses Eurosceptic views in meeting with MPs’ is not going to see it flying off the newsstands is it?

It will be a very interesting case to watch when it comes to IPSO for adjudication.

Finally, briefly, can we put to bed any suggestion that The Sun should not have run this story?

Some may think it was wrong for such information to be leaked, but any misdeed is on the part of those leaking the information, not The Sun in publishing it.

The Sun is a newspaper, and a very good one at that, and this is a very big story. If it is confident the story is right then of course it should publish it.

The big question is whether it will get away with that headline.

 

 

 

The continuing threat of contempt

THE publisher of GQ magazine was recently fined £10,000 in a case that reminds us contempt of court remains a serious legal threat to journalists.

GQ was found guilty of contempt last year after they published an article by US journalist Michael Wolff during the phone hacking trial of Rebekah Brooks.

Last month they were fined £10,000 for the offence, which is pretty low for contempt fines – courts have unlimited powers of fine for contempt. Those of us with long memories know The Sun set the record when it was fined £80,000 for contempt and it’s then editor Kelvin McKenzie was personally fined £20,000 (and that was in the ’90s, so allowing for inflation that would be an even more savage fine today.

The GQ article was a piece of commentary, and it was run in the magazine during the trial itself. It also included certain information that the jury had not been told about during the trial.

The contempt proceedings are reported by the Guardian here, and last week’s hearing to set the fine can be found here.

Some points about the case worth noting:

Firstly, journalists will often point out that jurors are warned not to do Internet research about a case and so any juror finding the material must have ignored that warning. That sounds logical on the face of it, but in practice that is not how things work.

This was a contemporaneous report, not something sitting in GQ’s online archive that a juror had to unearth. It was published during the trial and was trailed in the front page of the magazine.

Jurors are warned not to do research, but they are not told to avoid the daily reporting of proceedings. Fair, accurate reports of the day’s evidence are not a contempt risk, so long as they stick to what the jurors have heard or seen in court that day. The GQ article went beyond that and included information the jury had not heard as well as suggesting Rebekah Brooks was a disreputable woman.

Any commentary attacking the character of a defendant during trial is a real risk of contempt, unless, of course, it was given in evidence during the trial and so would have been heard by the jury.

Secondly, even if the material was published before trial and unearthed by a juror ignoring the judge’s warning, the publisher could still be prosecuted. The Attorney General and the courts take the view that the publisher is wrong for putting it there and the juror is wrong for looking for it, so both could be prosecuted.

Finally, it illustrates the perils of ‘comment’ journalism, which is very popular at the moment. In many areas it is completely risk-free, but running commentary on a live court case that is being tried by a jury is fraught with danger.

This threat to fair trials posed by prejudicial online material is one of the reasons we have seen an increase in the number of contempt prosecutions in recent years. The last Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC warned when he took office that the so-called fade factor, the idea that prejudicial material published at the time of a crime was safe because it would have faded from a juror’s memory by the time of trial, no longer held true in these days of searchable online publication.

The current Attorney General, Peter Wright QC, does not seem to share quite the same enthusiasm for prosecution as his predecessor, but the GQ case should serve as a warning to editors that he is prepared to prosecute where publications overstep the mark

GQ were able to point to mitigating factors which helped reduce their fine. They had taken legal advice over the article, so it was not a case of them being reckless about contempt, even though they made the wrong call on the day. They withdrew thousands of magazines from circulation and pulped them when the legal problems with the article became clear. They also paid the AG’s prosecution costs of £50,000.

If you want to avoid contempt of court, you could start by reading my post on doing just that. It remains by far and away the most-read post on this site, which perhaps shows how worried journalists are about it (although in reality libel is much more frequent and potentially more expensive).

In the long run though, I wonder how long contempt can try to hold back the tide of prejudicial publication in high profile trials. You only have to take a brief look (though definitely not if you are a juror in the case) at some of the social media postings about the trial of Adam Johnson to see that the law is struggling here.

You might argue that no rational juror would take any notice of social media blowhards with minimal followings. But some of the people commenting are well-known themselves and clearly know nothing of this area of law (and why should they) or else do not think it applies to social media.

They are wrong, but it will take a prosecution to hammer home that message. If the Attorney General is prepared to prosecute a newspaper with 50,000 readers, how can he justify not prosecuting someone with a million Twitter followers?

On departing as an External Examiner

For the past four years I have served as an external examiner at Cardiff University’s Journalism School. I have looked after the law and public admin parts of the MA and postgrad diploma there.

The postgrad diploma is the course I started at Cardiff 27 years ago, which launched me into a career in journalism, after a law degree failed to convince me that the law was for me (though what goes around comes around and the law dragged me back in the end)

It was a magical year for me, I met some fellow students who would go on to be brilliant journalists, and discovered that I might just scratch a living by writing myself. Cardiff remains a beacon of great journalism training.

For the last exam board I added a few departing comments, and for what they are worth, here they are.

“This is my last year as external examiner for my old journalism school and it has been a huge pleasure coming back and seeing that the place, though in a different building, remains the excellent school it was when I attended back in 1987-88.

As ever, journalism looks like it is facing a crisis, assailed by plunging print circulations, combined with the mystery of how anyone can profit from digital.

Add to that that the phone-hacking scandal, the Leveson Inquiry and the trials which we have seen concluded only last week and an outsider would be forgiven for wondering why anyone would want to enter an industry so clearly doomed.

And yet, I am sure, as in my day, places on the Cardiff course remain at a premium. I still meet alumni from years before mine and after, and I am invariably impressed with their achievements after they left Cardiff.

Despite its current troubles, great journalism will continue to thrive, on many platforms, wherever people are interested in stories – so that means everywhere. I have no doubt that at the forefront of that will be the journalism produced by Cardiff graduates.

Thank you for having me as an external. My best wishes to the staff there and all your students for the future.”

Phonehacking Trial Day 3

THE livetweeting of today’s proceedings conveyed the drama of events at the Old Bailey as three of the defendants all entered guilty pleas.

You can Guardian coverage here.

Daily Mail here.

The Independent here.

The Daily Mirror here.

Daily Telegraph here.

Hacked Off’s take on it here.

That’s it for now, update later tonight if any more copy catches my eye, feel free to tip me off to anything you think particularly well done. If Times or Sun staff want to lob me a link over their paywall, I’ll be happy to include it here.

UPDATE

Link to coverage by The Drum’s James Doleman here.

Phone Hacking Trial, Day 2

EARLY post, so not all the papers are carrying their coverage yet. I will update later if they file tonight.

Day 2 was slow again and dominated by jury selection it seems, but the Mr Justice Saunders got things under way before the end of the afternoon and it was events outside court, or rather a Private Eye cover that was centre of attention.

Reported in The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Drum, and at Hacked Off.

All went for the judge’s extensive warning to the jury not to be swayed by outside coverage. not to go Googling or looking on Twitter or Facebook for items about the trial or its background.

The Attorney General’s office announced in the afternoon it would not be pursuing Private Eye for contempt. No real surprise, it was miles away from being in contempt and the judge’s remarks were a relatively mild admonition to ignore it. If he had been gravely concerned by it, Ian Hislop would have been ordered to court tomorrow to explain himself, which many a judge has done in the past to errant editors.

Still, it livened up Day 2. Prosecution opening tomorrow, which we’re told can be live tweeted.

Update, here’s coverage from The Independent, The Mirror and the Daily Express

It particularly love the line by Mr Justice Saunders warning jurors away from blogs written by politicians and actors on subjects ‘they know very little about.’ Who can he mean?