Q & A: Stephen Abell

Talking with the director of the U.K.’s Press Complaints Commission

In late December, British tabloid The Sun published a correction to a sensational story it had writ large on the front page:

Further to our article about increased security at Coronation Street’s studios for their live 50th anniversary episode … we would like to make clear that while cast and crew were subject to full body searches, there was no specific threat from Al-Qaeda as we reported. We apologise for the misunderstanding and are happy to set the record straight.

That correction was the result of the Press Complaints Commission, the body that administers and enforces press self-regulation in the U.K. (In North America, we call similar organizations press councils.)

Like the news organizations it regulates, the PCC is working to evolve and update itself for the new world of news and information. It’s on Twitter, and is in the process of determining the role it can play in enforcing the Editors’ Code of Practice on websites and in social media. The Code was also recently updated to enable the PCC to play a bigger role in determining where publications place corrections and apologies that result from PCC findings.

I recently spoke with PCC director Stephen Abell to discuss the way the organization oversees corrections and apologies, and to learn how it plans to adapt its procedures for the online world.

If I understand it correctly, it seems that the organization is taking a larger role in terms of the wording and placement of apologies and corrections.

I think that’s been a process over last three or four years. I think what’s happened, and why you’re interested, is that it’s been codified. The Editors’ Code of Practice committee—which is a group of editors who write the code, which is then handed over to the PCC, which then enforces it—have changed the code to make it clear that if the complaint is made through the PCC, then the prominence of that apology or correction has to be agreed upon by the PCC. In practice that was happening anyway, because when someone makes a complaint of inaccuracy, we seek to resolve the complainant to their satisfaction … The complainant has a large say, and always has, but it has never been codified.

What are some of the guiding principles that you use for that? Is it a case of, well, it was a front page error so the correction needs to be on the front page. How do you decide that?

The code refers to “due prominence,” so you have to take that into account in where the error appears, along with the significance of error in terms of the article—how much of the article is wrong? [We also consider] what took place behind the publication of the article, what steps have been taken to try and avoid mistakes, and the severity of the breach of the code has to be taken into account as well. All of those things have to be added up together, plus the wishes of the complainant.

What do they usually request? I’m always curious to hear from people who are not in the press. Do they usually ask for front page for corrections?

It really depends. Some people—and this not that often—they want it corrected on the record but they don’t want a big show of it, because, to a certain extent, some corrections bring back the story again even if it’s been corrected… But more often, what they want is a sort of appropriate level of prominence.

Generally speaking, in about 85 percent of cases it either goes on same page or an earlier page or in the corrections column. That’s the standard we’ve reached over the last three or four years. It’s an area we are trying to push forward because if papers are going to get things wrong, which they do, it actually does them credit in the end if they correct things or apologize. There is an argument that papers will have greater credibility if they actually own up to their mistakes.

There was a study done in the United States—it’s over a decade old now—that found that newspaper readers who saw corrections on a regular basis actually felt better about their paper than readers who didn’t see corrections on a regular basis. Because they saw there was some kind of accountability measure in place.

I think that’s true. One of the things we’re pushing for this year [is for] newspapers to be more visible about their adherence to the Code and the existence of the PCC. It’s for the same reason that if you tell your readers there is a system by which editors can be held accountable, ultimately they may feel more comfortable they can trust in the product they are reading.

In terms of online, we are working on getting some kind of online mark so the paper can say, “We adhere to the code of practice, which is enforced by the PCC.” In a world where everything is on the Internet and there is this fast, sort of horizontal dissemination of information coming from everywhere, this voluntary acceptance of a third party examining your work will be seen as a benefit, and a way of developing trust with readers.

How has the growth of online changed things? When you negotiate a correction or apology, there’s the print aspect, but what about online? Do you get involved in that?

The PCC last year set up an online working group in one of its commissions to constantly be looking at online issues, and one area they are looking at and considering the issue of guidance on is online prominence. Because if you have an issue where something appeared on page nine in the paper, there is a strong argument that the correction should appear on page nine. With online, all sorts of things come into play. Should you link to the original article? Should you remove the article? Should it be stand-alone? Should it be on the home page? What if the URL has the inaccuracy in it? Should that be amended?

We’re looking towards issuing some type of guidance on that to say, “Here are the facts.” It’s not as quite straightforward because people access papers in different ways online … It’s an area we will all become more expert in as the years go by, but for now we want to make sure these factors are considered at the point of negotiation.

At this point it’s kind of scattershot, isn’t it? I see a lot of U.K. newspapers that will completely remove the offending article and replace it, or replace the article with an apology but keep the URL as the old URL.

Yes, and you’ve got to respect the wishes of the complainant. They are sometimes reluctant to remove [offending articles] entirely … and if the article is particularly intrusive then often the remedy they are seeking is removal from the website. What we do at the PCC is on our website we publish all of the resolved cases, making clear what actually has happened. That is another way of getting it into public domain that action was taken.

In a recent post from Roy Greenslade of The Guardian, he wrote that there is “new-found determination [at the PCC] to publicize its work.” Is that true?

I don’t know if it’s entirely newfound. But we are certainly emphasizing it more. We have 1,500 followers on Twitter and I like the idea that people can be updated with the work that we’ve done. We did some focus groups recently and people tend to be reassured if they know an organization exists and is doing these things …

We have a responsibility to make people aware of the system, and that we are there to help them. The basic function of the PCC is to be a public service, so they need to know about us to use it more effectively. So we are conscious of the need to push ourselves out there, and Twitter is a good way of doing that.

Going back to online, you have a commission looking at the issue; is there an expectation they will come out with recommendations or guidelines?

I don’t want to prejudge what they’re doing, but the likelihood is they will be looking at giving guidance on online prominence. I think the other area they are looking at is Twitter—journalistic content on Twitter, not stuff from journalists who tweet as anyone can tweet; but branded, designated Twitter accounts where newspapers are putting up content and links to content. Does that become a regulatory issue for the PCC? People do have an expectation that if something is tweeted to 100,000 people that turns out to be wrong … that should be dealt with on that Twitter account as well as in the paper.

Anything else you want to highlight for me?

We have this view of proactivity that when see people in the news who might need the PCC when they are the center of a major news story and may need the PCC, we contact them. We see if they need our help…

So if they’re being dragged through the mud, you will reach out?

If someone is subject to a lot of press attention—particularly in areas of grief or major incidents—we reach out and say, “You might not need us and everything may be fine, but if you do, here are our mobile phone numbers, and you can call someone twenty-four hours a day.”

That’s really on news stories we see developing. We’re trying to find ways to get more people to come to us. It’s really important because the more people we can get to use the PCC, the better the system works in the end.

Correction of the Week

“In a story Jan. 18 about changes at the Playboy television channel, The Associated Press reported erroneously about an upcoming show titled ‘Sex Dream Makeover.’ The show’s title is ‘Sextreme Makeover.’” - Associated Press

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Craig Silverman is the editor of RegretTheError.com and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of OpenFile.ca and a columnist for the Toronto Star. Tags: , , , , ,