While it is nice to see the Times apologize for its mistakes, this still did does not explain exactly what the hell happened in its newsroom. I sent Bob Tyrer, the paper’s ombudsman, an e-mail asking why the Times had deleted a comment Lewis posted on Leake’s story criticizing the article; why it failed to run a letter to the editor that Lewis wrote expressing the same frustrations; and why Leake’s story was re-written at the last minute to include points that the paper knew to be patently false.
“These complaints were resolved through the PCC, resulting in the correction that we published on June 20 and the removal of the article from our website,” Tyrer wrote in an e-mail. “The contents of the correction were approved by all three complainants. It would be inappropriate to reopen this matter by making any further comment.”
Not that there ever was an appropriate time, of course. Back in February, when I asked Tyrer about Sell’s complaints about the aggressive-blondes article, he replied, “The PCC has quasi-judicial status in the UK, and anything pertinent that disputants say may become evidence. In the circumstances, with great respect to you and the Columbia Journalism Review, I have to confine myself to answering only the questions that the PCC may put to The Sunday Times.” In other words, in Tyrer’s opinion, discussing mistakes is inappropriate before, during, and after a PCC inquiry.
Obviously, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for transparency (something you’d expect a newsroom would value), so I tried a more general approach with Tyrer, asking why the Times did not react more quickly in terms of publishing a correction, for which there seemed to be ample evidence; whether or not it is common practice to let such grievances go to the PCC before taking action; whether or not two full story retractions in half a year seemed like a lot to him or indicated an editorial problem at the Times; and, finally, what Times was doing to address the errors in-house and ensure that similar mistakes don’t happen again. Tyer’s disappointing (if not negligent) reply: “I have nothing to add.”
Thankfully, a spokesperson for the PCC (who asked not be named since complaints officers don’t usually comment in an individual capacity) was more candid. Asked whether the Times had acted quickly enough to correct its work and whether or not two full retractions was unusual, the source replied:
As a complaints officer, I deal with those complaints which come across my desk, so I do not necessarily see a representative sample of all complaints received. In general, though, I would not say I have seen evidence of any established problem with the reporting of science in The Sunday Times (possibly it reports more scientific issues than some other newspapers, which might lead to a proportionately larger number of complaints?) – this strikes me as most likely a simple instance of two similar cases happening to occur within a short time period.
We do expect newspapers to engage directly with complaints they receive, but it is precisely in order to deal with situations where complainants are not satisfied with a newspaper’s response that the PCC exists.
In terms of how we deal with complaints, it is a central tenet of the Editor’s Code of Practice that newspapers have the right to take polemical and partisan positions on all issues of public debate, including scientific issues, so long as they distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. Where it is clear that the newspaper’s account of the facts of the matter was inaccurate, we would, of course, expect the newspaper to correct it as soon as possible.
However, there can often be a genuine clash of perspective between scientist and journalist as to what constitutes the facts of the science and what constitutes interpretation of them; or, there can be misunderstanding between the scientist and the journalist as to what angle and tone the final article is likely to take. Any such divergence can, of course, be increased by the subsequent input of editors and sub-editors.