Clauses Noted: 1
Publication: The Sun on Sunday
Ms Jacqueline Minor, on behalf of the European Commission's Representation to the United Kingdom, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined "Inhuman Rights", published by The Sun on Sunday on 10 February 2013, had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice.
The newspaper had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i) and had published a significant inaccuracy, but had offered sufficient action to remedy the breach.
The coverage reported on a ruling by the Court of Appeal for England and Wales that the UK's system for the provision of enhanced criminal record certificates (also known as CRB checks) was incompatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It highlighted concerns by a victim of a crime committed by Ian Huntley, prior to the murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, that the decision would lead to the weakening of the CRB check system, potentially putting children at risk from serious offenders. It was accompanied by a comment from The Sun's Justice Campaigners, which echoed these concerns about the potential impact of the Court's decision.
The focus of the complainant's concern was a sub-headline reading "Now EU could let fiends like [Huntley] prey on your children". This had inaccurately conflated the European Convention on Human Rights with the European Union and misleadingly suggested that the European Union was responsible for decisions of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales. In fact, the European Convention on Human Rights is an international agreement established by the Council of Europe (a separate entity from the European Union) which was ratified by the UK long before it joined the EU. While the article had subsequently referred to the decision having been based upon "European human rights laws", it had not clarified the roles of the various bodies concerned. The complainant provided correspondence to demonstrate that similar inaccuracies had previously been drawn to the newspaper's attention.
The complainant raised additional concerns about the accuracy of the article's presentation of the potential impact of the Court of Appeal's decision. She denied that it would allow serious offenders like Ian Huntley to hide their convictions, as the decision had been based on instances where individuals had received convictions or cautions for minor crimes; it did not cover serious offences such as Huntley's. She therefore considered that it was inaccurate for the article to suggest that the Court's ruling could prevent the disclosure of relevant information during a CRB check.
The newspaper acknowledged the inaccuracy in the sub-headline, and offered to publish a correction on page 2 (the original article had been published on page 16) noting that the Court of Appeal's decision had not concerned EU law. The newspaper also offered to incorporate the points raised into its training programme, and to send a further notice to editorial staff on the issue. It did not however consider that the error had been significantly misleading, as the article had clearly related to an Appeal Court decision. The newspaper was entitled to comment on the potential impact of court judgments, and it was not misleading to report such concerns.
It is an important role of newspapers and magazines to publicise and analyse judicial rulings, but this public interest is served only insofar as such reports inform rather than mislead. While a headline, by its nature, can only ever summarise, it was inaccurate for the subheadline of the article to have attributed to the European Union responsibility for a decision by a domestic court based on the European Convention on Human Rights. The newspaper did not dispute that it had been made aware of similar errors on other occasions. This was a clear failure to take appropriate care over the accuracy of the coverage and a breach of the Editors' Code, which was particularly significant at a time when the roles of both the EU and the Convention were a matter of major public debate.
The newspaper was required under the terms of Clause 1 (ii) to correct the inaccuracy promptly and with due prominence, and it had offered to do so in terms that - in the view of the PCC - constituted a sufficient remedy to the initial breach. Nonetheless, the PCC noted that future repetition of the inaccuracy would be a matter of particular concern. It welcomed the newspaper's proposals to alert its staff to the issue and incorporate it into its training programme and trusted that these would be implemented at the earliest opportunity.
The remaining issue was the complaint about the article's interpretation of the impact of the judgment. It was clearly legitimate for the newspaper to present its view, and the view of others, that the decision might have dangerous consequences for public safety, so long as it did so in a manner that complied with the terms of the Code. Clause 1 (iii) requires that comment, conjecture and fact should be distinguished clearly. While the PCC noted the complainant's contrary position, in its view the possible implications for CRB checks - and the relevance of the Huntley case - had been appropriately presented as speculation based on the terms of the judgment in this instance. There was no further breach of the Code on this point.
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