The PCC: Blatant lies in headlines are just fine!

Given current events, I thought it might be interesting to dump details of a complaint I made to the PCC. It was a complaint about a Daily Mail article on a short report by  EU MEP Dieter-Lebrecht Koch on road safety, which the Daily Mail ran a blatantly misleading headline on. When I complained to the PCC, I was amazed when they came back with a decision which you could paraphrase as “Blatant lies in headline are fine, as long as the article overall is more balanced & accurate“, despite the PCC Code of Practice requiring accuracy! Which goes to show how well self-regulation works!

The report concerned had a number of proposals on possible improvements, and motions for action. As the EP (European Parliament) does not have the power to introduce directives, the EP can only suggest that the Commission  should propose to introduce such legislation/directives, for only the Commission (which is appointed by the member states) has such power. Which is what the motion attached to the report asked for, which was approved by the EP.

The Daily Mail article ran with the headline of “Now EU wants to set our speed limits: Brussels plan to enforce 20mph zones and replace Highway Code with European laws“, and a lead-in paragraph as follows:

European Union plans to enforce a mandatory 20mph speed limit in residential zones and replace the Highway Code with European law has sparked outrage from British politicians.

This is clearly bollocks. The EP has no such power. Even if the EP had such power, the motion approved does not call for mandatory limits but “Strongly recommends the responsible authorities to introduce“. As for replacing the highway code, this seems to be a strange perversion of the report’s call to urge EU states to further harmonise various aspects of their road traffic laws. The head-line and lead-in (which the front-page summary was similar to, as I recall) are plainly misleading, and utterly false on at least one count.

The Daily Mail, like many newspapers, is a member of the Press Complaints Commission, which self-regulates the industry. Their Code of Practice has, as its first clause:

1 Accuracy
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. In cases involving the Commission, prominence should be agreed with the PCC in advance.

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

iv) 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.

So I complained to the PCC:

This article blatantly breaches the “Accuracy” requirement of
the Code of Practice, with its headline and lead-in of :

“European Union plans to enforce a mandatory 20mph speed limit in
residential zones a nd replace the Highway Code with European law has
sparked outrage from British politicians.”

As

1. The EU is not a monolithic entity, but composed of a number of different
entities which represent different interests. The article is actually about
a report from the European Parliament.

2. The claim that the EU plans to enforce limits and replace the Highway
Code is utterly inaccurate and is a misleading distortion of the facts: that
the EP has *endorsed* a report which makes *recommendations* on how
authorities around Europe could improve safety on our roads.

Relevant Clauses : The headline and lead-in breach section 1, clauses i and iii of
the code, by publishing inaccurate information, and by presenting a quite
distorted abstract of the facts to fit the Daily Mail’s anti-EU editorial
stance.

Their decision came back after about a month:

Commission’s decision in the case of

Jakma v Daily Mail

The complainant considered that the headline and opening sentence were
misleading, as the EU could not enforce speed limits or replace the
Highway Code.

The Commission made clear that it considers headlines in the context of
the article as a whole rather than as a standalone statement. This is
due to their brevity – they can represent only a limited summary of a
more complex set of circumstances. The Commission understood the
concerns raised by the complainant; however, it noted that the body of
the article made the situation clear – namely that a list of
recommendations had been made in a report to the European Parliament on
the improvement of road safety across Europe, which had been endorsed by
a number of MEPs. It made clear that this did not equate to legislation
and it was unlikely that it would do so in future. The Commission did
not consider that the headline was a significantly inaccurate summary of
the situation given that a report including recommendations on Europe
wide safety measures had been endorsed by the European Parliament, the
parliamentary institution of the European Union. Furthermore, when the
headline was read in conjunction with the body of the article, readers
would not be misled as to the situation. In the circumstances, the
Commission could not establish a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the
Code.

Reference No. 114462

In short, because the Daily Mail were more honest about the facts later in the story, it doesn’t matter how much they blatantly lied in their headline and lead-in (which is all some readers will have read)!

(TabloidWatch have some other examples of shamefully inaccurate EU reporting, by The Express – no doubt their stories were also still PCC Code of Practice compliant.)

1 Comment »

  1. [...] can be done about misleading headlines in the English press? Well, there’s no point complaining to the PCC, who told this blogger: The Commission made clear that it considers headlines in the context of the [...]

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