Leveson – “clear evidence of misreporting on European issues”
By Conor Brennan
For those interested in the European debate, Volume 2, pages 687 and 688 of the Leveson Report make for interesting reading. Lord Justice Leveson said, “there is certainly clear evidence of misreporting on European issues.” On a story in the Daily Mail reporting an apparent EU ban on plastic bags, he commented that it “was based on a deliberate or careless misinterpretation of EU proposals…” (9.54 below)
On misreporting of EU issues in the press he said, “the cumulative impact can have serious consequences. Mr Blair explained that the misinformation published about Europe by some parts of the press made it difficult for him to adopt particular policies or achieve certain political ends in Europe that he might otherwise have done.” (9.55 below)
9.53 Articles relating to the European Union, and Britain’s role within it, accounted for a further category of story where parts of the press appeared to prioritise the title’s agenda over factual accuracy. On Europe, Mr Campbell said:
“Several of our national daily titIes – The Sun, The Express, The Star, The Mail, The Telegraph in particular- are broadly anti-European. At various times, readers of these and other newspapers may have read that ’Europe’ or ’Brussels” or ’the EU superstate’ has banned, or is intending to ban kilts, curries, mushy peas, paper rounds, Caerphilly cheese, charity shops, bulldogs, bent sausages and cucumbers, the British Army, lollipop ladies, British loaves, British made lavatories, the passport crest, lorry drivers who wear glasses, and many more. In addition, if the Eurosceptic press is to be believed, Britain is going to-be, forced to unite as a single country with France, Church schools are being forced to hire atheist teachers, Scotch whisky is being-classified as an inflammable liquid, British soldiers must take orders in French, the price of chips is being raised by Brussels, Europe is insisting on one size fits all condoms, new laws are being proposed on how to climb, a ladder, it will be a criminal offence to criticise Europe, Number 10 must fly the European flag, and finally, Europe is brainwashing our children with pro-European propaganda! Of the UK press and the European institutions – I speak as something of a Eurosceptic by Blairite standards – it is clear who does more brainwashing. Some of the examples, may appear trivial, comic even. But there is a serious point: that once some of our newspapers decide to campaign on a certain issue, they do so with scant regard for fact. These stories are written by reporters, rewritten by subs, and edited by editors who frankly must know them to be untrue. This goes beyond the fusion of news and comment, to the area of invention.”
9.54 Although Mr Campbell’s evidence may have been exaggerated for effect, there is certainly clear evidence of misreporting on European issues. Mr Campbell drew attention to a Daily Mail story claiming that “the EU” was going to ban grocers from selling eggs by the dozen, followed by a story that there had been a U-turn and the ban would no longer take place. The reality is that there had never been a ban proposed and the original story was based on a deliberate or careless misinterpretation of EU proposals.
Full Fact drew attention to a number of further ‘anti-EU’ stories which misrepresented facts, including a Daily Express report on EU plans to ‘ban’ plastic shopping bags, when the reality was that a consultation had been launched to explore a variety of options, including a potential ban, for reducing waste from plastic bags.
9.55 The factual errors in the examples above are, in certain respects, trivial. But the cumulative impact can have serious consequences. Mr Blair explained that the misinformation published about Europe by some parts of the press made it difficult for him to adopt particular policies or achieve certain political ends in Europe that he might otherwise have done. He said:
“My distinction is between that and how you actually report the story as a piece of journalism. So if you take the issue to do with Europe, what I would say is that those papers who are Eurosceptic are perfectly entitled to be Eurosceptic. They’re perfectly entitled to highlight things in Europe that are wrong. What they shouldn’t do is, frankly, make up a whole lot of nonsense about Europe and dish that up to the readers, because that’s – I mean, how does the reader know that’s not correct?”
9.56 That, ultimately, is the foundation of the criticism made in this section: there can be no objection to agenda journalism (which necessarily involves the fusion of fact and comment), but that cannot trump a requirement to report stories accurately. Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code explicitly, and in my view rightly, recognises the right of a free press to be partisan; strong, even very strong, opinions can legitimately influence the choice of story, placement of story and angle from which a story is reported. But that must not lead to fabrication, or deliberate or careless misrepresentation of facts. Particularly in the context of reporting on issues of political interest, the press have a responsibility to ensure that the public are accurately informed so that they can engage in the democratic process. The evidence of inaccurate and misleading reporting on political issues is therefore of concern. The previous approach of the PCC to entertaining complaints only where they came from an affected individual may have allowed a degree of impunity in this area: in the context of misleading reporting on political issues, representative bodies are likely to be far better placed to monitor, and complain about, inaccuracies.