Press Complaints Commission – is there any point?

A few days ago over on the CLEAR website, Peter Reynolds lamented the fact that all of his complaints about press reporting of cannabis have been dismissed by the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

I don’t think I’m being a sore loser here but it seems to me that the PCC’s objective, actually, is to find an excuse for publishers to say whatever they want.  It is absurd that not one complaint has been upheld amidst an avalanche of  deceptions and inaccuracies about cannabis.   I think the PCC would have been wiser to concede on even a few.  As it is, their true intention is revealed.

Co-incidentally shortly after he wrote that entry, I heard from the PCC regarding my complaint recently about a story in the Scottish Sun – you can see the blog I wrote at the time and as a result of that blog, I decided to make a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission PCC. I posted the full text in the comment section there – it and the reply are reproduced at that end of this blog.

Essentially my complaint concerned a story they ran which painted the opinion of Prof Neil McKeganey – a well known prohibition supporter – and the rather less well known (to me) Tory justice spokesman John Lamont as views typical of drug experts and politicians.  The nub of my complaint was that:

The paper stated that “experts and politicians have branded the brochure “perverse””, giving the false impression that a number of experts and politicians have made that judgement. In fact, only one expert – Prof Neil McKeganey and one politician – John Lamont – have made critical comments to that effect.

Now to my mind this is a serious misrepresentation of the situation. Prof McKeganey is well known for his extreme and somewhat eccentric views on drugs policy and it is simply wrong to describe these views as in any way representative of drugs professionals.  I wrote:

What was reported in the Scottish Sun was no more than Neil McKeganey’s opinion, it was not fact.

The PCC responded

The Commission acknowledged the complainant’s concern that the reference to experts and politicians hostile to the leaflet was plural, yet the newspaper only reported the comments of one expert and one politician. There appeared to be an element of imprecision in this aspect of the reporting, which caused the Commission some concern.  However, given that the newspaper did quote a politician and expert who were indeed criticising the leaflet, the Commission did not consider that readers would be significantly misled by the reference in such a way as to warrant correction under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code.

An “element of imprecision” indeed, and a deliberate one at that, it would seem a blatant attempt to mislead frankly.

I went on:

Secondly the comment from MP John Lamont to the effect that “A lot of drug addicts who use heroin start off on cannabis” has no basis in fact. Indeed very few if any heroin addicts used cannabis as their first drug, the vast majority used tobacco or alcohol before any prohibited drug. This contribution was therefore also no more than opinion and was totally irrelevant to the story.

Now remember, this politician was being quoted as an authoritative voice, one who’s opinions reflect the current government’s policy. The PCC responded

The complainant was concerned that the opinions of the two individuals quoted in the article had been presented as fact. The Commission noted that the comments made by Professor Neil McKeganey and John Lamont were clearly presented as direct quotes and, as such, the Commission was satisfied that readers would be aware that the comments reflected their views rather than necessarily amounting to statements of fact. As such, the Commission was satisfied that comment had been clearly distinguished from fact and, as such, there was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.

I also made the point that

No counter opinion was published in order to balance these claims, the article is therefore biased.

This point was not addressed by the PCC.

I do wonder what use the PCC actually is if it allows “news” papers like the Scottish Sun to write deliberately misleading trash like this? To quote someone they portray as authoritative and then to use a quote which is so clearly no more than ill-informed and groundless opinion without offering any counter opinion whatsoever is outrageous. The thing is papers like the Sun might read as if they’re written by people with a low IQ, but of course they aren’t; they know exactly how far they can distort a news story while staying on the right side of what little regulation there is.

The Press Complaints Commission a toothless watchdog and as such is effectively is on the side of the media, not the readers. Hands up everyone who’s surprised?

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My complaint in full and the PCC answer:

Sent to complaints@pcc.org.uk

The Scottish Sun: Fury over guide to cannabis
By TIM BUGLER
Published: 30 May 2011

I wish to make a complaint concerning the article which is available online at: http://www.thescottishsun.co.uk/scotsol/homepage/news/3607882/Fury-over-guide-to-cannabis.html
I am making the complaint on my own account but also in my capacity as the webmaster of https://www.ukcia.org, a cannabis law reform website.

1. This article breaches the Editors’ Code Of Practice clause 1.i) in that it publishes inaccurate, misleading and distorted information.
2. It also breaches clause 1.iii) in that it fails to distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
3. The article is presented as a news story, not an opinion piece. It should therefore be concerned only with facts – unless comment or conjecture is clearly distinguished.

The article refers to the leaflet issued by NHS Scotland entitled “Fags ‘n’ hash” (http://www.healthscotland.com/uploads/documents/15715-FagsNHash.pdf) – a leaflet designed to communicate a health message to cannabis users concerning the risk of smoking cannabis mixed with tobacco. In fact this is leaflet is some 7 years old (issued in 2005) and has simply been updated to reflect the reclassification of cannabis to class B, the actual information it contains about cannabis and tobacco is unchanged.

The paper stated that “experts and politicians have branded the brochure “perverse””, giving the false impression that a number of experts and politicians have made that judgement. In fact, only one expert – Prof Neil McKeganey and one politician – John Lamont – have made critical comments to that effect.

Neil McKeganey is a prohibition campaigner well known for his extreme views, which have on occasion flown in the face of his academic studies. An example of that would be his enthusiastic support for drug law enforcement despite producing a report which demonstrated that only 1% of heroin imported into Scotland is actually seized (http://files.stv.tv/pdf/heroin-seizure.pdf). His personal views are therefore difficult to rationalise and cannot be taken to reflect the majority of opinion of experts in the field.

Neil McKeganey claimed “The leaflet conveys a far too positive image of cannabis.”, whereas in fact the opposite is true; the leaflet making several exaggerated claims of harm from cannabis use such as an increased risk of lung diseases. The leaflet also gave great prominence to the legal position of cannabis.

What was reported in the Scottish Sun was no more than Neil McKeganey’s opinion, it was not fact.

Secondly the comment from MP John Lamont to the effect that “A lot of drug addicts who use heroin start off on cannabis” has no basis in fact. Indeed very few if any heroin addicts used cannabis as their first drug, the vast majority used tobacco or alcohol before any prohibited drug. This contribution was therefore also no more than opinion and was totally irrelevant to the story.
No counter opinion was published in order to balance these claims, the article is therefore biased.

This story was a classic example of opinion presented as fact and thus is the basis of my complaint. This is a serious social issue which should not be misrepresented in this way.
I look forward to your response.

Derek Williams

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Commission’s decision in the case of Williams v Scottish Sun

The complainant was concerned that the newspaper failed to distinguish the opinions of Professor Neil McKeganey and John Lamont MP from fact. He was further concerned that the article incorrectly implied that further experts and politicians had criticised the leaflet.

Under the terms of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code, newspapers must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. The Commission noted that the article did not claim that the leaflet “Fags ‘n’ Hash” was a new publication and, as such, it could not establish a breach of Clause 1 on this point.

The Commission acknowledged the complainant’s concern that the reference to experts and politicians hostile to the leaflet was plural, yet the newspaper only reported the comments of one expert and one politician. There appeared to be an element of imprecision in this aspect of the reporting, which caused the Commission some concern. However, given that the newspaper did quote a politician and expert who were indeed criticising the leaflet, the Commission did not consider that readers would be significantly misled by the reference in such a way as to warrant correction under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code.

The complainant was concerned that the opinions of the two individuals quoted in the article had been presented as fact. The Commission noted that the comments made by Professor Neil McKeganey and John Lamont were clearly presented as direct quotes and, as such, the Commission was satisfied that readers would be aware that the comments reflected their views rather than necessarily amounting to statements of fact. As such, the Commission was satisfied that comment had been clearly distinguished from fact and, as such, there was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.

Reference No. 112471

Elizabeth Cobbe

Complaints Officer
Press Complaints Commission

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