Apology noted. Now what?March 24, 2009
Well, for whatever reason, the Express apologised for the Dunblane story on Sunday. Here’s the link. Take a moment to read it.
This is certainly an apology, and it was advertised on the front page, which is enough like the first demand on our petition to get by. For that reason, we’re shutting it down on Saturday and handing it in next week. Matt Nida, who drafted the petition, will deliver it to Express Group Newspapers, the PCC and Downing Street so as to show the strength of feeling that this story has induced in over 10,000 people in a single week.
So, if you feel strongly about this issue and you haven’t already signed the petition, you’ve only got a few days left in which to do so.
However, before that date, we felt it important to leave a few questions hanging in the air. Over to Matt Nida:
“I think the apology is inadequate. It dodges the issue of what was wrong with the original article, fails to provide a satisfactory explanation for how this piece happened, holds nobody to account for its publication and offers no reassurance that this won’t happen again.
It opens with a deeply saccharine mission statement:
It is 81 years since the first edition of this great newspaper rolled off the presses in Glasgow. Over that time, we have established a reputation for crusading journalism built on the twin cornerstones of honesty and integrity. Scottish Sunday Express readers expect us to shine a light on the wrongs in our society, to expose the crooks, highlight the hypocrites and to give everyone the odd chuckle with the extraordinary stories that ordinary Scots so often have to tell.
Even if these are the principles that guide the newspaper’s editorial process, it’s hard to see how anyone could have presumed that the Dunblane article fulfilled any one of these criteria. The Dunblane survivors have done nothing wrong, nor are they crooks or hypocrites. And the piece certainly wasn’t funny.
Additionally, the Bebo/Facebook postings would not have come to light had Paula Murray not been actively looking for them – further evidence that her intention was to muck-rake on a group of people previously sheltered from press scrutiny, rather than bring to light a “wrong in our society”.
It is also hugely important to us that the Scottish Sunday Express reflects the feelings of the people of Scotland.
This masks the issue, suggesting that the problem with the article was that it misjudged what people wanted to read. That the paper mis-read its readers’ feelings is immaterial; it flat-out contravened at least two points of the PCC code and used the intrusion on private individuals as the basis for an entirely self-constructed story. It is an open and shut case, yet the SSE is attempting to paint it in shades of grey.
It is our belief that nobody was misquoted.
A transparent attempt to rescue Paula Murray’s journalistic integrity. Who does this refer to? If it’s MSP Elizabeth Smith, she claimed that her words had been taken out of context, not misquoted – a crucial difference. If it’s the survivors themselves, then the accuracy is irrelevant – they were selectively quoted to support a spurious moral argument.
The Scottish Sunday Express is a big newspaper, with a long and illustrious history. We are also big enough to say we are truly sorry.
In many ways, this sums up the problems with the apology – it’s an attempt to recast this as a one-off piece of poor judgement by a cosy cottage-industry rather than a cynical piece of manufactured outrage that has backfired badly. The following questions remain:
- The article was written and filed by Paula Murray. It would presumably have then been passed through at least one sub-editor, before being signed off by editor Derek Lambie, who deemed it appropriate for the front page. Are we supposed to believe that all of these people innocently made the same mistake? It suggests a wholesale institutional failure of the editorial process that needs urgent correction.
- Neither does it indicate what action has been taken to prevent this happening again. Will it be adhering more closely to the PCC code in future? If the paper won’t acknowledge its contravention of the code and publicly bind itself to its principles, then this voluntary agreement has been rendered worthless.
- Finally, this is a public apology – but to the readers. SSE’s readership may well have been offended by the article, but a far greater wrong was done to the individuals named in the article. The paper claims to have apologised privately (and note the “where possible” caveat – given that the whole basis of the article was Murray’s access to their social networking profiles, the paper will definitely have some form of contact details for each and every one of the people named), but if the piece was “undeniably inappropriate”, don’t its victims at least deserve an apology as public and prominent as the humiliation meted out to them in the first place?”
Back to me. I don’t have much to add to that, except to say that this is not an isolated case of some crazy hacks, or even a crazy paper, getting out of control. This is simply an extreme example of the state that journalism in the UK has found itself in. In the comments section on my original post, some have expressed concern at the prospect of press regulation, arguing that it’s a slippery slope that ultimately leads to State censorship, but we would argue that the system of self-regulation as it stands has led to a press that does not take its responsibilities seriously and as a result can not be trusted to pursue the stories that need to be pursued. It’s a different slippery slope, and the Express story marked the point at which the press were sitting at the bottom of it.
Think about it…what have the press done for us lately? Have they been diligently scrutinizing the emergence and workings of the surveillance state? Or have they been pursuing Madeline McCann’s parents for some crazy reason? Did it clear up the confusion about the MMR vaccine, or did it add to the panic? In other words, what exactly are we protecting by not asking for a better system of regulation?
There are plenty of good, responsible journalists out there who are looking at the Express saga with the same resigned disgust that most of us felt when we first came upon the story. They need to be part of this conversation too. If not, the conversation will be held elsewhere, out of their earshot and beyond their influence. That won’t be good for journalism, and it won’t be good for society. But whether they turn up or not, the conversation will happen. It has to.
Anyway, as I was saying, four more days if you’d like to sign the petition. Here’s the link again.
(Thanks to Elena for giving this the once-over)