Time for the PCC to end the media’s tall-tale trend

In the old days, it was easy: advertisers lied, and newspapers told the truth. But then along came the ASA – and some less-than rigorous editors. By Torin Douglas

Which has greater credibility, advertising or editorial? Twenty-five years ago, when Marketing Week was launched, it was no contest. In the Seventies, advertising was widely distrusted and the industry was forced to beef up its self-regulatory system in the face of threats by Labour ministers and the fledgling Office of Fair Trading to bring in statutory controls.

The Advertising Standards Authority was relaunched, with a remit to ensure that ads in print, on posters and in cinemas were “legal, decent, honest and truthful”. (TV and radio commercials were already regulated by statutory bodies).

Twenty-five years on, the ASA is widely regarded as having succeeded. The days when advertising was seen, in the words of one critic, as “legalised lying” are largely gone, except on the very fringes. Complaints about inaccuracies or falsehoods are rigorously investigated. These days, the industry is more likely to be attacked over matters of taste and decency or of exploiting the vulnerable than on grounds of truth.

Indeed, the ASA is held up by a new Labour Government as a model of self-regulation. Ofcom is in advanced discussions with the ad industry about extending the ASA model to broadcasting, loosening the statutory ties of the Independent Television Commission. Advertising may not be popular (and on the issue of children and healthy eating it faces fierce new political pressures) but it is trusted much more than it was.

By contrast, the credibility of editorial material – particularly in tabloid newspapers – has plunged. The new chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, former UK ambassador to Washington Sir Christopher Meyer, is under great pressure to sharpen up the body’s act. A committee of MPs will shortly bring out a report that strongly criticises press behaviour and the PCC’s handling of it.

The MPs believe – on good evidence – that many editors are all too happy to print stories they know to be untrue or would prefer not to check. This is particularly the case in the area of showbusiness and celebrities. Ever since The Sun, aided and abetted by Max Clifford, proclaimed that “Freddie Starr Ate my Hamster”, newspapers have been tempted to print stories which they would like to be true, but which aren’t.

Ten years after the world was led to believe that David Mellor, despite his denials, had worn a Chelsea strip in bed with his mistress Antonia de Sancha (another Clifford special), she admitted the story had been made up. It was another of those revelations that was too good not to print.

Newspapers – and, in their slipstream, some broadcasters – are increasingly being accused of running stories without checking them. Last week, Neil and Christine Hamilton were finally cleared of the rape allegation that had been made against them. Their accuser, Nadine Milroy-Sloan, was convicted of perverting the course of justice. Many had found her story implausible from the start, but the media had a field day airing the allegations – and the couple’s denials – over many months. In this they were helped by Clifford, who was acting on Milroy-Sloan’s behalf.

TV presenter Matthew Kelly was cleared of child sex abuse allegations, but only after having his name dragged through the mud by the media. John Leslie was “tried by the tabloids” over allegations of date rape, but the Crown Prosecution Service has now declined to prosecute. You can argue that these were all serious criminal investigations and the police acted very publicly but, given the lack of evidence in each case – and the possibility of legal proceedings – shouldn’t the newspapers have been more sceptical about the claims?

The actress Amanda Holden recently won libel damages and a High Court apology from the Daily Mirror after it wrongly claimed, on two occasions, that she had made “diva-like” demands while filming the BBC series Cutting It. The first article claimed the actress had “thrown a strop” over her accommodation and insisted on staying at the most exclusive hotel in Manchester, rejecting the BBC’s offer of a cheaper hotel. Despite a denial by Miss Holden’s agent and the BBC, the paper repeated the claims a few weeks later. After she sued, it backed down and has paid a five-figure sum in damages.

Even the mighty New York Times has admitted – in a grovelling 14,000-word article – that one of its reporters persistently made up or “stole” stories, pretending he had been at the scene of major news events.

It’s not just stories that can be manipulated. Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister’s head of communications, last week criticised a decision by the What the Papers Say jury to give the Mirror its Picture of the Year award for a photograph that had been manipulated – it showed the Argentine football team holding handbags. He said: “My old fashioned view is that it is probably better if picture awards are won by real photographs, taken by real photographers.”

But these days, real photographs are manipulated too: it’s never been easier or more common to doctor a picture to give it greater impact, or – more seriously – to distort the truth. The camera may never lie, but the subsequent production process can and does.

The PCC is often criticised for not taking a tougher line on breaches of privacy. In many ways, though, the breaches of accuracy are more worrying.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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