Who’ll Lift The Lid On The Media’s Oops And Downs?

Although the BSC has forced broadcasters to be more open about their mistakes, news organisations are still reluctant to admit they are wrong, says Torin Douglas

It must be one of the great newspaper corrections of all time, and it appeared in last Tuesday’s Guardian: “In our interview with Sir Jack Hayward, the chairman of Wolverhampton Wanderers, page 20, Sport, yesterday, we mistakenly attributed to him the following comment: ‘Our team was the worst in the First Division and I’m sure it’ll be the worst in the Premier League.’ Sir Jack had just declined the offer of a hot drink. What he actually said was ‘Our tea was the worst in the First Division and I’m sure it’ll be the worst in the Premier League.’ Profuse apologies.”

The Guardian is a past master at handling corrections (or should that be pass master? No, it shouldn’t, I’ve just checked in the BBC English Dictionary). This is only fitting for a paper that for many years was widely known as The Grauniad, so frequent were its misprints. These days, its daily column headed “Corrections and Clarifications”, putting right the errors of previous editions, is a mine of wit and good sense.

It is compiled by readers’ editor Ian Mayes, whose wry, deadpan humour lifts what could be a tedious list of pedants’ whinges into one of the highlights of the paper. In Saturday’s edition, where he writes a column, he explained that it wasn’t the writer who was to blame for the teatime howler at Wolverhampton Wanderers:

“This was no mishearing by the journalist who interviewed Sir Jack. It was in the editing that, in a brief lapse of attention, someone saw ‘tea’ in an interview with the chairman of the newly promoted football team, and added the fateful ‘m’.”

So popular is the Corrections and Clarifications column that it has now spawned two books, which include more wonderful gaffes (the second one even has a misprint on the back, which I don’t believe is deliberate because it’s not funny, unlike the errors inside). For instance:

“The chimpanzees on the front of Science, November 2, were orangutans.”

“The details of Derek Malcolm’s new book, page 5, G2, January 18, were correct except for the title, publisher and price.”

“The article headed Wanna be a pop star? Education pages 10 and 11, yesterday, does make sense, but only if the columns are read in the following order: 1, 4, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7. Apologies.”

“It is Sir John Nott, the former defence secretary, who has just published his memoirs – Here Today, Gone Tomorrow. It is Nott not Knott, as it incorrectly appeared in yesterday’s Diary, page 22.”

Entertaining though these are, the Corrections and Clarifications section does have a profoundly important purpose – to put things right. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger says: “At its most basic, we correct mistakes, big and small. If readers don’t trust a newspaper to get things right – and to correct things when it gets them wrong – they will turn elsewhere for their news.”

Yet, in the six years since the section appeared, surprisingly few newspapers (and other media) have followed its lead.

The media have always hated admitting they are wrong. Until the Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council were set up – after years of lobbying by Mary Whitehouse and her supporters – the broadcasters were as bad as most newspapers. The BSC’s rulings proved a sad disappointment to Whitehouse – it was never as tough on sex and violence as she had hoped – but it did force broadcasters (and their regulators) to be much more responsive to the views of their audiences.

Not only did the BSC invite complaints from viewers and listeners but it published its findings every month, sending them to media correspondents, MPs and others to show what it was up to. The publicity this attracted was unwelcome to the TV and radio companies, to say the least. In the worst cases, the BSC had the power to order a correction, which could be published in a newspaper or over the airwaves or both.

Eventually, the BSC’s activities prompted the Independent Television Commission, the Radio Authority and the BBC to publish their own complaints findings. It didn’t hurt quite as much as they’d thought – though it certainly made programme editors and producers think more closely about the rights and wrongs of their broadcasts. And in the age of the internet and 24-hour news stations, news can be updated instantly and corrections made swiftly, giving rise to the jibe “never wrong for long”.

Now, with the BSC, ITC and Radio Authority set to disappear, we wait to hear how complaints and redress will be handled by Ofcom.

Newspapers and other media that correct complaints promptly can be rewarded in the courts, as Rusbridger has pointed out: “In the High Court, a judge capped the libel damages a plaintiff could claim from The Guardian because we had readily agreed to publish a correction and apology, which the plaintiff had spurned.”

Last week, another judge raised the issue – this time at the Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly. Lord Hutton intervened after BBC director of news Richard Sambrook had said that it was very unusual for the Today programme to broadcast an on-air correction.

“Why is it very unusual for there to be an on-air correction?” asked Lord Hutton.

Mr Sambrook replied: “Hopefully it is because we do not make that many mistakes; but, I mean, when we do make mistakes of a serious nature we would correct them.”

We are likely to hear more about corrections in the coming weeks.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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