Head of complaints Bianca Strohmann looks at how the Editors’ Code applies to apologies and sets out some of the factors IPSO’s Complaints Committee might consider when deciding on whether or not to sanction a newspaper for not publishing one.
Newspapers and magazines regularly publish apologies as a way of putting things right when they have gone wrong.
Publications vary widely in their attitude to this: some apologise regularly for even relatively minor errors, while others prefer to reserve them for the most serious cases.
IPSO cannot order a publication to apologise – after all, what good is an apology if it is not genuinely made? However, there is a requirement for apologies built in to Clause 1ii (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice:
“A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence and – where appropriate – an apology published.”
Of course, not all apologies are related to accuracy concerns – an apology may be appropriate for an intrusion into privacy for example – but this is only one place in which the Code makes reference to the necessity of apologies.
This raises an interesting question: in the context of an accuracy complaint, what does an apology do that a correction or clarification does not and what purpose does it serve?
There are many possible answers to this question and it will inevitably vary by the circumstances. But generally, an apology goes beyond simply correcting the position – it recognises publicly harm that may have been caused, and it expresses contrition for that harm.
Approaches to apologies
Some recent IPSO rulings give an insight into different publications’ approaches towards apologies – and our Complaints Committee’s.
In a complaint upheld against the Daily Mirror , in which it had presented comments by MP Jeremy Hunt in a critical light, the Committee found a breach of Clause 1 (i) but declined to find a breach of Clause 1(ii) for the publication’s failure to apologise:
“…the comments in question were on a political issue, made in Mr Hunt’s capacity as the Secretary of State for Health. Comments of this kind, made by a senior politician such as Mr Hunt, will inevitably be subject to close scrutiny and criticism. While the Committee had found that the newspaper had distorted Mr Hunt’s comments, it did not consider that this was a case where the newspaper had been under an obligation to publish an apology to Mr Hunt.”
In McIntosh v The Courier (Dundee) the article under complaint reported that a dentist had been awarded £50,000 pounds in damages from a former patient who had reported him to the dental regulator and allegedly defamed him. In fact this was entirely untrue – the dentist had dropped his case some time before, and had been required to pay costs. When the freelance journalist who had written the article realised what had happened, he contacted The Courier to make them aware of this very significant inaccuracy. They immediately published a correction and apology and the Committee noted in its ruling that “where the error had been very personal to the complainant, an apology was required”. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1(i) but not of 1(ii), and no further remedy was required.
The Herald (Glasgow) also published a similar article, by the same freelancer, covering this story. When made aware of the error, they also published a prompt correction but chose not to apologise. The Committee found that “On this occasion, where the error had been personal to the complainant and had the potential to be seriously damaging to him, an apology was required”. It upheld the complaint as a breach of Clause 1 (ii) and required publication of an adjudication.
What about apologies and third parties?
Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain complained under Clause 1 (Accuracy) about a Sunday Times article headlined “Asians make up 80% of child groomers- study”. In fact the study’s findings related to grooming gang offences only, not all child sexual abuse offences. The newspaper offered to correct this, but Mr Versi rejected it in part because it did not include an apology to Muslims for the inaccuracy. In its findings the Committee said that there might be some circumstances in which an apology might be appropriate in response to a complaint from a third party, this was not such a case because of the nature of the breach.
What factors might IPSO’s Complaint Committee consider when deciding if an apology is required under the Editors’ Code?
Ordinarily, the Committee will consider whether the newspaper should have apologised to the subject of a story. However, there might be other cases where harm is done to other people, such that an apology is required.
They will look at the nature of the inaccuracy, and whether it is serious and personal.
They may also consider its impact. Does it affect a person or people directly? Does it have the potential to cause significant personal distress or embarrassment or could it cause serious harm to someone’s personal or professional reputation? How close is the connection between the inaccuracy and the harm? Was the harm a foreseeable consequence of the inaccuracy?
The Committee may also look at how the inaccuracy happened.
Fundamentally, the question for the Committee is not whether they would choose to apologise in a particular case; rather, is the failure to apologise a breach of the Code, such that a serious regulatory sanction should be imposed?