Thursday, October 01, 2009

Libel article brought a smile to my face

About 20 years ago I had the privilege and pleasure to work for one of the great journalists' editors of the time, Mike Lowe.

Mike is a natural journalist and I've probably never worked with anyone as gifted at pulling together all the elements of a complex issue and then laying them out on a page in such a way as to give them impact and clarity. Above all, he had a wicked sense of humour which shone through his newspapers.

Sadly, he eventually fell out of favour with our employers and left the business.

But I read a fairly bland article today about a newspaper paying out damages to a politician and it reminded of one of Mike's very funny - if somewhat outrageous - responses to a similar situation.

The article on HoldtheFrontPage, a website aimed at regional journalists, included the following paragraph:

In its apology, the Observer wrote: "We accept that the allegations contained in the article were untrue and misleading and we apologise to Coun Jones for the distress and embarrassment our publication caused him. We have agreed to pay Cllr Jones a substantial sum in libel damages."

Of course, we have no idea what the term 'substantial sum' means. Is it £500? £5,000? £50,000? Or even £500,000? Almost certainly, the terms of the agreement include a gagging clause, forbidding either side from revealing the actual amount paid.

Mike always thought this sort of gag was totally unreasonable as the term 'substantial damages' can leave the impression that a big sum has been paid over when, in reality, the sum is often very small, much closer to £500 than £50,000. I don't want to give the impression that regional newspapers often libel people and pay out damages - it's actually pretty rare (the Mercury, for example, has not paid out anything in the eight months that I've been in Leicester).

But, back to Mike. We had published something inaccurate about a local councillor who demanded an apology and damages and a deal was agreed which included such a ban on revealing the amount paid out, but describing it as 'substantial.'

At the time, we published an item every day called 'word of the day.' This would take a word from an article in the paper and explain what it meant. It was usually Mike's way of explaining gobbledegook and was an interesting little feature.

On the day that we published the apology and the line about substantial damages, the word of the day was 'substantial' and it was defined simply as: £500!

As the councillor's solicitors later complained, it wasn't cricket. But it was funny.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Supermarket has the answer to newspaper problems

Eureka! I've stumbled across the answer to falling revenue problems for newspapers.

We're going to introduce a rule that says if you read the Mercury for more than, let's say, half an hour, you have to pay us an extra £40. It's genius - I'll do everything I can to entice you to read for longer and longer and as soon as you slip over the half hour mark, I'll thank you by whacking out the £40 charge.

This idea came to me yesteday after my wife was charged an extra £40 for spending more than two hours in Morrison's supermarket. They waited until a couple of days after her visit and then sent her a letter thanking her for being such a good customer and inviting her to send them an extra £70, or £40 if she sent it within the next 14 days.

I can't believe that I hadn't thought of it before. How can it fail?

Of course, Morrisons didn't call this a customer loyalty payment or anything like that. They called it a parking fine.

That's right - they sent my wife, and her friend who she met at the shop, a £40 fine each for being there too long. Putting aside the fact that I feel that there is some justification for fining anybody who spends more than two hours in a supermarket, it does seem an incredible situation, especially given that they have a cafe where they encourage you to sit down for lunch. Which is exactly what my wife and her friend did - they shopped and then had lunch.

By now, you're probably wondering where this rant is going.

To be honest, I don't care about the £40 fine. If Morrisons want to be that stupid, that's up to them. If I was my wife (which would be very odd), I'd contest it and I'd be amazed if they enforced it.

However, the thing that actually enraged me about this whole episode is the behaviour of the government department involved. Yes, that's right, a government department decided to help Morrisons track down my wife so that they could send her a fine!

It was, of course, the DVLA. It turns out that they are happy to pass on your personal data to just about any old Tom, Dick or Harry.

This is what it says on their website:
Regulations allow for the release of information from DVLA’s vehicle register to the police, to local authorities for the investigation of an offence or on-road parking contravention, and to anybody who demonstrates ‘reasonable cause’ to have the information. Regulations also allow for a fee to be charged to cover the cost of processing requests, but not for a profit to be made.

As a general rule, reasonable cause for the release of data from the DVLA vehicle register relates to motoring incidents with driver or keeper liability. These can include matters of road safety, events occurring as a consequence of vehicle use, the enforcement of road traffic legislation and the collection of taxes.
You might think that sounds fair enough - we are legally obliged to give our data to the Government if we want to drive a car in the UK and they might pass it on to law enforcement officers investigating offences.

But hang on a second - my wife didn't commit an offence and Morrisons are not a law enforcement agency.

It turns out that the DVLA will send your personal details to anybody who can show they have 'reasonable cause' and that, apparently, would include Morrisons if they thought you spent too long over your lunch. If you dig around enough on the DVLA website you will find their justification for this:
Improving car park efficiency DVLA data release from the vehicle register to car parking companies helps them enforce their terms and conditions. Without us those companies would have no alternative other than to use clamping (in England and Wales) and/or vehicle removal as a means of dealing with unauthorised parking. Such methods are massively inconvenient to the driver.
Ah, so it's all for own good. I'm sorry, but I don't buy that. I'm willing to bet that there would be no way that I could get the home address of the manager of Morrisons out of the DVLA whatever I felt he'd done to me - my wife spends too long over her coffee and they're happy to send out her personal details.

If you read my blog you'll probably know that access to information and the decision making processes of public bodies bothers me and so you won't be surprised to hear that I've written to the Information Commissioner challenging the right of the DVLA to pass on personal data in private disputes. I emailed the form this morning and await a response.

In the meantime, I've taken my own direct action. On the way to work this morning, another government department was stopping cars at junction 25 of the M1 to hand out a survey on road usage. Amongst the questions was a box asking for full details of where I'd come from (my home) - at the first opportunity I ripped up the form and chucked it in the bin. Note to Government: if you think I'm going to trust you with any of my personal information which you can't demand by law, think again.

Tragic death raised questions for our reporting

The fall-out from the tragic death of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter raised a couple of important questions for the Mercury news team yesterday.

The first surrounded the identity of some of the youths accused of being involved in the harassment that led to Ms Pilkington killing her daughter before committing suicide. As a rule, the Mercury, in line with the Press Complaints Commission's code of conduct, does not name children under the age of 16 involved in crime. The law itself gives protection to juveniles appearing in court and they are rarely named. However, there are occasions when a magistrate or judge will decide that a child should be named, often as part of an attempt to protect the public.

The issue here was that there was no court case, but two boys and their older brother were named in national newspapers - one of them branded 'Street Rat' on the front page of the Sun. A local councillor was also raising a petition to have the family evicted.

You may be surprised to hear that our first reaction was not to name the family and particularly the two younger boys. But after some discussion we decided to do the opposite - to name the boys and use their photographs. What was behind the decision?

Primarily, it was because any pretence that these boys had anonymity was ridiculous. Everybody in the area knew the identity of the boys even before the national papers got involved. It was clear from our discussions with neighbours that they were well-known in the area and their links to the Pilkington case were common knowledge - not naming them would have made our article look very odd and would not have 'protected' the boys in any way.

The other question we faced was more difficult. Three other vulnerable families contacted us to say that they had been harassed in a similar way and felt that they had been left to suffer with little or no protection from the police or other authorities.

The issue here was that these cases are always much more complex than they look and there was no time for the authorities to go away and investigate what was being claimed by the families and give a reasoned response or challenge the 'facts.' For example, one of the families said they had called the police 'hundreds of times.' I'm guessing, but that's probably factually inaccurate and may be no more than a figure of speech.

So the question was: should we run these claims based on nothing other than what the families said?

We decided we would because it was important to point out that the Pilkington case was not an isolated incident and although we had nothing to corroborate the individual claims of each family, in a way they corroborated each other. In a general discussion about the way the police and social services should respond to such incidents, the detailed facts are largely irrelevant - what's important here is that there are several families who felt harassed and felt that they dud not get the support they needed.

The police themselves have admitted that they have changed the way they react to claims of anti-social behaviour. The Pilkington family's calls for help were dealt with as individual complaints of anti-social behaviour and received a fairly low-level response but since their deaths, the police have changed their policy to categorise repeated offences against vulnerable people as hate crime, which receives a much more serious response.

As is often the way in these cases, the inquest has taken some years to be heard and the response of the police and councils is invariably that they have changed. So while the coroner is very critical of the way they responded to Ms Pilkington's plight they say that they have learned the lessons.

That's why we not only decided to highlight that other families suffered at the same time as the Pilkingtons, but added a line to our article asking whether anybody is still suffering.

Poor response can lead to serious consequences

Newspapers are often accused of creating panic around health scares by the way they report deaths which become associated with vaccines or other treatment.

So, when news broke yesterday of the death of a schoolgirl in Coventry shortly after she had received the new cervical cancer jab, the Mercury thought long and hard about how to report it.
We were very conscious of the dangers of frightening people away from having the jab as every year more than 1,000 women die of cervical cancer and doctors say the new vaccination will cut that significantly.

We were aware that no link had been established between the girl’s death and the jab apart from the fact that she died soon after receiving it.

However, some jabs were suspended in Coventry and we turned to our local health authorities to offer some reassurance. Unfortunately, the response we got was disasterous. It offered no reassurance, but left major questions unanswered.

We were told: “Although we have had to cancel a small number of immunisation sessions at a few schools due to local circumstances, there are no plans to interrupt or suspend the national HPV immunisation programme.” We were given almost exactly the same wording twice from different senior people within our local health authorities - it was clearly an 'agreed line' and we even heard that it had come out of the Department of Health who were suggesting that all health authorities should say no more.

But what on earth were we supposed to make of that? What did they mean when they said that a small number of sessions had been cancelled due to ‘local circumstances’? They wouldn’t say.

Elsewhere in the country, health authorities announced that they had been instructed by the Department of Health to cancel sessions and check the batch numbers of their vaccines. They said that vaccinations would restart tomorrow.

But the damage is done. A poorly thought-through response to a single death which adds confusion and even the smallest reason to doubt what is being said will unsettle parents.

Of course, we have seen it all before with the MMR jab. Enough doubt was raised to persuade many parents to refuse to allow their children to receive the vaccination despite health authorities repeated statements that the dangers from measles and mumps were far greater than any danger in the jab.

So how did we handle it? Fortunately we have a very experienced health reporter in Cathy Buss and her article was well-balanced and all I can say is that it wouldn't put me off allowing my two daughters to have the jab.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mercury owners issue trading update

The Mercury's owners, Daily Mail and General Trust, issued a trading update today, with figures up to the end of August, a month before the end of our financial year.

It has been a torrid year for newspapers, but the update points to some improvements in the financials, both in terms of advertising sales trends and the profit outcome as a result of the cost cutting exercise which has led to 1,500 people losing their jobs across the national and local newspapers - this, of course, includes those who lost their job when the presses closed in Leicester and the nine journalists who were made redundant when we re-organised the way we handle the back end production of the Mercury. It has been a pretty horrible process, but it's clear from the figures that if the cuts had not been made, the newspapers would have found themselves in a pretty horrific situation by now.

For those who want to see the details, you can find them here on DMGT's website.