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|Dead Meat? Stories of asylum seekers stealing donkeys - and swans - to eat have turned out to be false. So why have the newspapers not apologized, asks Roy Greenslade|
Dead Meat? Stories of asylum seekers stealing donkeys - and swans - to eat have turned out to be false. So why have the newspapers not apologized, asks Roy Greenslade
The Guardian, Monday December 1, 2003
Popular newspapers tell lies, ignore rules and refuse to apologize for their sins. They duck and weave to avoid self-regulatory censures. They abuse the concept of press freedom day after day.
If this sounds unduly harsh and hyperbolic, consider the facts. For the past 13 years, journalists have been required to abide by an ethical code of practice, which was drawn up by editors. Every editor claims to obey it and, in most papers, the code forms part of the employment contracts of every reporter and sub-editor.
Here's a reminder of the first clause: newspapers and periodicals must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material. So how do the Sun and the Daily Star explain how they came to publish two wholly inaccurate stories which suggest that not the least bit of care was exercised before they went to press?
On July 4, the Sun devoted its front page to a story headlined "Swan Bake", which alleged that gangs of Eastern European asylum seekers were killing and eating swans from ponds and lakes in London.
Unidentified people were cited as witnesses to this phenomenon.
Next day the Sun ran a follow-up story headlined "Now they're after our fish", another unsubstantiated rumor without a shred of proof reported as fact.
On August 21, a Daily Star headline stated: "Asylum seekers eat our donkeys." It told of the disappearance of nine donkeys from Greenwich Royal Park after thieves had cut through a wire fence. The story went on to claim that donkey meat is a specialty in some east African countries, including Somalia, and that there were "large numbers of Somalian asylum-seekers" in the area.
On that slight evidence, a community was blamed for a crime despite the local police admitting that they had no idea about the identity of the perpetrators.
Yet the paper went around garnering quotes from outraged citizens, one of whom was quoted as saying: "It makes my blood boil when I hear that asylum seekers have stolen them to eat." But who told that person that asylum seekers were responsible if it wasn't a journalist?
Both of these stories have resulted in complaints to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) and my understanding is that neither paper has been able to defend them. Both break the spirit and letter of the code: they were inaccurate, misleading and distorted. (Most Somalis, for example, do not eat meat of any kind).
Arguably, both stories also breach clause 13 of the code which states that papers must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to a person's race, color or religion. Such reporting, a recent PCC statement warned, "may generate an atmosphere of fear and hostility that is not borne out by the facts".
Neither case suggests that the papers have conformed to the injunction that they "must" take care over what they publish.
Both papers have procrastinated since they received complaints, haggling over the wording of apologies because neither is prepared to do the decent thing by admitting that it has done wrong.
So, despite the PCC's stated desire to offer speedy resolution of complaints under its catchy slogan "fast, free, fair", these papers are frustrating the commission's best efforts. It is now six months since the Sun story appeared, for example, and its so-called ombudsman, Bill Newman, continues to stonewall.
This is the kind of issue raised in the report on privacy and media intrusion by the Commons select committee in June. It thought then that the PCC should consider a twin-track procedure offering either, or both, mediation and adjudication.
I raised a similar point earlier this year when the Sunday Telegraph published a totally false story about six councils having banned schools from giving pupils hot cross buns at Easter. The paper escaped censure by printing an apology four weeks after its damaging tale had appeared.
Whatever the donkey and swan complainants achieve through the PCC in terms of apologies or corrections, the journalists and editors responsible will suffer no stigma for their shoddy behavior. These stories are patently false and, in one case, the police have a record of a reporter admitting as much.
They break the code and, regardless of the PCC's remit, it just isn't good enough to mediate, especially when the papers have delayed the publication of apologies. Indeed, I understand that Sun executives still believe there is no need to apologize.
In his evidence to the select committee, the PCC's chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, rightly advocated the need for a more visible censure of editors along with what he called "a clear and common branding" for adjudications.
But if there is no adjudication, then the paper can publish its mealy-mouthed apology wherever it fancies unless the commission is pushed by the complainant to negotiate its placing. In the case of the Sun's swans fantasy, the appropriate place would be the front page, of course, but don't hold your breath.
The PCC's outgoing director, Guy Black, has certainly tried to help refugee groups that have complained about the press treatment of asylum seekers. He was a prime mover in drawing up guidelines issued in October, which advised papers to avoid using misleading or distorted terminology when describing asylum seekers and refugees, offering succinct definitions of both.
The move was designed to stop the prejudicial and inaccurate use of the phrase 'bogus' or 'illegal' asylum seekers and was welcomed by the UN Refugee agency (UNHCR) as "a valuable step in reminding editors of their responsibility to report these stories accurately".
Well, there is a way to go because the phrase has become common parlance. Within a week of the guidelines being released the News of the World referred to bogus asylum seekers. The Guardian also did the same last Saturday, which was described by the readers' editor as "a regrettable lapse".
It's a reminder of the depth of a problem, which requires constant vigilance.