Tag Archives: Press Complaints Commission

Guest post: Do we need moderation guidelines for dealing with mental health issues?

Last month the Press Complaints Commission made a judgement in a case involving discriminatory comments on a newspaper article. The case highlighted the issue of journalism on mental health and how it is treated by publishers alongside similar considerations such as sexuality, gender, religion and ethnicity. The complaint also led to a change in The Guardian’s moderation rules.

In a guest post for the Online Journalism Blog the person who brought that case, Beatrice Bray, writes about her experiences of comment abuse, and the role she feels publishers should take in dealing both with comments relating to mental health, as well as writers with mental health issues.

Last April I wrote a rallying cry for the Guardian for all who have endured taunts about mental ill health. In my reply article Cartoonists should be careful how they portray mental health (23/4/10) I reclaimed the word “psychotic”. Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson had used the word to abuse Mrs Thatcher. I put him right.

I am a long-standing reader of the Guardian newspaper but I did not know the website audience. Being a proud campaigner I told Guardian readers that I had bipolar disorder and had experienced psychosis.

I expected a civil hearing. Newspaper readers did oblige but many online readers were foul.

The Guardian’s managing editor Chris Elliott did not warn me about the impending abuse. That was a mistake. I think Mr Elliott knew I would face hostility but I do not think he realised how badly I would be hurt.

Those insults made me physically sick. My head was sore for many weeks. This was all so pointless. If Mr Elliott had given me a chance to discuss the risks involved we both could have taken precautions. Instead there was a row.

Guardian staff gave me an apology but told me to grow a “thick skin”. That jibe spurned me into going to the Press Complaints Commission. It is free. It is also less adversarial and less costly than a disability tribunal.

I was not asking for anything unprecedented. The BBC has guidelines on working with vulnerable people. We need to extend this to new media.

Working with vulnerable people

For example when dealing with discussion sites moderators need to deal swiftly with abuse. They also must facilitate discussions so that they do not turn nasty.

Staff should appreciate the reasons for this action. This is not prima donna treatment. This action is necessary because the writer and many of the readers share a common disability. They all have mental health problems.

Section 2 of the PCC Editors’ code promised fairness to complainants. I thought it only fair to ask for warning of abuse but in my PCC ruling the Guardian and the PCC disagreed with me. The PCC did not say why.

However, I did score other points.

Before the PCC ruling the Guardian at my request did add the word “disability” to its moderation rules.

The PCC and the Guardian and did apologise with regard to the abuse.

Guardian online readers called me, amongst other things, a “nutter” and a “retard”. Unfortunately both the Guardian and PCC refused to accept that this was discrimination as defined by the terms of section 12 of the Editor’s code of the PCC.

This is not just semantics. To me the word “discrimination” is a word with power. It holds the abuser responsible but the PCC fights shy of doing that online.

I now know that you can only complain to the PCC if a staff member makes a discriminatory remark about you. Comments made by non-staff members do not fall within the PCC’s remit. My abusers were not Guardian staff.

It is a shame. By being discrimination deniers both the Guardian and the PCC cut themselves off from a store of knowledge on handling disability and mental health in particular.

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The Press Complaints Commission consultation: respond by January 25th

The Press Complaints commission, which is the industry body which attempts to regulate the printed media, and now the corresponding websites, is engaged in a “Governance Review” – and is wanting responses by January 25th 2010.

The commission last had the attention of bloggers when a proposal was made by the PCC Chairman Baroness Buscombe that they should be regulated by the PCC. Unity, at Liberal Conspiracy, organised a response which drew expressions of support from perhaps 300 bloggers over the following 3 days.

At that point I also commented on some problems with the PCC itself :

Baroness Buscombe, the Press Complaints Commission and the Internet: Hard Questions

Firstly, the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission is a position which surely depends on political and commercial neutrality. (Baroness Buscombe takes the Tory Whip in the Lords)

Secondly, despite the Chairman of the PCC clearly needing to be a neutral figure, Baroness Buscombe used her speech to the Society of Editors to make party political points.

Thirdly, the PCC’s level of knowledge and understanding about the Internet is open to question; they appear not to understand News Headline Aggregators.

Fourthly, the PCC needs to defend vigorous investigative journalism. The Baroness – as current Chairman and a Peer herself – has suggested that the Lords should not be subjected to the same scrutiny as the Commons has been in the last 12 months.

Tim Ireland has been organising an excellent response , based around these five specific proposals:

SUGGESTION ONE: Like-for-like placement of retractions, corrections and apologies in print and online (as standard).

SUGGESTION TWO: Original or redirected URLs for retractions, corrections & apologies online (as standard).

SUGGESTION THREE: The current Code contains no reference to headlines, and this loophole should be closed immediately.

SUGGESTION FOUR: Sources to be credited unless they do not wish to be credited or require anonymity/protection.

SUGGESTION FIVE: A longer and more interactive consultation period for open discussion of more fundamental issues.

And he has done an excellent (and noisy) video involving space invaders, which you can see here .

The PCC has a special website set up, from where you can send your submission.

The closing date is January 25th 2010.

What I was told when I asked about blogs joining the PCC

Following recent coverage of the PCC’s Baroness Buscombe’s Independent interview where she possibly mooted the idea of the PCC regulating blogs, I thought I would share some correspondence I had with the PCC recently over the same issue. In a nutshell: blogs can already choose to operate under the PCC anyway.

I asked Simon Yip of the PCC whether a hyperlocal blog could opt in to the PCC Code and self-regulation. These are his replies:

“They can decide to adhere to the PCC Code if they choose. To fall formally within the system overseen by the PCC, they would have to subscribe to the body responsible for funding the Commission.

“I am afraid I am unable to answer the question of cost, as it depends on the circulation of the newspaper [sic]. As you can imagine, it would vary from publication to publication.

“For any publication to subscribe to the Code of Practice, the publication would contact Pressbof.”

So there you go. If you can afford to pay for a shiny PCC badge, then you’re welcome.

And of course, that’s the main hurdle to the idea of PCC regulation of blogs: few blogs could afford to pay, and even fewer would want to. Meanwhile, there is no financial incentive for the PCC to recruit blogs (nor is there any incentive for bloggers – yet – in joining an organisation whose 2 main purposes appear to be to stave off statutory regulation and to mediate disputes to avoid legal costs).

Whether there is financial incentive in trying to attract public funding to do so, or to use blogs as a common foe to do the same is, of course, a separate matter.

What is much more worrying than this blogging regulation sideshow is the apparent ignorance demonstrated by Baroness Buscombe in talking about Google and the news industry’s business plans, described earlier on this blog by Matt Wardman.

The most curious quote for me from her SoE speech is this one, following on from a paragraph which attempts to conjure up the now almost pantomime-like Monster Of Google.

“I urge you to recall the recent words of Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO: “We use as our primary goal the benefit to end users. That’s who we serve.” So there you have it: the end user matters, not those who create content in the first place.”

Is she saying that serving users above content creators is a Bad Thing? Weren’t newspapers supposed to serve their readerships as well? Or did that change while I wasn’t looking?

Baroness Buscombe, the Press Complaints Commission and the Internet: Hard Questions

Baroness Buscombe, the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, gave a speech this week to the Society of Editors, followed by some comments to Ian Burrell of the Independent about a desire to “regulate the blogosphere “.

The Baroness has taken several steps backwards from her previous statements to Mr Burrell, and has attempted to emphasise that any proposals would be “voluntary”.

I am sceptical as to whether this is a true change of mind, or a simply more nuanced journey aiming for the same destination by a more circuitous, and perhaps better hidden, route. Ian Burrell has pointed out that he had a direct interview with her for 40 minutes, so making that mistake would not be easy. However, that has been addressed elsewhere by perhaps hundreds of people, with a vigorous collective letter from hundreds of bloggers.

For me, in addition to the “will we … won’t we … will we … won’t we … regulate the bloggers” game of Hokey-Cokey, this affair has highlighted a number of problems with both the Press Complaints commission, and perhaps with Baroness Buscombe herself.

Firstly, the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission is a position which surely depends on political and commercial neutrality. Perhaps it can only be compared to that of Speaker of the House of Commons. How is it possible for a Peer who takes the whip for a political party to be neutral?

Secondly, despite the Chairman of the PCC clearly needing to be a neutral figure, Baroness Buscombe used her speech to the Society of Editors to make party political points.

Thirdly, having read Baroness Buscombe’s speech to the Society of Editors, I think that her, and the PCC’s, level of knowledge and understanding about the Internet is open to question.

And finally, Baroness Buscombe applauds the aggressive media investigations of the House of Commons, and MPs’ Expenses, yet suggests that they need to lay off the House of Lords – where she is a member; this at a time when the finanical skeletons have begun to emerge, creaking, from their Lordships’ cupboards into the light of day. That is a double standard.

Let me illustrate this with a few extracts.

Political Neutrality

Baroness Buscombe opens with a recounting of her experience as a Shadow Minister fighting the current Labour administration, including:

Of course the fact that unfortunately we do have such a dysfunctional democracy – particularly given the House of Commons appears almost entirely to have forgotten what they are there for – means it is vital that the press is free to investigate and probe and tell it like it is.

You can rightly feel proud that, from unraveling the government’s misleading spinning of intelligence in the Iraq War to exposing uncensored details of MPs’ expenses, the British press has filled the democratic deficit in recent years.

Does this partisan accusation, whether true or not, have any place in a speech by the person who is ultimately responsible for determining the accuracy or otherwise of such claims made by newspapers?

And why has she not, at the very least, resigned the Conservative whip?

Understanding the Internet

Baroness Buscombe, on news aggregators and search engines:

Together the press, all commercial broadcasters, film, book publishing and music industries must now work together to find a new business model with the Search Engines. The latter, the aggregators, think it is ok to enjoy the use of all your valuable intellectual property and ad revenues for little or no return.

This statement is simply untrue. Major aggregators do *not* use *all* of the intellectual property of newspapers and media. Google, which is attacked by the Baroness in the following paragraph, runs the Google News service.

Google News takes 1) a headline, and 2) up to around 155 characters of text.

It must be very depressing for journalists who spend a whole week creating a 5000-word article to realise that only the first 2 lines and the subeditor headline are of any value !

Further, Google offers a complete opt-out service, either from having articles included in the site’s cache, or from having a site indexed altogether. I use it myself on the Wardman Wire to prevent caching, since I have taken the trouble to invest in a high-quality server and want the visitors to come to my site rather than read the Google cache.

If services such as Google News are covering content from newspapers and the media, it is simply because those newspapers have made a decision to allow Google to do so.

The issue of aggregators and search engines, and their impact on the revenues of newspapers, has been one of the very highest priorities of the industry for months, and it is worrying that the head of the PCC hasn’t got to grips with the basic concepts involved after 6 months with the organisation (Wikipedia quotes her start date as April 2009).

Leave their Lordships Alone

Baroness Buscombe on the Commons, and the importance of vigorous scrutiny:

I know that this is not a popular message with many of my fellow Parliamentarians, some of whom are bruised by recent coverage, but we must consider the MPs’ expenses furore as a whole, and not focus on individual injustices.

What is the main lesson to be learned?

Surely, it is that the absence of scrutiny in the first place allowed a culture of abuse to flourish. If trust in politics is at a low ebb, it is because there has been too little freedom to shine a light on politicians’ activities, not too much.

However, about 4 paragraphs later the tone of Baroness Buscombe’s speech changes:

Which leads me to the House of Lords. I may be partisan, but is it really in anyone’s interests for the media to be party to the undermining of our Second Chamber – one of the few platforms in this country where people can stand up and say what they believe without fear or favour?

This is astonishing at a time when the light of day is at last shining on abuses of the Expenses system in the Upper Chamber. This is not a good recommendation for a Press Regulator who is trying to declare her support for strong investigation by journalists.

And that letter …

The letter should should still be signed by as wide a range of bloggers as possible, because – even if we take Baroness Buscombe’s new position as being the real one – the PCC and the Baroness clearly need someone to explain to them how the Internet works.

Wrapping Up

You can find the letter and the argument behind it, and sign up, here at Liberal Conspiracy .

Before signing, I’d encourage readers to read the whole speech and judge my comments in their full context.

At present this riposte has been driven largely by bloggers in the political niche; I’d particularly encourage bloggers in the media and journalism areas to offer their support.

But the bloggers who I really want to sign up are those for either the Society of Editors, or the Press Complaints Commission.

Unfortunately, neither of them has a blogger. Perhaps that would be a good first step to find out more about the internet before Baroness Buscombe makes another speech.

They presumably already have an insight into how quickly the online community can react when necessary.

Further Coverage

  1. Mark Pack has a slightly less pointed critique of Baroness Buscombe’s speech.
  2. Roy Greenslade has three articles about the “blog regulation” incident.
  3. The Heresiarch has a different angle entitled “Bloggers Repel Boarders“. Ooh-arr, me hearties.
  4. Liberal Conspiracy has the “Unity letter“.

How “organised” was the Jan Moir campaign?

Was the campaign against Jan Moir that crashed the PCC website “heavily orchestrated”? Jan Moir herself thinks so. Was it “organised”? The deputy editor of the Telegraph said it was.

If this was the case, who was organising this? “The big gay who runs the internet“? Stephen Fry?

And what do they mean by organised?

Let’s start with 3 definitions:

  1. Functioning within a formal structure, as in the coordination and direction of activities.
  2. Affiliated in an organization, especially a union.
  3. Efficient and methodical.

Of the 3 descriptions, the only one that might apply in this case is the third, and here’s the rub. Imagine the Jan Moir fuss in a world without Twitter: here’s how it unfolded:

  1. Some people read the Jan Moir article and are offended; they forward it to their friends to express disgust.
  2. People complain to the PCC. They also complain to advertisers.
  3. After a while the expressions of disgust reach a celebrity, and a columnist.
  4. The celebrity mentions the article during a public appearance; the columnist writes a column about it. The columnist mentions the parts of the Press Complaints Commission code that the article breaks. Politicians pick it up too.
  5. More people complain. They also complain to advertisers.
  6. The ‘offence’ over the article now becomes a story in itself; the celebrity angle is key to selling the story.
  7. More people complain. They also complain to advertisers.

In a world without Twitter the above might unfold over a series of days. The difference in a world with Twitter is that the above process is accelerated beyond the ability of many people to see, and they think Step 4 is where it begins.

But why does it matter if it’s organised?

But of course this isn’t about definitions, but about the discourse of what ‘organised’ means in this context. It means ‘not spontaneous’; it means ‘not genuine’; it means ‘not valid’.

Although different people may have different (oppositional, negotiated) readings I would argue this is the dominant one, where the discourse of ‘organised’ is being used to marginalise the protests. I will make a bet here that the PCC use that discourse in how they deal with the record numbers of complaints.

Stef Lewandowski hit the nail on the head when he said that it sounded “like the argument from design applied to social media”.

Help me investigate this

But what would be really interesting here is to test the hypotheses against some evidence: I want to see just how organised the ‘campaign’ was. How important were the celebrities and the formal organisations?

I’m using Help Me Investigate to see if we can work out what level of organisation there was in the campaign. So far, thanks to Kevin Sablan we have a key part of the evidence: all the #janmoir tweets since October 14. And some suggestions on how to analyse that from Ethan Zuckerman (who’s been here before): “grab all #janmoir tweets, do word freq. analysis esp on RTs, look to see if it’s grassroots or one instigator, amplified…”

If you need an invite, let me know.

And if you have any ideas how you can measure the organisation of a campaign like this, I’d welcome them.

Facebook, Dunblane and a 2 page apology from the Express – a lesson in online journalism ethics


2 weeks ago the Scottish Sunday Express led with this cover story (PDF) on how the survivors of the Dunblane massacre were turning 18 and – shock, horror – drinking and making rude gestures. Reporter Paula Murray, it seemed, had “managed to inveigle her way into a Facebook friendship with teenagers from the town and write a salacious piece about their “antics”, based on information culled from their profiles.” You can read it in full here (text) and also here (PDF). The original was quickly taken down.

So far, so middle market. But what happened next was an abject lesson for the Express – and Paula – in how things have changed for journalists who will do anything for a ‘story’. Continue reading