Family Law publishes a regular column by The Transparency Project. This blog post originally appeared in the August 2018 issue,  Fam Law 1062.
As we noted in our June column, ‘Press reporting on family courts’  Fam Law 750, there seems little prospect of imminent change to the current framework for the regulation of the mainstream media. Although a new Press Recognition Panel (PRP) has been set up to approve ‘Leveson compliant’ independent regulators, the mainstream press set about creating their own new organisation to replace the old Press Complaints Commission: the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
Although IPSO is currently the main regulator for the press in the UK, it remains a voluntary self-regulator (in contrast to the set up in the field of broadcast journalism, where there is mandatory regulation by Ofcom) and IPSO has not sought the approval of the PRP as a ‘Leveson compliant’ independent regulator (which it would no doubt be unable to secure due to its code committee membership including the editors of the very newspapers who are subject to its regulation, just as the failed PCC before it was).
Most – but not all – mainstream news organisations have signed up to the IPSO scheme, with three notable exceptions being The Guardian (which refuses to sign up to what it sees as a flawed regulator and, instead, deals with complaints in house), the Financial Times which sees itself as having a more international readership, and the Independent which publishes its own detailed code of conduct (https://www.independent.co.uk/service/code-of-conduct-a6184241.html).
A small number of news outlets have signed up instead to be regulated by IMPRESS, the charity which is so far the only regulator to be approved by the PRP but attracts criticism by the Mail and Times titles because some of its funding comes from a family trust connected to Max Mosley. The subscribers to IMPRESS are primarily small or local publishers. As we have written elsewhere (‘IMPRESS Consultation on Draft Standards Code – The response of The Transparency Project’, Transparency Project Blog, 29 September 2016) we think the IMPRESS code of practice could potentially be more effective than the Editors’ Code used by IPSO.
So, when journalism touching upon family law or family cases is inaccurate or misleading, and where individual news outlets are unwilling to remedy their copy, it is in most cases IPSO to whom a complaint must be made. Although other types of complaint to IPSO can only be brought by someone with a direct interest in the complaint (or their representative) inaccuracy complaints under Clause 1 of the IPSO Editors’ Code (which encompass complaints that an article is misleading) can be brought by anyone.
We have written here before (eg ‘Correction requests and complaints’  Fam Law 694 and ‘Reporting Watch Update’  Fam Law 908) about a number of Clause 1 complaints we have made to individual news organisations, and subsequently to IPSO. Our experience has been mixed – in some instances the newspaper has willingly corrected the item or added a link to a judgment, whilst in others we have received short shrift. IPSO itself seems efficient, but the scheme itself has inherent limitations.
We recently complained about misleading articles concerning a published family court judgment that extracted a minor factual point about a baby being put in an age-inappropriate ‘Bob the Builder’ toy car, and elevated this to headline status, creating the impression that the toy car incident was a more significant causal factor in the removal of the child that it really was (See ‘Bob the Builder – Mail – please fix it!’, Transparency Project blog, 6 June 2018).
The Daily Mail ran with the headline: ‘Nurse’s one-year-old son is taken from her care after she let him sit in a Bob the Builder toy car that was “inappropriate” for his age’. In fact, the judgment that the article was based upon, SCST v O, A & U V  EWFC B24, makes clear that beyond issues around basic parenting skills (of which this was merely one illustrative example), there were a raft of broader (proven) concerns, including domestic abuse and a prior injury. Although the car incident was not the only point mentioned in the article, overall the article failed to properly convey to the reader the breadth of the issues.
The deliberate use of the term ‘after’ to imply but not directly assert a causal link between the headline-friendly fact selected to lead the story and the outcome of the case, is typical of a number of articles we have seen across publications. Whilst the use of ‘after’ allows the newspaper to avoid assertions that a headline is directly inaccurate (thing B happened subsequent to thing A) it is also very obviously used in the knowledge that the reader will likely draw the conclusion that the inclusion and linking of both thing A and B in the headline are causally connected. Other common link words used that imply causality include ‘following’ (as in ‘[the baby was removed] following the father’s complaint in hospital that the child was being given “formula” milk in bottles not properly sterilised’ see ‘Just Add This One To The Pile’, Transparency Project blog, 13 March 2017) and ‘over’ (see below).
We think this sort of technique is therefore a potentially misleading sleight of hand and, as such, a breach of Clause 1 of the IPSO Editor’s Code, particularly so if the main text does not clearly explain the full facts and place the headline in proper context (It is also a breach of Clause 1 to publish a headline which is not supported by the text). Where a colourful fact is led in isolation from the broader context of a case, a news article often creates a distorted picture that leads readers to think that children have been or are generally removed for weak reasons, with obvious ramifications for public trust and confidence. Whilst there are legitimate arguments to be made about whether courts are in fact too ready to remove children from the care of their parents, it does not assist anyone if the press create an impression that removal has been for spurious reasons in a particular case when, in fact, the fuller and more substantial reasons are freely available to the public in a detailed judgment on BAILII.
The Bob the Builder case is but one example of the sort of misleading and distorted coverage that the search for an attention-grabbing headline can give rise to (for other examples see ‘ “What’s wrong with playing X-Box?”: Mother who had children taken away because of “permissive parenting” hits back at judge saying “I am not an unfit parent” ‘, Daily Mail, 20 February 2014). We complained about both the Daily Mail Bob the Builder piece, and a similar one on the BBC website.
The BBC promptly corrected their misleading headline and copy (actually in response to someone else’s complaint to the same effect as ours but which arrived at the BBC before our own) from, ‘Boy taken from mum over Bob the Builder car concerns – a nurse had her one-year-old son taken away after concerns were raised over her parenting including letting him sit in a Bob the Builder toy car “inappropriate” for his age’, to ‘Boy taken from mum over parenting concerns – a nurse had her one-year-old son taken away after concerns were raised over her parenting’. The revised piece is much more accurate – although the somewhat bland replacement is perhaps a good illustration of why the media are tempted to such distortions in the first place (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-berkshire-44381817). In addition, we have asked the BBC to either add a link or mark the article as amended and, at the time of writing, await a reply.
Notwithstanding that, the BBC clearly recognised that its article was misleading when it was pointed out. The Daily Mail has taken a different approach – they rejected our complaint (their response can be found on our 21 and 24 June 2018 blog posts – ‘Bob the builder – Mail – No we won’t!’ and ‘How effective is press regulation when it comes to accuracy?’. Consequently, we have escalated our complaint to IPSO and at the time of writing await a response from the Daily Mail. If the Daily Mail accept some or all of our complaint (unlikely given the robustness of their response to our direct complaint to them) we will have to decide whether to accept the proposed amendment or remedy. If a resolution is not found, IPSO will make a decision on our complaint. In due course we will publish the details of the outcome.
For those interested, all our blog posts dealing with inaccuracy or correction requests can be found at www.transparencyproject.org.uk/tag/correctionrequests/.
We are really pleased to have heard just before this piece went to print that The Transparency Project has secured a further grant from the Legal Education Foundation to employ a dedicated member of staff to help run and develop our work and further advance our public legal educational objectives. We will be advertising for applicants to fill this vacancy in early September. Having a staff member will enable us to continue our Family Court Reporting Watch project, and to take forward other ideas and we will be looking for more volunteers to help with FCRW in particular in coming months. Do get in touch if you would like to write for us, either by way of correcting inaccuracies, explaining cases or legal issues, or if you have an idea for a blog post or topic for us to tackle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or twitter: @seethrujustice