for a diverse, democratic and accountable media
Posted by Jason Deans guardian.co.uk, Monday 7 November 2011
Gordon Brown has won a Press Complaints Commission ruling that a Sunday Telegraph article claiming he told Rupert Murdoch in a phone conversation that he would “smash the tycoon's media empire" was inaccurate and misleading. However, although the PCC ruled that the article, published in July 2011, had breached clause one of its code of practice on accuracy, it found that the Sunday Telegraph had taken sufficient steps to remedy the former prime minister's complaint and no further action was necessary.
In the article, headlined “Inside story of Murdoch's special relationship with our politicians", an aide was quoted as saying that Brown, when still at No 10, had warned Murdoch during a telephone call in late 2009 “that he would smash the tycoon's media empire if Labour won last year's general election" and that he “told Rupert he had made his choice politically and … 'you had better win the election or we are coming after you' – or words to that effect". This was after the Murdoch-owned Sun had ditched Labour and endorsed David Cameron.
Brown provided the PCC with four on-the-record witness statements from individuals who listened to the phone call in question in full or in part and another who was briefed on it afterwards.
In its defence the Sunday Telegraph said the anecdote had come from two confidential sources it described as being part of Brown's “inner circle" – with a third source confirming its accuracy after publication. The paper added that the anecdote had not been considered controversial prior to publication.
In its ruling the PCC said it had taken into account the fact that the paper had not provided on-the-record evidence to corroborate the allegation and had not approached Brown for a comment before publication – “this latter point was crucial" in the commission's opinion.
"Although the information had been based on confidential sources, the commission took the view that the story had initially been presented as a factual statement in the copy (later attributed to an aide) and readers would not have been aware that the accuracy of the story may have been in dispute," the PCC said.
"Given the seriousness of the claim, the commission considered that the newspaper should have put the allegation to the complainant before publication, taking into account the requirements of clause 1 (i) of the code which states that newspapers must 'take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information'," the commission added.
Although prior notification “is not an absolute requirement under the code", in this instance the PCC ruled that failure to include Brown's side of the story “had led to a breach of clause 1 of the code".
However, the PCC also noted that the Sunday Telegraph had taken a number of steps to address Brown's complaint about the article, including adding his denial to the online version and later removing it from its website, modifying the print version for later editions, publishing his denial in later coverage and offering to publish a letter or conduct an interview. The paper also offered to publish a clarification outlining Brown's position, but the two sides failed to agree on the wording.
"In all the circumstances, the commission decided that the newspaper had remedied the initial breach of the code, and there were no outstanding issues to pursue," the PCC concluded.