At the risk of being accused of jumping on the Leveson enquiry bandwagon (to which I would have to plead guilty), the European Movement has had its own skirmish with press regulation, with rather unsatisfactory results.
The cause of the complaint was an article about Europol on page 1 of the Daily Express on 26 March 2010, bearing the headline “New EU Gestapo spies on Britons”. The article proceeded to denounce Europol as having “frightening powers to pry into our lives”, with an editorial in the middle of the paper repeating the allegations. We referred this to the Press Complaints Commission.
While it is morally despicable to compare the European Union with Nazi Germany (don’t anti-Semitism and genocide count for anything any more?), our complaint was based on Clause 1 of the Code of Practice, Accuracy, which reads:
(i) “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.”
(iii) “The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.”
The complaint explained that Europol and the Gestapo were very different organisations, in that the establishment and the actions of Europol are restricted by law, accountable in parliament, and subject to the considerations of human rights, while the Gestapo was not. The use of the word “Gestapo” invokes the spectre of an organisation that acted, and was authorised to act, outside the law, and that used brutality and terror as a means of pursuing totalitarian goals.
We pointed out that, had a simple shorthand for the concept of an intelligence service been required, alternative comparisons such as MI5 or Special Branch could have been used. However, the choice was made to use the comparison of an organisation with a notorious and distinctive place in European history.
The complaint was about the front page story and not the editorial. Sub-clause (iii) permits a partisan press, as long as comment is distinguished from fact. In an editorial, this is clearly the case: in a front page story, it is not.
The complaint was rejected. The Press Complaints Commission was of the view that the front page story was clearly comment and not fact, comment which a newspaper is permitted to make. I asked specifically what it was about the story that would “distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact” and received the following, priceless answer:
“This part of the Code does not mean there has to be an explicit reference in the article or headline to the fact that something is a comment rather than a fact (although sometimes this does occur). In this case, the nature of the term itself was sufficiently suggestive of the fact that it must [author’s emphasis] be a comment:”
This means that, despite what the Code says, a newspaper need not in fact “distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”: if its claims are outrageous enough, the PCC will assume that everyone knows not to believe them. Judging by the way in which Fourth Reich terminology is being thrown around at the moment (here, for example), I don’t think that assumption is correct.
The truth is that Europol is a police organisation with Germans in it, and as far as the PCC is concerned – it is a self-regulatory body for the press, so newspapers are judged by the standards of other newspapers – that is enough. Think of the case of the case of Max Mosley and the News of the World, when the latter’s allegation that the former had engaged in Nazi role play was comprehensively dismissed. One of the reasons advanced by the newspaper to think what was enacted was a Nazi scene was that Mr Mosley spoke in German, but the judge, Mr Justice Eady, noted in his judgment that:
“Although Mr Thurlbeck thought the use of German highly significant as one of the Nazi indicia, it is noteworthy that neither he nor anyone else thought it appropriate to obtain a translation before evaluating the material for publication.”
In the words of the judge,
it rather suggests that “German” may have simply been glossed into “Nazi”.
So it is not only the Daily Express. Large parts of Fleet Street are still mentally fighting the last war, with combat taking place in acres of newsprint every day. The Leveson enquiry reveals that there have been some serious ethical failures among some of the people who run our media, and until those failures are addressed, the national discussion of important and controversial issues will continue to be polluted.
It is ironic, is it not, that those people who are most fervently demanding a referendum on British membership of the EU are at the same time doing their best to make it impossible for a fair one to be held.