The Sun’s aggressive, then submissive, response to my complaint on its human rights reporting

17 September 2014 by

BxuWgJ_IYAAawwN.jpg-largeThe Sun have printed another correction today in relation to its misleading human rights reporting. The correction, on page 2, can be read online or to the right of this post.

The correction was the outcome of a complaint I made about this article – I posted on it here. The main part of the correction relates to the entirely false claim that “The European Court stopped a British judge imposing a whole-life tariff on Ian McLoughlin”. The reality is that although judges were unsure whether they could impose the orders following Vinter v UK in the European Court of Human Rights, the Court of Appeal clarified in February 2014 that they definitely could. The Sun have now admitted that was the case.

I am happy that the correction has been made although as I have said before, the damage has to a large extent been done as – let’s be honest – how many people read the clarifications and corrections box (which is located immediately adjacent to the eye-catching Page 3…).

But what I found most interesting about the process, which was started by the Press Complaints Commission and concluded by its post-Leveson successor, the Indepenndent Press Standards Orgaisation (IPSO), was the initial response to my complaint (PDF here) by The Sun’s Ombudsman, Philippa Kennedy OBE, which I thought was needlessly aggressive and demonstrates a worrying approach to this issue. I will select a few choice quotes:

First, a couple of unnecessary digs at me:

q 1

It took me 10 days to complain. I didn’t realise there was a limitation period (there isn’t). And that dastardly EU Commission! Which doesn’t exist. I think she means the Council of Europe, which took the unusual step of complaining about the Daily Mail last year. Or maybe the European Commission. Anyway, potato potato. Another dig:


The human rights “industry”? That wasn’t mentioned in the article but I think there is an implicit accusation here that I am part of that “industry”. Anyway, on to the substance:

q4 q5

This is my favourite bit. The judge did refuse to impose a whole life tariff… then maybe some stuff happened afterwards. Overturned on appeal. Whatever – no space! In my response to letter, I said this:

The Sun accepts that it only provided part of the story: that the ECtHR stopped a judge imposing a whole life tariff. The fact that the decision was later overturned  is not just an “intricate detail” about a legal case but an essential one: the decision was reversed meaning that the ECtHR has in fact not prevented the whole life tariff being imposed. It is a bit like reporting that Arsenal lost a match 0-1 because that was the score at half time, but neglecting to report that at full time the score was 2-1 to Arsenal.

In other words, the account was so brief that it missed out the ending of the story, which entirely changed the picture. Then, on the damages/costs figure for Massey v UK:


Massey personally got just over half of the figure they quoted. But the truth was “telescoped”.

I responded to the ombudsman’s response and, like magic, a much more contrite response arrived in my inbox from the Ombudsman:


I have posted a number of times in recent months about The Sun’s misleading reporting on human rights. The newspaper is often “telescoping” the truth, despite regular reprimands by the PCC.

I am awaiting the outcome of two other complaints, in relation to HEUman Rights [sic] and this on the number of cases which the UK loses before the European Court of Human Rights. On the first, the newspaper have offered to put the correction online but I have responded that it needs also to be in print as per the Editor’s Code (1(ii)).

I have republished the Ombudsman’s response above to give a flavour of the newspaper’s attitude to complaints. I suspect that their policy is to initially take a robust line in order to try to scare away the complainant – hardly in the spirit of the post-Leveson era. I argue for a living so I don’t mind getting into a fight, but I imagine many people would be cowed.

It may be that IPSO take a stronger line on persistent offenders. Let’s hope so. In the meantime, this is a good story for me to take to Friday’s conference at Liverpool University on Human Rights in the UK Media. Come along and say hi if you can make it.

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  1. Mark English, European Commission London Office says:

    Interesting comment from The Sun about the EC usually being “eagle-eyed”….I hope we are but reason we have previously complained to and about The Sun is that they have attributed ECHR decisions to the EU…whole point is we are a different institution. They seem to have recognised that and to be fair have been constructive in circulating to all staff a memo drawn up in consultation with us explaining the difference and also what each EU institution does…….so strange they would now expect us to intervene on an ECHR story where we- correctly – were not even mentioned and about which, because we are a different institution, we have no knowledge!

  2. Captain Sensible says:

    OK so I’ll be the bad guy again. So lets look at the Sun response.

    You take issue with the historical purpose of the ECHR, and yet according to the House of Lords Library Note: “Debate on 19 May (2011): European Convention
    on Human Rights” it states….

    “The Convention was born out of this, the
    desire of Western European states to avoid a repeat
    of the horrors of that war but also as a means to
    shield itself from Communist subversion (Jacobs,
    White and Ovey, The European Convention on
    Human Rights, 2010, p 4).

    This is a view shared by many others.So I think The Sun in its opinion piece is not incorrect in saying this.

    As to the amount recieved by the paedophile. You very carefully insert the word “personally” into your review comment. This would suggest that the total amount recieved was in fact £5,496 including all the other payments, even though his “personal” amount excluding costs and such was £3,180. Again, I would not say the Sun has produced some wild figure from thin air.

    The point I raised on your original blog, which you studiously avoided commenting on, was that the Sun’s bigger issue was that a paedophile recieved any sort of payment at all. I suggest that this is an anathema to most of the public and a situation that yet again brings the ECHR into public disrepute.

    I’m not defending newpapers, but they do have a limited space to explain a story or provide an opinion piece. Brevity is the order of the day and this does not lend itself to to a fuller explanation of any story, not just the ones covering the ECHR.

    Overall you are begining to sound pedantic and it wont do any long term good. The vast majority of the public has made up its mind and the ECHR is inextricably linked to the EU and its problems.

  3. wiseacre says:

    Well done, Adam. Persistence pays.
    Just as an aside, there is a lovely quote from the Ombudsman in the Greenslade link you gave —
    Kennedy said: “The industry has been through a bit of a battering and I want to play a part in restoring people’s faith in British journalism. Reporters strive for accuracy but things can go wrong. What’s important is how they’re put right.”.

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      I hadn’t noticed that – priceless!

  4. Thank you for your work on this topic.
    I note that in your penultimate paragraph you mention that you argue for a living. Alas, the Sun does not.

    An argument is based on claims and evidence which are connected by warrants that are implicit or explicit. When we argue we propose counter evidence or statements to challenge the warrants or the evidence. Both parties usually abide by the same rules.

    “It rained last night. How do you know? the streets are wet” The warrant is that the streets are wet after it rains. Counter argument, Street sweepers use water and they made the street wet.
    What the Sun does is distort and manipulate the issue. As they know, outrage is built on simplicity a simple clear message of heroes and villains is what is needed. The Sun are world class practitioners of the art of outrage by simple messages. By contrast, nuance defuses outrage. Reasoned arguments are when people examine tough issue in their full complexity.

    When this is applied to the Sun’s argument, they claim initially that there is no room for “intricate details” and their argument shrivels like a deflated balloon. The intricate details are things that undermine their argument, warrant and evidence.

    In other words, an argument occurs when both sides agree to reason. The Sun does not reason, it uses sophistic tools and techniques to distort and confuse issues and reduce them to a simple issue of outrage. Indeed, that is their “industry”.

    I wish you luck in future “arguments” with the Sun.


  5. quicklearn says:

    Keep up the good work Adam I love your posts/blogs

  6. jshollis says:

    Ideally the paper would have to publish the correction in a place as eye catching as the original story. It might then be more careful.

  7. Jon Mack says:

    Reblogged this on JonMack and commented:
    Former Sun-hack-turned-Sun-ombudsman Phillippa Kennedy OBE cites The Daily Mail as authority for accurate reporting.

  8. James Lawson XIX says:

    This is not a printed correction at all is it?!

    I note that the Press have gone to Strasbourg to defend their own privileges:

    Curiously, the ‘Sun’ does not run the story.

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      What do you mean? The correction was printed…

  9. Sarah says:

    Thank you and keep at it. you are doing a really important job!

  10. Simon Carne says:

    Congratulations on getting this one corrected by the Sun. The initial responses from the Ombudsman were outrageous. It would be interesting to know whether the Sun has the policy you describe in your penultimate paragraph above (robust response first time around), or whether it is more a case of a junior person on the Ombuds-team writing the first response and getting the wrong end of the stick.

    I shall be much more interested to see how you get on with your later complaint about the Sun’s use of statistics, where your own argument did not attact quite as much support from your regular readers –

    1. Adam Wagner says:

      Me too!

  11. Jon Bell says:

    Your perseverance really is admirable!

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