Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Damp Squib

Right, had a letter informing me of the Commission's decision - sadly not yet on their website (neither is the previous adjudication) - and it is somewhat disappointing.

In relation to Amanda's first claim, that of an 'increasing weight of academic evidence', the Commission accepts that this was misleading, but felt that the remedial action offered by the newspaper (removing the claim from the online version and noting on their library database that the claim had been challenged) was sufficient. It was not felt that anyone misled by the statement needed to be disabused of their misconceptions through a correction in the newspaper. The justification for this was:

"In the context of a comment piece - albeit that the part in dispute was a factual statement - and in circumstances where there was still debate about the academic evidence that did exist, the Commission concluded that this was a sufficient remedy to the complaint."

Which is baffling.

In relation to the second complaint:

"It was clear that the context of the piece was about adoption. Nonetheless, the disputed sentence was slightly more general, suggesting that 'repeated academic studies' showed that children fare best when they have a married mother and father in the home. This was not necessarily about adopted children only."

The disputed sentence, in context, was:

"Or how about the boss of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, David Holmes, who described as 'retarded homophobes' those who believe that heterosexual couples make the most suitable adoptive parents. This, despite the fact that most ordinary families recognise that a child fares best when it has a married mother and father in the home - a belief that is backed by repeated academic studies."

The Commission felt that it was not its position to make "an objective assessment of each piece of evidence provided by both sides" but that "it was legitimate for different people to cite certain evidence in support of their position at the expense of other evidence - particularly in the context of a comment article". On this basis, no remedial action was felt necessary. There is no appeals process.

It would appear that the plan of using the press watchdog to ensure accuracy was a little over-optimistic. The question now is whether we carry on in the hope that eventually they'll change their minds or we seek other means.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

When is a factual claim not a factual claim?

A correspondent has been in touch regarding an earlier complaint to the PCC regarding the Mail's coverage of same sex adoption. They had complained about the following passage from a column by Melanie Philips in late January:

"Such people routinely claim that research shows there are no adverse outcomes for children from same-sex adoption. These claims are totally untrue. The fact is that there are virtually no studies of children adopted by gay couples – or raised by male same-sex couples. In general, studies of same-sex child rearing are in turn extremely thin on the ground and methodologically too unsound to be authoritative." (To place children with two gay men when an adoptive mother and father are available, just to uphold a brutal dogma, is a sickening assault on family life, Daily Mail, 28th January)

The grounds for the complaint were essentially the same as for ours regarding Amanda Platell - that there are factual inaccuracies that need to be corrected.

The PPC's adjudication (not yet available online, sadly) was interesting:

"While the column had been phrased in stark terms - the journalist had made one claim which was prefaced by "the fact is", for example - the author's claims would nonetheless be recognised by readers as comment rather than unarguable fact. The columnist was entitled to present her particular views on the issue of gay adoption in robust language. Complaints about the accuracy of the columnist's claims had t be viewed in this context."

The adjudication goes on to say that the passage makes readers aware that contrary research exists (the claims which are "totally untrue") and makes claims regarding the methodological soundness of research which are obviously subjective and which would not be assumed by readers to be universally accepted. The PCC did feel that

"the bald statement that it was a 'fact' that there were 'virtually no' studies of children adopted by gay couples was questionable"

however, the newspaper offered to publish letters worded by the PCC or themselves (but not the complainant) highlighting this, and the PCC felt this was sufficient as a resolution. The Commission cited the fact that the Mail was able to point to "some evidence in support of its position", specifically the paper by Morgan, as the reason why a printed clarification would not be appropriate in this case.

This adjudication is an interesting one and I look forward to being able to link to it online. It doesn't bode well for our complaints - for one the Commission appears to be treating all claims in opinion pieces as opinions, 'the fact is' seemingly going from being a paradigmatic factual claim to being a merely subjective one purely by virtue of the page it appears on. The Commission also appears to be viewing the ability to cite anything as a sufficient reason for accepting the robustness of a claim and marking the distinction between needing to publish a clarification and being able to bury a correction on the letters page.

In light of this, while I'm still hopeful that the Commission will see assertions of 'repeated academic studies' and 'an increasing weight of academic evidence' as inaccurate and misleading, I'm no longer confident. Hopefully we will have some news from them soon.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009


So I went back to the Commission pointing out that an old and partisan review study, something by Iain Duncan Smith and a single study provided by me didn't really constitute 'repeated studies' or 'an increasing weight of academic evidence'. They decided that this wasn't something that could be resolved between myself and the newspaper, so passed it over to the actual Commission judging panel to adjudicate on. They will now review the evidence provided by both sides to decide whether the Code has been breached. I feel a bit like the WI are weighing up the merits of my jam...

Monday, 1 June 2009

The PCC reply

The PCC have been in touch regarding the two complaints made so far. To summarise:
- The Mail has argued that the second Amanda quote is not about adoption per se, but about whether the best thing for children is to be brought up in the home of a married couple.
- The Mail has previously argued that the evidence for same-sex adoption being harmless is insignificant and inconclusive, so are in hard position to argue that there is evidence that married couples are better. On that basis, they're removing the 'backed by an increasing weight of academic evidence' bit of the quote from the website and annotating their internal files to show that a challenge was lodged against this claim.
- The Mail has not denied that other studies may disagree with its position.
- Throughout they have defended the right to express opinion in an opinion piece.

The PCC representative also suggested that, should this go to the Commission, they are unlikely to rule on the persuasiveness of the evidence on either side, but merely whether the Mail can justify a claim that 'repeated studies' back its position.

Various bits of this defence are untenable. We can, for instance, proudly stand behind the Mail's right to an opinion while still feeling that they shouldn't make claims about evidence which isn't there. The assertion that Amanda's second comment was not related to same-sex adoption, despite appearing in a paragraph discussing the attitudes of an adoption charity to same-sex adoption is also very questionable, and falls foul of their earlier claims to insignificant research into same-sex adoption in the same way as Amanda's first comment did. The claim that it has not denied that other studies find in favour of same-sex adoption doesn't really help with the misleading nature of the claims.

More pressing, however, is the fact that the Mail has laid claim to 'an increasing weight of academic evidence' and 'repeated studies' which I have not been able to find. The Mail have cited, as predicted, Patricia Morgan and, unexpectedly, Iain Duncan Smith. These do not constitute 'repeated studies' (Morgan is definitely a review piece, devoted mainly to undermining cherry-picked same-sex research, I doubt Duncan Smith was doing primary research), nor 'an increasing weight of academic evidence'.

I'm going to have a think, because removing the inaccurate claims from the online version is nice, although I'm not sure that this goes far enough. It doesn't correct the misconceptions picked up by readers of the original columns, and it doesn't prevent the Mail from repeating them the next time I'm not looking. The one worry would be that the PCC would look at Morgan and Duncan Smith and decide that its place is not to decide on the quality of the evidence, merely whether the Mail had any at all. That would risk giving the Mail a licence to repeat the claims with no come-back from the scientific community, which would not be ideal.