PCC throws out complaints over ME reporting

Edited version of the Press Complaints Commission's logo, "Fast, Free and Fair", with the latter word partially rubbed outOver the past summer, a number of newspapers and broadcast outlets claimed that some so-called ME researchers had been receiving death threats from so-called militant ME sufferers, such that some had abandoned the field, in one case claiming he found it safer working with the armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan than with ME patients in London. Accusations were made that the “militants” attacked researchers because their research failed to find what they wanted it to find, usually meaning a link to the XMRV retrovirus (which was rarely if ever named in the reporting). This led to a series of bigoted opinion pieces, notably one by Rod Liddle, and a fawning interview in the Times with Simon Wessely, who was also given a space for an article in the Spectator. Almost no space was given for a right to reply by patients or anyone else giving the other side of the story (the Spectator being an exception, which printed two substantial letters in reply to Wessely). Invest in ME filed a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission, a “self-regulation” body funded by the companies which run the papers themselves, which published its decision on the 18th; you can find the PDF here. The short version is that in every case, they either found no breach of any code, or refused to make any decision.

The rejections were generally based on the fact that the opinions issued were indicated to be those of the people interviewed or the columnists who wrote what were stated to be their own views, neither of which are prohibited by the Editors’ Code, on which the PCC bases its judgements. The same code vaguely states in clause 2, “A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for”, which is open to very liberal interpretation, such that the newspapers’ refusal to print substantial letters from patients and patient advocacy groups in response to the anti-patient propaganda was found not to be in breach of the code (p8 of the ruling):

Clause 2 (Opportunity) did not amount to a requirement that balancing or opposing views must be published by newspapers in a comment piece or in response to an article. Rather, it stipulated that individuals must be afforded the opportunity to respond to published inaccuracies when appropriate. While it understood the frustration of the complainant that alternative viewpoints on ME/CFS were often not published, the Commission had not established any significant inaccuracies and as such did not consider that the terms of Clause 2 were engaged.

In fact, the Spectator did publish a letter in response to Wessely’s piece, but other newspapers printed collections of short letters in which large chunks were edited out of some submissions. One of these was from Neil Riley, chairman of the ME Association, reproduced by them here, and the reader might note that the full text of the letter is in the comments and contains fuller refutations of the accusations in the piece by Rod Liddle, which was being replied to. The general tone of the articles they published were hostile to ME sufferers and portrayed them as ignorant and ungrateful towards those treating them, and in some cases lapsed into pejorative language, particularly in Rod Liddle’s article. The code does not make any reference to balance, and it cleverly permits the dissemination of opinion through selective presentation of facts, such that they may only cite certain opinions and barely acknowledge that others exist. There is a section on “discrimination”, but this only refers to the unnecessary reference to an individual’s race, sex, religion etc., not to remarks against whole groups. One section of Invest in ME’s complaint, referring to this clause, was rejected because the clause does not protect groups.

The PCC is not a regulatory body; it has little sanction and can only issue slaps on the wrist, not fines or suspended circulation. Nick Davies, in Flat Earth News, noted that of all the complaints made to the PCC, more than 90% were rejected without any investigation; of these, the majority are resolved through an apology or clarification, and of the 1.6% of total complaints which lead to an adjudication, just 0.69% were upheld (Flat Earth News was published in 2008, and these figures relate to a ten year period up to either that year or the year before). It is not in the interests of the PCC to uphold complaints, which is why the code is so vague; the current chair of the commission’s Editors’ Code of Practice Committee is none other than Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail (he was its chairman from 1999 to 2008), which is notorious for all the dirty tricks seen in the ME hatchet job, often perpetrated against other minority groups: disabled people (often indirectly, by running prominent stories about benefit fraud, making it look more prevalent than it really is), benefit claimants, certain minorities such as Muslims (with repeated, prominent stories about one tiny and diminishing group of extremists in particular) and Gypsies/Travellers; according to Davies, the paper has a racist internal culture. There is no reason to expect the PCC to take a stand against biased, bigoted reporting; it understands the trickery journalists and editors use to advance such agendas, because it’s stacked with present and past practitioners.

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