LAST month I wrote a piece for the Dorking Advertiser about thieves stealing industrial hemp in the mistaken belief they had discovered fields of cannabis. It was a strong story for a weekly paper in a rural district, combining the three key elements of bungling criminals, disgruntled farmers and illegal substances. Unfortunately, not everyone saw the funny side.
An angry phone call and a couple of strongly-worded letters followed from the wife of a farmer I had spoken to. She claimed that she had not agreed to be named or quoted and that we had breached the Press Complaints Commission Code on clause 1 (accuracy) and clause 3 (privacy). The PCC has now ruled in our favour, stating that there was no breach of the code.
The case raises an interesting point about who holds the power in exchanges between journalists and sources. If a reporter calls you and tells you he is working on a story about a particular issue, should he be required to ask your consent before publishing your comments? Or is the burden on the subject to make it clear that the conversation is “off the record”?
The PCC code is typically hazy on this. It states that “the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information”, and that “everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life”.
A further clause, which covers the dramatic-sounding subject of “clandestine devices and subterfuge”, is perhaps more relevant. It states that reporters must avoid “engaging in misrepresentation” except in the public interest.
We were confident that the commission would rule in our favour as we had acted within the code (though we removed the offending section from the story on our website). I had identified myself as a journalist, said I was working on a story about a particular issue and noted down the complainant’s comments.
She told me I would be better off speaking to her husband, but my deadline was approaching and he was unavailable. At no stage during our three conversations did she indicate that she did not want to be quoted or named.
The PCC ruling sums it up: “In terms of the complainant being unaware that the journalist would quote her, the commission made clear that it has previously issued guidance in this area which states that ‘people should be aware that if they speak to a journalist and do not categorically state that the conversion is ‘off the record’, it may well be regarded as ‘on the record”.
“In this instance, the reporter had not informed the complainant that he intended to quote her but, equally, the complainant – while making clear that another individual may be better placed to comment – had not stated that she had no wish to be quoted.”
While it is not in the same realm as hacking phones, stalking politicians or exposing diplomatic cables, this could set a powerful precedent for the future of news reporting. All too often people make statements which they later regret when they appear in print, and much of the time they will go to the PCC in an attempt to save face.
The press regulator has taken its fair share of knocks in recent months and may not be around in its current form for much longer, but it is nice to get a reminder that the code is not just a stick with which to beat the press. It can also act as a useful mediator, a calm voice among the hysteria that threatens to overwhelm newsrooms as tensions run high.
Most local news reporters are honest, professional people who have no political axe to grind and work hard to operate within the rules. But next time you pick up the phone to us, be careful what you say. It’s on the record.
This piece first appeared at The Guardian.