Archive for April, 2009
This is a guest post from Matthew Cain who is leading the work of the independent press review group:
The ASA receives far more complaints than the Press Complaints Commission – 463% more. Why is this?
1. The difference is long term
The number of complaints to the ASA is up 9% on last year. The number of complaints to the PCC increased by 8%. The differences in the number of complaints has always been there.
2. It’s not because there are more adverts
The figures to prove this can only be assembled at disproportionate cost. But I don’t believe that more adverts are produced each year than number of articles in the UK press. Just look at the volume of advertising in a typical newspaper in proportion to the number of articles (there were 1870 complaints about advertising in the national press).
3. It’s not because the ASA spends more on advertising
The ASA spent £334,595 on advertising last year that is as much as 270 %the amount the PCC spends (the figures aren’t directly comparable in the annual reports so it could be as little as twice as much) which doesn’t account for 462% more complaints.
4. It’s not because there are more grounds for complaint for an advert
The code of standards in advertising is drawn more widely than the PCC code, to include consideration of whether an advert could “cause offence”. However, the PCC’s 4698 complaints includes those that were rejected for not being within the remit of the PCC. Moreover, the PCC suggests it received only around 10,000 enquiries last year so there are substantially fewer people who are considering complaining about the press.
5. We don’t get more upset by bad advertising
The most complained about advert attracted 840 complaints, compared with the 584 complaints received about the most complained about newspaper article. Therefore, we can conclude that newspaper adverts attract greater motivation to complain.
6. It’s not because people accept a different standard from the press
Our tolerance threshold of advertising does not appear to be significantly lower than our tolerance of the press. The Guardian received 22,500 complaints from its readers in 2008 – almost as many complaints about one newspaper as the whole of the advertising industry.
7. Is it because the ASA is more tough?
The ASA’s work last year led to 2475 ads being changed or withdrawn. The PCC doesn’t publish a comparable figure. The ASA issued 772 formal adjudications compared with the PCC’s 45 so the PCC actually adjudicates on comparably more cases and saw a 40% increase in adjudications, compared with a 27% increase for the ASA.
8. It’s not because the PCC is doing a bad job at ruling on its code
There were 49 requests for a review of an ASA ruling to its internal ombudsman with 8 cases upheld. That compares with 52 complaints to the PCC’s charter commissioner with 5 cases upheld.
So why do you think the ASA receives so many more complaints?
I’m delighted to report that the Orwell Diaries blog, set up and run by the Media Standards Trust (well, Gavin who sits opposite me to be precise) has made it to the shortlist of the Webbys.
When, back in 1859, John Stuart Mill wrote that truth – provided it wasn’t suppressed - would eventually triumph, he also added a caveat. As long, he said, as there are people prepared dig it out and make a song and dance about it. Actually, his language was rather more polished than mine, he wrote:
‘The real advantage which truth has consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it’ (JS Mill, On Liberty).
It’s that caveat I’m most interested in, particularly with regard to the media coverage of the G20 in London.
The coverage would, of itself, make for a wonderful doctoral thesis: the attempts by government to control the media within the summit by penning all established correspondents within a single venue, while outside there was a morrass of dissonant voices – reporters, protesters, police, onlookers. While all the while everyone was publishing furiously in text, audio, photographs and video, across multiple platforms and thousands of outlets.
But within the multiple major narratives and thousands of individual stories was one particularly tragic one. A man trying to return home from work who, trapped in the protests, died of a heart attack.
The initial ‘truth’ of how Ian Tomlinson died was shaped mainly by the police. The police said they were told a man had collapsed, they found and examined him, contacted an ambulance, and moved him because bottles were being thrown at them by protesters (from Guardian, 8-4-09).
But we live in a different media age. Not just an age of mass reporting but an age of mass recording. Most people now carry a mobile phone that can certainly take still photos, may well be able to film video, and record audio. Now, if you are at a newsworthy event – and a G20 protest most definitely counts as a newsworthy event – then the chances are you will be recorded many times, by many people.
And you can publish what you have recorded, without fear of suppression, to the world. Technologies like AudioBoo allow you to audio record and then, with a couple of clicks, upload it to the net. If JS Mill were alive today, you figure he’d be pleased.
So, given people’s ability to record and publish you would assume that, amongst the millions of still photographs and the thousands of videos that someone, somewhere, would have recorded the death of Mr Tomlinson and, as important, the minutes leading up to his death.
But how do you find it? How do you track down something you don’t know exists recorded by someone you don’t know how to identify? Here’s where we come to Mill’s caveat. You need someone willing and able to take alot of time, and a media outlet willing to provide the oxygen of publicity. The Guardian did this with the story of Mr Tomlinson. It found it, published it as their lead story, and gave it the context with which people could appreciate its authenticity (article and footage here)
Would the ‘truth’ surrounding Mr Tomlinson’s death have come to light had it not been sought out by journalists, and then published as the lead story in the Guardian? Perhaps, but I don’t think so.
Good journalism has always been about digging out information, authenticating it, and contextualising it. But in our new media world where every voice can, theoretically, be not only heard but recorded and published, our need for journalists – who can, in Mill’s words, ‘rediscover’ the truth, is greater than ever.