The press watchdog mostly looks the other way when complaints are made, but it mustn't brush this one under the carpet
Something unusual is going to happen tomorrow. The Press Complaints Commission, Britain's only arbiter of fairness and accuracy in our newspapers, is due to make a ruling. What's so odd about that? Well, as Nick Davies shows in his book Flat Earth News, out of 28,000 complaints to the PCC submitted over 10 years, it managed to make a formal adjudication on just 448, or 1.6%. Most of the time it finds a reason to look the other way. This isn't too surprising: six of its 16 commissioners are newspaper or magazine editors.
But tomorrow's case is so serious, and the evidence that has accumulated over the past seven months so strong, that even the PCC can't brush it under the carpet. It concerns the London Evening Standard's reporting of the climate camp established close to Heathrow airport last August. Soon after it opened, the paper accused the campers of putting the lives of millions at risk by planning to invade the airport and plant hoax bombs. The story was repeated by the Sun, the Mail, the Express, the Telegraph and the BBC. I have now seen the correspondence about this case. It makes astonishing reading.
The front page article, written by the paper's chief reporter and headlined "Militants will hit Heathrow", claimed that "climate change activists plan to use illegal tactics such as hoax suspicious packages to cause maximum disruption at one of the busiest times of the year. They have also discussed simultaneous assaults on the airport's security fence to stretch police resources to the limit." Inside the paper, a journalist called Rashid Razaq - who spent a night undercover in the camp - reported that one man was "urging us to get them panicked with different things at the same time, like bags left around the airport and people climbing the fence'. Late that night, I saw two protesters checking out the security fences." As the organisers of the camp began to investigate, the story started to fall apart. They also discovered that this is not the only occasion on which Razaq has been accused of taking liberties with the truth.
How did Razaq see protesters "checking out the security fences"? The camp was at least a kilometre from the airport fence - he could not have seen anyone from there. When challenged by the campers, the Evening Standard claimed that "Mr Razaq had left the camp to go to a nearby petrol station to buy food when he was returning to the camp with a colleague, Sebastian Meyer. Their route back took them close to the perimeter fence of the airport, where he saw two men whom he recognised from the camp. One was trying to climb the fence while another kept watch." The Evening Standard contends that "it was a sufficiently light night to recognise faces".
There are several problems with this story. As photos and maps produced by the campers show, neither the petrol station nor any part of the route to the camp is close enough to the fence to recognise faces. Meyer is a professional photographer. If, somehow, they had seen people at the fence, and managed to recognise them as protesters, why did they not take photographs? I put this question to the Evening Standard's managing editor, Doug Wills. "He didn't take any photos of it because it was pitch black." But the Standard had already claimed that "it was a sufficiently light night to recognise faces". I asked Wills for a map reference for the section of fence. He has not been able to provide one. And why, if one of the protesters was trying to climb the fence - a more serious matter than merely "checking it out" - did Razaq not report this?
What about the claim that the protesters were planning to plant hoax bombs? The Standard explains that the man who raised the plan was "white and in his late 20s". "He used words to the effect: 'We need to make people sit up and take notice. Leave some packages around Heathrow. That'll make them take notice.'" This is a completely different statement to the one quoted in Razaq's article. In the published version, someone else - "a woman in her 30s" - says "we have to make people sit up and take notice". None of the alleged statements amounts to a "plan" by the camp.
But the real problems arise when you see Razaq's notes, which were obtained by the PCC after several requests from the campers. At first Razaq claimed that "I made an accurate note of what was said as soon as the meetings finished". But when the notes were released, they turned out to be dated "13/8" - the day after the events Razaq describes. They contain none of the damning quotes or descriptions the Evening Standard published. The only quoted speech was an intention to make "a big impact and make people around the world sit up and take notice, to know we mean business", this time attributed not to a man in his 20s or a woman in her 30s, but to a "group of three campaigners". Why did Razaq record this and not the far more serious instigation to plant hoax packages, supposedly made by the same man, in the same breath, at the same meeting?
Razaq has also been accused of misreporting by the Freud Museum in London. In January last year he claimed it was showing a film containing footage from al-Qaida recruitment videos, "outlawed in most western countries". It wasn't being shown. The curator told me: "He made up details. He put in facts that were completely wrong. I think he is one of those journalists who is prepared to just go and make up a story." Doug Wills told me that the curator had informed Razaq that the al-Qaida film was in an exhibition. Wills forwarded an email from the curator, which mentions the film but not its inclusion in the show. Ironically, the title of the exhibition was Paranoia.
In January this year Razaq wrote that he had gone undercover as a cleaner in Barnet Hospital, and found staff flouting basic safety rules. The hospital tells me that he was in fact employed as a porter, and that he misunderstood or misreported the rules. The Standard insists Razaq was a cleaner. When I spoke to Mr Razaq, he referred me to statements by the managing editor.
Is the Evening Standard worried about his reporting? Not a bit of it. Of the Heathrow coverage it says: "We are 100% satisfied that our published reports were fair and accurate on a matter of public interest." They were not just Razaq's work, but the product of "an extensive operation organised by an extremely experienced team of executives and senior reporters". When the Freud Museum sent a letter of complaint, the paper neither published the letter nor replied to it. The problem seems to be a systemic one.
I don't know how the Press Complaints Commission will rule. But the evidence I have seen suggests that if the Evening Standard is not required to publish a correction, we need a bolder arbiter.