PCC verdict on the Philpott Headline

Disclaimer: All information below is provided by, and on behalf of Zoe Williams (twitter handle @zoesqwilliams). All enquiries are to be directed to her as I was not privy to any previous correspondence between Mrs Williams or the PCC, nor are any of the comments below my personal views or opinions. 

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                  Commission’s decision in the case of A woman v Daily Mail

The Commission received a number of complaints in relation to this article. As such, a lead complainant was selected for the purposes of the Commission’s investigation, in accordance with its standard procedures. The complainant was concerned about a front page article which reported Michael Philpott’s conviction for manslaughter following the deaths of six of his children. She considered that, in failing to distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact, the article had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. In particular she was concerned about statements that Mr Philpott had “bred” his children “to milk the welfare state”, that Mr Philpott “embodies everything that is wrong with the welfare state” and the headline: “Vile Product of Welfare UK”. The complainant considered that this inaccurately suggested that the death of Mr Philpott’s children had been caused by the welfare state. She also considered that it was misleading for the article to have omitted statements from the trial that Mr Philpott viewed his children as a symbol of his own virility; she was of the view that this demonstrated that it was inaccurate to suggest that he viewed the children as a source of income. The complainant was further concerned that the article had not emphasised Mr Philpott’s history of domestic violence.

Clause 1(i) states that “the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, distorted or misleading information”; under Clause 1(iii) “the press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact”.

The newspaper said that the headline had referred to Mr Philpott, not his crime, as being the “vile product of welfare UK”. It said it recognised that this crime was uniquely horrific, and that it was not seeking to generalise from Mr Philpott to the millions of genuine benefits claimants in the UK. The suggestion that Mr Philpott viewed his children as “cash cows” had originally been made in court by the prosecuting barrister who said that “Michael Philpott did not want to work. He just wanted a house full of kids and the benefit money that brings.” The newspaper was of the view that the statement that Mr Philpott “embodies everything that is wrong with the welfare state” was clearly comment, and that its readers would have understood it as such.

Turning first to the complainant’s concerns about the headline, the Commission considered that, taken in the context of the article as a whole, this was an expression of the newspaper’s opinion of Mr Philpott’s character, rather than an assertion that the welfare state was responsible for his crime. In coming to this view, the Commission had particular regard for the fact that the three sub-headlines had referred explicitly to Mr Philpott, his guilt, previous history of violence, and “boasts” of a “sordid lifestyle” – as well as the fact that the article had commenced with a number of statements relating to Mr Philpott’s character, before turning to refer to the specifics of his crime. The headline was a subjective assessment of Mr Philpott in the light of his crimes; it was the newspaper’s opinion that he was “vile”. Consequently it was clear that this was not a statement of fact. As such the Commission did not consider that the newspaper had failed to clearly distinguish this as comment in breach of Clause 1(iii).

The statement that Mr Philpott “embodies everything that is wrong with the welfare state” was a metaphorical expression of the newspaper’s view that Mr Philpott personified its more general concerns about the welfare system. Such a view was clearly a matter of interpretation, and the Commission did not therefore consider that readers were being invited to treat it as a statement of fact. Similarly, the suggestion that Mr Philpott had treated his children as “cash cows” or had used them to “milk” the welfare state was an interpretation of his having funded a widely discussed lifestyle through benefits designed to support his children. The newspaper had been entitled to rely upon views expressed in open court in advancing its opinion on this point, and in doing so it had not presented these as statements of fact. In the light of this, the fact that the newspaper had not published alternative explanations for Mr Philpott’s having had a large number of children had not meant that the article was significantly misleading. Neither had the newspaper been obliged to focus upon his history of domestic violence, although the Commission noted that this was detailed in another article, published in the same edition of the newspaper. There was no breach of Clause 1.

The Commission noted the fact that many complainants had found this article, particularly the headline, deeply offensive; however, it made clear that the terms of the Editors’ Code of Practice do not address issues of taste and offence. The Code is designed to address the potentially competing rights of freedom of expression and other rights of individuals, such as privacy. Newspapers and magazines have editorial freedom to publish what they consider to be appropriate provided that the rights of individuals – enshrined in the terms of the Code which specifically defines and protects these rights – are not compromised. It could not, therefore, comment on this aspect of the complaint further.

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