Sunday Star-Times: Can you look me in the eyes and apologise?

The Sunday Star-Times is very big on the need for accountability in others. How about it demonstrates a bit itself?

A few weeks ago, the Sunday Star-Times ran a front-page story about a fairly routine case in which a High Court judge varied the sentence of a woman convicted for drink driving, quashing her disqualification and instead tripling the amount of community service she must perform. The High Court judge did so on the basis that he accepted there were highly unusual circumstances that led to her climbing behind the wheel that, while they didn't excuse her actions, somewhat mitigated them and so justified using his discretion to lift the otherwise automatic period of disqualification.

Of course, expressed like that the story is, well ... a little bit boring. So the paper decided to spice things up a bit with the banner headline "Sex Attack Gets Drink Driver Off", while linking the case to several others in which drivers caught with excess blood alcohol levels were discharged without conviction. (Note, though - that's not what happened with the woman at issue ... but you'd have to read right through to the story's third-to-last paragraph to uncover that somewhat pertinent fact.)

Now you've got all the elements of a real unit-shifter: sexual titilation; crime; a hint of judicial incompetence. Just the ticket to grab the casual reader's attention, stir up some populist outrage and help start to turn around the paper's steady decline in readership.

Only problem, of course, is that the headline and overall presentation of the story are downright misleading and fall short of the Press Council's accuracy principle. At least, that's what I thought when I read it, and that's what I told the paper in a written complaint.

(Steven Price over at Media Law Journal independently came to the same conclusion and expressed his view in a post under the somewhat cryptic heading "Sunday paper lies to boost circulation!" - c'mon Steven, stop beating about the bush, would you?)

The paper's editor, David Kemeys, responded to my complaint with a half-admission that the story "could have been clearer", but rejected any suggestion that it was inaccurate because (as he also wrote in response to a letter to the editor):

"This woman had already served one ban for drink-driving. She had her disqualification overturned – she got off.

Now, I'm aware that there may be a certain irony in a lawyer chiding anyone for trying to twist the meaning of words until they fit the particular purpose you want, but this struck me as (to use a technical term) baloney. So off to the Press Council I went, to make use of their complaint service.

For anyone who doesn't know, the Press Council is "an industry self-regulatory body and provides an independent forum for resolving complaints involving the press." It's made up of a mix of lay folk and industry insiders, who stand guard over the principles that (it is assumed) any reputable print media outlet should, and should would want to, abide by. The beauty of this body is that complaining to it is simple and carries no cost. The downside I'll get to later.

Anyway, the Press Council met a couple of weeks ago and unanimously upheld my complaint. I know this because I got a letter telling me of its decision last Tuesday, but asking me to respect an embargo until today so that the Sunday Star-Times could be the first to respond. (This embargo also means the decision will only appear on the Press Council website next week.)

Fair enough, I thought. The guardians of the print media's standards - including your peers in the industry - are united in their view that you ran a front page headline and story that was inaccurate and misleading. That's gotta hurt, so you should have the chance to acknowledge your mistake before the rest of the world line up to take their shots at you.

So when I got up this morning and checked the website, I was somewhat surprised that I couldn't see any mention of the Press Council's decision. And I was even more surprised when I got to my usual brunch spot and saw a hard copy of the paper that this silence was replicated therein. Apparently Mr Kemey's thinks it's more important to tell his readers about an aspiring belly dancer's hopes of winning a competition (complete with large picture, of course), or report on the legal status of American pit bill terriers, than it is for him to correct a front page banner headline that the Press Council has ruled inaccurate.

And note that this is the editor's choice. Because membership of the Press Council is purely voluntary, it can't order a publication to do anything. Rather, it relies on those it finds in breach of its standards to do the right thing and tell its readers about the ruling. After all, full accountability to your readers is a primary duty of any serious print journal, right?

Well - if that is the case, then there's only two possibilities open. First, Mr Kemeys may have just been a little tardy in his response, and is planning a full mea culpa for next week. After all, he is still new in his position, so perhaps he needs more than five days notice of a decision to work out what he should do about it. Alternatively, Mr Kemeys doesn't want his readers to know that he used a misleading and inaccurate headline and story to sell newspapers to them, and he hopes the issue will just go away. In which case, you may ask whether the Sunday Star-Times deserves to be called a "serious print journal".

Let me just say I'm not one of those blogosphere denizens who gleefully predict the death of the "MSM", all the while cutting and pasting from and hyperlinking to stories that only the resources and efforts of large journalistic enterprises could cover. Indeed, I've posted previously on the importance of a robust and independent print media.

But next time Mr Kemeys and his paper fulminates about how important "accountability" is, and issues a clarion call for "full transparency" or the like, you might want to think back on this little contretemps and (to bastardise Baudelaire) whisper "Hypocrite auteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!"