Memorandum submitted by Claire M Jordan:
on behalf of the late Eric Cullen
Mr Eric Cullen, late Scots comic actor, was
the victim of long-term sexual abuse from age 13. He was pressurised
into storing child pornography at his home by his abusersa
claim accepted by the Crownbut pled guilty in 1995 to a
number of minor charges to avoid a potentially harrowing trial.
The Scottish tabloid press, with the notable exception of the
Sun and the Daily Express, pursued and persecuted
Mr Cullen from the moment news of the cache inquiry was leaked
(by police or CPS) until after his death from heart disease aged
31. Throughout, distorted and inaccurate reporting of Mr Cullen
as himself an abuser of children and user of child pornography
was repeated and recycled. Complaints to the PCC on behalf of
Mr Cullen's parents were rejected. The impression was given of
a cosmetic exercise by the PCC in which arguments, and information
presented, were not engaged withor perhaps even read.
This is a tale of persecution; trial by tabloid;
and the shifty incompetence of the Press Complaints Commission.
It concerns the late Scots comic actor Eric Cullen, best known
as "Wee Burney" in the TV show Rab C Nesbitt.
Eric, an achondroplastic dwarf, kept the height
and proportions of a child all his life. His size, very poor sight,
unaggressive temperament and internal adhesions from which he
suffered kept him as physically vulnerable as a child. At thirteen
Eric was raped by an uncle, Jack Williams, and convinced that
being a dwarf and "only" adopted, he would be sent to
a children's home if he disclosed anything. Williams belonged
to an organized, sadistic and violent paedophile ring and Eric
was subjected to gang rape, torture and systematic degradation
well into his twenties.
Strong-willed and resilient, he nevertheless
achieved a degree and a career. After a brief respite his abusers
returned to assault him physically and sexually and extract money
with threats of revealing his years of sexual humiliation to the
press and, by extension, to his adored parents whom he wanted
to protect from the knowledge. He also believed that this gang
would torture, even kill him if he defied them.
Eric already had a great fear of the press.
The Daily Record had pursued "Wee Burney's girlfriend"
so relentlessly it caused the breakup of a relationship which
might otherwise have led to marriage. When he had traced his birth-mother
the Daily Record had persuaded her to sell the story of
their reunion against Eric's wishes, leading to a permanent estrangement
In summer 1993 some of Eric's abusers terrorized
him into allowing them to cache part of their collection of illegal
pornography at his house.
Another adult victim of the same paedophile
ring informed Strathclyde Police that the gang had stored extreme
child pornography in the houses of various terrorized victims,
including himself and Eric. The informer did not care if the gang
punished him because he was dying of Aids anyway. The police
collected the pornography from Eric's house quite sympathetically.
Eric was asked to keep this confidential to avoid alerting his
abusers that the police were investigating. However, within a
few hours the news was leaked to the Scottish media, presumably
by someone in the Strathclyde Police or the Crown Prosecution
Certain Scottish tabloids promptly vilified
Eric as a "child-porn pervert"particularly the
Daily Star of Scotland, which had decided that "Wee
Purvey" made a good sound-bite. This media scandal helped
lose him his careera serious blow, since it was the only
thing which made him feel good about himself.
The Scottish Sun behaved well, but confused
the issue by careless sub-editing. In an interview, Eric mentioned
one of his abusers by sub judice name. Instead of "my
abuser" or "this man" the Sun's subs changed
it to "my gay lover"giving other tabloids the
false impression Eric was homosexual, and openly so. Eric had
no prejudice against consenting-adult gays, but he was himself
Eric was so devastated by shock and embarrassment
and the gloating shock-horror headlines that he suffered a major
breakdown. While he was a psychiatric patient he had to endure
media-inspired vigilantes howling hatred at the hospital gateswhile
the tabloids joked about his "Wee Burn-out".
Eric immediately offered to give evidence against
his abusersbut this was refused. Instead, he himself was
charged with possession of pornographic material which the CPS
acknowledged had been dumped on him with menaces. Police also
found two undeveloped photographs, taken years before, showing
Eric and two younger boys "mooning". Eric insisted these
belonged to, and were taken by Francis Currens, one of his abusers,
as part of that abuse. However, Eric was charged with exposing
himself to minors. He was also charged with making a "lewd"
video (in that he had made a 3-hour film of a Boys' Brigade weekend
which included a 15-second clip in which some of the boys in the
shot were still dressing).
According to the police at least one other victim
had been landed with illegal pornography, but only Eric was charged.
He seemed to have been singled out for prosecution to avoid the
tabloid claims of soft treatment for celebrities. Scotland
on Sunday reporter Dorothy Grace Elder, a friend and supporter
of Eric's, later wrote that "... behind the scenes the establishment
admitted they had so little evidence against Eric Cullen it would
have been highly unlikely he'd have been prosecuted at all if
the case hadn't been made high profile instantly."
Eric agreed to plead guilty to committing these
offences under duress, but the case was spun out for two years
without coming to court, during which time he suffered a second
acute mental breakdown. While Eric was a psychiatric inpatient
Strathclyde Police held an illegal public briefing on his sub
judice case, at which the press was fed a luridly inflated,
inaccurate version of the charges he facedsome confusing
Cullen with his abuser Currens. Journalists were told the connection
between Cullen and Currens was that they "met in a Gents'
lavatory"implying that they were partners in perversion,
and omitting to mention that Eric was 14, and had been taken there
in school uniform for Currens to rape.
Scotland on Sunday quoted the Procurator
Fiscal [note for non-Scots: this is the state prosecutor, equivalent
to American District Attorney] as saying "Don't touch the
police stuffit's rubbish": but most tabloids accepted
the most scandalous version without bothering to check it. This
was, to be fair, neither surprising nor entirely their fault:
I suppose they weren't to know they were being deliberately misled
by the police, and to such an exaggerated extent.
In July 1995 Eric pled guilty to four charges:
possession of illegal pornography dumped on him by someone else;
having exposed himself in two "more vulgar than sexual"
photographs; having taken these photographs; and having shot a
"lewd" video-clip at a Boys' Brigade weekend.
The Crown's explanation of the first
charge was "The appellant was too frightened to resist Currens'
demand that the appellant store part of Currens' library of pornographic
material", and the presiding Sheriff stated that Eric had
been absolutely cleared of any suspicion that he was a child-abuser.
The prosecution reported that neither
boy in the "mooning" shots had any complaint against
Eric, and one couldn't remember the incident (it does not seem
ever to have been claimed that the boys actually said Eric took
the photographs). The photographs were undeveloped.
The "lewd" video sequence
consisted of 15 seconds of a roomful of boys milling about in
tracksuits plus a few still dressing part of a three hour film
of a weekend's camping. This clip alone was regarded as dubious
out of three hundred hours of Eric's home movies. The camp organiser
had been present during filming and had subsequently viewed the
tape with police stating that she saw nothing sexual in it. The
boys concerned had been interviewed and had cleared both Eric
and the tape as innocent.
Since Eric was pleading guilty, his lawyer offered
in mitigation that he had committed these offences as a result
of abuse. Shortly afterwards a life-long, "dangerous"
sex-offender would be fined £200 by a Scottish court for
abducting boys aged four and five and groping their genitalsbut
Eric was fined £1,000 and sentenced to nine months in Barlinnie,
apparently to satisfy the tabloids.
The instant the case ceased to be sub judice
the Scottish broadsheets carried interviews with Eric, held just
before the court-case, in which he had stated:
that the "vulgar" photographs
were taken by Currens, as part of a pattern of abuse in which
he was routinely forced to pose naked;
that the BB video was entirely innocent,
and had been cleared as such by the camp's organizer and all the
that he had pled guilty falsely to
get the case over with; because he had been threatened that if
he insisted Currens took the "vulgar" shots Currens,
of whom he was petrified, would cross-examine him in court; and
because he did not want to put ninety BB boys through the ordeal
of testifying on his behalf (I can confirm that he had a horror
of "being a nuisance"); and
that while helping police identify
other victims he had watched the pornographic videos for the first
and only time; and that far from his enjoying what he himself
termed "this filth", seeing other boys raped by his
own abusers revived terrible memories, resulting in complete mental
Whether or not the press believed him, this
was Eric's version of events, prominently reported (in the broadsheets)
and consistently and vehemently repeated by him. After his death
certain tabloids would state that he freely admitted being a "child-porn
pervert" warped by abusea distorted version of his
lawyer's mitigation plea. The Daily Mail would present
him as a revolting paedophile who publicly claimed his own suffering
excused his abusing others, and whose supporters agreed with this.
Even if Eric had been genuinely guilty of all
offences to which he pled guilty, these offences were minor. Yet
most tabloids concentrated on him rather than his abusersapparently
unconcerned by an organized group of sadistic rapists being left
free to prey on children, provided the press could whip up a juicy
scandal about someone in "showbiz".
The broadsheetsand the Scottish Sun,
which behaved impeccablyvariously reported that:
police had not found Eric's fingerprints
on the pornographic material;
police had interviewed large numbers
of children known to Eric (who worked with children all his adult
life, including a spell as a primary-school teacher), and not
one had any complaint against him whatsoever;
the "lewd" video was a
15-second clip showing a roomful of boys milling about in tracksuits
plus a few still dressing, taken from a three-hour record of an
this 15-second scene was the only
item considered suspicious out of three hundred hours of Eric's
the woman running the BB camp had
viewed the offending tape at a police station and sworn that she
saw nothing sexual in it, and all the boys concerned had been
interviewed and had indeed cleared both Eric and the tape as innocent;
the "vulgar" photo's had
been shot several years previously and were found undeveloped
(so there was no question of their being used for any sexual purpose);
Currensnow undergoing psychotherapy
in prisonhad admitted abusing Eric, wished to apologize,
and confirmed Eric had never been involved in paedophile activities
except as a victim.
Further information reported only after Eric's
death, but which could have been known to any paper which bothered
to ask, included that:
Eric's psychiatrist Dr Prem Misra,
one of the foremost experts in Britain on the treatment of sex
offenders and their victims, was certain that Eric showed no trace
of any sexual deviancy whatsoever, was purely a victim, and had
pled guilty because he had been so traumatized by having to watch
film of other boys being assaulted by his own abusers that he
hadn't the strength to argue;
Eric had been warned that if he refused
to plead guilty to all charges the case would be spun out for
another year; and
aspects of the case suggested that
Strathclyde Police and/or the Crown Prosecution Service actively
didn't want to investigate the paedophile ring which abused Eric
(eg the CPS refused for over two years to permit investigation
of Eric's uncle, a church elder, saying he had no history of sexual
offences and there was nothing against him except Eric's wordwhen
in fact Williams had a prior conviction for a serious sexual assault
on a teenage boy, which the CPS later admitted but claimed to
have lost all record of: there has still been no serious investigation
of a man that Eric named as ringleader, who also has a history
of sex offences)?
Other significant points which were not reported,
but which again were available for the asking, included that:
the BB video had been intended to
be shown at Christmas, making it vanishingly unlikely Eric would
knowingly have included any indecency; and that the camp's organizer
was in the room with him as he filmed the supposedly "lewd"
Eric had been warned that if he pled
not guilty over the "mooning" shots and "lewd"
video he would be regarded as having pled not guilty to possession
as well and his abusers' horrific tapes, which had already driven
him into acute nervous breakdown, would be played in his presence
Nevertheless most tabloids took it as read that
Eric was a proven pervert slavering over vile "kiddie-porn".
Clearly these papers had decided what story they wanted to tell,
and then bent the facts into a pretzel to fit. This is a result
of the overheated tabloid style. A sober, cautious paper can produce
a sober, cautious report that eg child-pornography has been removed
from X's home, and later report that the circumstances were not
as first assumed. A tabloid which has immediately gone overboard
on screaming headlines about "Wee Purvey" can't change
its tune without major loss of face.
The Daily Record printed quotes attributed
to an anonymous police sourcewhich conflicted radically
with information given by an anonymous police contact to the broadsheets,
and ranged from severely slanted to completely fictional. For
example, the Record's contact was quoted as saying police
had investigated Eric's claim that he'd been abused and had found
no corroboration. According to the Lord Advocate no such investigation
had then taken place. It wasn't until two and a half years after
Eric first offered to testify, and only as a result of persistent
nagging by Eric and his friends, that the Lord Advocate ordered
an investigation into Eric's unclewhich found plenty of
corroboration from other victims.
The Record's contact with its anonymous
policeman was crime reporter Stephen Wilkie. Wilkie was later
sacked for "increasingly bizarre behaviour" which culminated
in his arrest on a drugs charge, but at the time the Record
trusted his opinions.
The anonymous policeman himself was DI Stephen
Heath, who had led the investigation into Eric. We know this
because the Record slipped up and printed the same quote
twice, once attributed to DI Heath and once to its anonymous police
source. DI Heath was the officer who held the illegal and (according
to the Lord Advocate himself) wildly inaccurate press briefing.
Eric would later sue him for malpractice and incompetence, although
Eric's death meant this was never concluded.
For Eric, prison alone was terrible enough:
years of being shut into cubicles to be gang-raped had left him
nervous of other men and with a panic terror of being locked in.
But because of the tabloids' reporting other prisoners believed
him a child-molester, a "beast". He was placed in danger
of the rape and beatings he'd thought he had escaped forever:
a contract was taken out on his life, and he had to face crowds
of prisoners shouting insults and threats. However, more accurate
accounts in the broadsheets and Sun improved matters, and
he was released after fifteen days pending an appeal.
The Record reported the threats against
Eric's life and then complained that he had been given special
privileges because he had spent his imprisonment (and his thirtieth
birthday) in a suicide-proof cell, partly to protect him from
other prisoners. It also complained that he had been given soft
treatment because he had been allowed his own clothesthough
it must have been aware, since it was prominently reported elsewhere,
that this was because no prison-issue clothes would fit him. Evidently
it thought it would have been appropriate for the prison authorities
to send him out naked to be beaten to death.
Leading up to his appeal, the relentlessly hostile
and inaccurate coverage by, inter alia, the Record bordered
on conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Various tabloids
campaigned for him to be sent back to the prison which he was
sure he would not survive. Given the state of his heart he was
probably right: so if these papers had had their way they would
have been sending him to his death.
The day before the appeal the Edinburgh Evening
News carried a screaming headline "PUT WEE BURNEY BEHIND
BARS", accompanying a report predicting a forceful popular
demonstration against Eric's release. In the event this massed
expression of the people's will consisted of three curious females
who appeared to be on drugs (who were there on behalf of a convicted
murderer from Leithbut that's another story).
Despite the worst efforts of the press Eric's
sentence was quashedby a notoriously hard-line judge who
described the offences of which he had been convicted as "very
much at the lower end of the scale". That didn't end the
harassment by the press, however: and the Record reported
the judgement in such a way as to make it seem that the judge
had stressed how grave Eric's crimes had beeninverting
the emphasis of what Lord Ross had actually said.
He was portrayed as "Wee Purvey",
a "child-porn pervert" etc. at every opportunity. When
Eric tried to state his own case the Star called him a
"professional victim" who should just shut up about
it. Glasgow's local Evening Times printed wild accusations
of financial impropriety supposedly made against Eric by his birth-motherof
course without mentioning that she had only met him once, years
before, had had no contact with him since, and could not possibly
know how he conducted his bank-account.
No-one, including Eric himself, knew that he
was dying of heart-diseasebut all the papers knew that
he was an acute suicide risk, and must have realized that their
behaviour could be the death of him, yet one journalist (not Wilkie)
told him the only picture they wanted was of him in his coffin,
and they would get it. This deliberate effort to push him over
the edge was, in effect, attempted murder. When Eric actually
did take an overdose he was besieged by journalists who surrounded
the hospital. Most coverage at that time was quite sympathetic:
but the Record, inevitably, still characterized him as
"shamed pervert". Typically, it wasn't enough for the
Record to say that he had taken sleeping pills: it had
to carry a big headline saying that he had "gulped"
them, making him sound as unattractive as possiblethough
having known Eric I have difficulty imagining him doing anything
The Record's crime reporter Stephen Wilkie
pursued Eric and his friends obsessively: indeed Wilkie's actions
were investigated by the police, though as far as I know nothing
came of it. At the time, "stalking" was not an offence.
The Record/Wilkie portrayed Eric as an
hypocritical pervert for campaigning against child-abuse, and
accused his friends the McFarlans of endangering their children
by having him around. Over two years previously, when the story
was first leaked to the press, Eric had been working on a promotional
video with Bill McFarlan; whom he then barely knew. Owing to the
media scandal and Eric's breakdown Bill had cancelled this job.
Subsequently he became Eric's close friend and dedicated supporter:
but the Record/Wilkie reported Bill's cancellation of this
video as a recent event proving that even Eric's close friends
were ashamed to work with him.
Gentle, witty and warmly sympatique, Eric had
more and more devoted friends than anyone else I've met, and seemed
to be on first-name terms with half Lanarkshire. He lived in Hamilton,
the industrial town he'd grown up in, in an ordinary (if nicely
furnished) house on an ordinary estate, next door to the notorious
Hillhouse estatehome of the burnt-out car and the curfew.
Almost painfully refined and respectabletypical exclamation
"Oh gosh"he remained a local lad who liked
a laugh and a pint. At the height of the scandal neighbours sent
their children to clean and shop for him and asked him to baby-sit,
to show their absolute trustagain reported in the broadsheet
Nevertheless the Record played politics-of-envy,
portraying him as a sybarite living a life of unreal luxury in
his "posh" home, surrounded by "showbiz chums".
E.g., it reported that after Eric's appeal "showbiz pals
crowded round him" (to separate him from the ordinary decent
man in the street?). Only one of these "pals" actually
was connected with "showbiz". I know because I, an NHS
computer-programmer, was one of them.
Characteristic of the Record's/Wilkie's
style was the prominent coverage of any story, however petty,
which could conceivably show Eric in a bad light (did readers
really need to know he owed his lawyer money?), whilst ignoring
major events which showed him in a good one. It portrayed his
supporters as subversive cranks for having criticized the conduct
of the police towards himyet fell mysteriously silent when
the Lord Advocate did the same, and ordered Strathclyde Police
to begin the investigation into Eric's abusers which the Record's
police contact had claimed had already been held. Nor did it report
that Eric was suing its police contact for malpractice. It did
once briefly mention Eric "claimed" the pornographic
tapes etc. weren't hisbut never that the Crown had agreed.
There seemed to be an element of inter-paper
rivalry involved. The Sun was for Eric so the Record
had to be against him and perhaps vice versa, and similarly the
Express was "pro" so the Mail had to be "con"irrespective
of the actual evidence. A very clear example was provided by the
Mail's coverage of the Saudi Nurses story. The Mail vigorously
supported their claims of innocence until the Express outbid
it to buy their stories, whereupon it as vigorously asserted their
guilt. The facts hadn't changed, so it was highly unlikely both
opinions were reached by rational deduction: rather, the Mail
simply went with whichever version it thought would sell and/or
would demarcate its patch from that of its territorial rival.
Eric received widespread support and sympathy
from eg religious and civil liberties organizationsas reported
in the broadsheet press. His determination to testify against
his abusers to protect other children, at whatever psychological
cost, was praised by the broadsheets and The Big Issue.
The UK Press Gazette named columnist
Dorothy Grace Elder Reporter of the Year, "awarded for initiative,
determination, and graphic writing of general and news feature
reports", specifically "for submissions on the `Wee
Burney' case", describing Eric as "wrongly convicted".
"This story was unfamiliar to many of the
judges, but it gripped like a Dick Francis thriller. To espouse
a cause with a background of child abuse is neither easy nor popular,
but the mild and defenceless Eric Cullen, subjected to controversial
police procedures, a savage sentence and a horrific ordeal in
the toughest of jails, found a true champion whose coverage throughout,
including his ultimately successful appeal, had the authentic
bite of first-rate human-interest reporting."
In contrast with the hysterical coverage by
most Scottish tabloids, the Scottish Sun, while not particularly
taking sides as to Eric's guilt or innocence, took the reasonable
line that either way the accusations against him were very minor,
and the courage he was showing in attempting to save other children
from appalling abuse was very great. Esther Rantzen backed him
absolutely, and as part of its quasi-religious Moment of Truth
series the BBC produced a showpiece programme highlighting
Eric's suffering and his courage (and indicating that his own
sexual inclinations were heterosexual). He was offered work, though
he was too unwell to take it.
A month after his thirty-first birthday Eric
had emergency surgery for a twisted bowel. Afterwards he was in
good spirits, surrounded by nurses who cheered his arrival, queued
for his autograph and told him it was an honour to welcome him
to a different sort of theatre. The BBC asked him back as Wee
Burney, though he was too fuzzy with morphine to take it in properly.
Two days after the operation, he suffered a fatal heart-attack:
a post mortem showed his heart was "80% diseased". Mourners
packed a large church and overflowed to line the roads for a hundred
yards, as if he were royalty.
After his death, a close friend of Eric's said
that it would have been better for Eric if the police had never
turned up on his doorstep and he had simply gone on being beaten
and abusedbecause he could cope with being raped far better
than he could deal with the intrusive and lying behaviour of the
press. I don't actually think this is trueEric himself
said publicly that, whatever else had come of it, the police raid
was a good thing in his life because at least it brought an end
to the abuse. But the mere fact that a close friend of his could
suggest such an exchange shows what overwhelming distress Eric's
public pillorying had caused him.
Eric died of heart-disease inherited from his
birth-father, who had himself died of a heart-attack in his forties.
The papers knew the medical cause of his death, but nevertheless
some of the tabloids carried screaming headlines claiming that
he had "died of shame". If there was any logic to this
at all, the implication had to be that the stress of his so-called
"shame" had overloaded his already weakened heart. But
if stress was a significant factor in his death, then the greatest
blame for it must go to the greatest source of stress in his lifethe
barbaric cruelty of the British tabloid press.
In September 1996 I contacted the Press Complaints
Commission regarding misleading, distorted and inaccurate coverage
of Eric's death by the Daily Record, Daily Star of Scotland,
Edinburgh Evening News, Scottish Daily Mail and Scottish
These papers heavily implied that Eric had been
convicted of being a user of extreme child pornography and might
be a child-abuserthings he had, respectively, never been
accused of and been actively cleared of.
The Mail, Record and Star stated,
and the Evening News implied in a late-edition follow-up,
thatas the Record put itEric "insisted
it was the childhood abuse which led him to seek sordid sexual
gratification". There was no excuse of ignorance. The Record,
Mail and Evening News quoted Eric on the abuse he'd
suffered, taken from interviews in other publications, to support
the thesis that he was a self-confessed pervert warped by his
own terrible experiencescompletely suppressing the fact
that these interviews had revolved around his furious denial that
he had ever sought "sordid sexual gratification" for
any reason whatsoever.
Eg The Daily Recordself-proclaimed
FALLEN STAR: Cullen dreamed of being a Hollywood
hero but he died of shame SAD LAST DAYS OF PINT-SIZE PERVERT
Tiny Perv Eric Cullen had big dreams of Hollywood
But, instead of seeing his name in lights, the
shamed actor found seedy infamy in newspaper headlines.
His glittering telly careerwhich made
him a household name . was tarnished overnight with revelations
that he was embroiled in kiddie porn . . .
. . . he insisted it was the childhood abuse
which led him to seek sordid sexual gratification . . .
These papers were entitled to disbelieve Eric's
versionbut not to claim that he had "insisted"
the reverse of what they knew he had really said. I was not asking
these papers to take sides over the issue of Eric's guilt or innocence:
I was and am only trying to get the press to present both sides
of the story accurately and fairly.
These papers also portrayed the two "mooning"
shots which Eric was accused of takingwhich, even if he
had taken them (which he hotly denied), were accepted by the Crown
as merely "vulgar"as flagrantly pornographic
full-frontals of genitalia, and/or as multiple "photographs
of boys in various stages of undress"a phrase used
in court to describe material belonging not to Eric but to his
The Record and the Mail portrayed
Eric as a villain: the others, as perverted but pitiable. The
Star and Mirror did mention Eric "claimed"
the pornography belonged to his abusersbut neither mentioned
that the Crown agreed, and the Mirror said Eric had said
he was looking after this material as a favour for his "friend"
The Star, slightly schizophrenically,
did carry a page of glowing tributes from neighbours; but the
Record, Mirror and Mail portrayed Eric as having
"died of shame" amidst "widespread shock and revulsion
at his crimes": a "lonely figure" isolated and
abandoned by all right-thinking peoplewhich was so wide
of the mark it was farcical.
A small but telling instance of bias was the
Mail's description of Eric as a failure at school, implying
stupidityomitting to mention that he had been severely
disturbed by atrocious abuse, and had nevertheless gone on to
gain a BA degree in Social Sciences and Psychology.
In addition, the Record's prominently
portrayed Eric's birth-mother as his "real mum" bereaved
of her adored son, who had been turned against her and made miserable
by his wicked "showbiz chums"making out that
their estrangement was all Eric's fault. The Record must
have been aware of the bitter, mutual and highly public feud between
mother and son which it itself had caused.
The Record, Mirror and Star did
later report that at Eric's funeral Rev. Stan Cook described Eric
as "innocent", but in a way which did little to mitigate
the effects of their earlier reports. The Record, eg falsely
described Eric's ministerwho would normally be accepted
as an unbiased character-witnessas his "best pal".
Rev Cook was portrayed as probably deluded by sentimental attachment,
and as claiming Eric was innocent of being a child-abuser and
user of child-pornographythings he had not in fact been
accused of. There was no hint of the actual case for Eric's innocence.
The PCC asked for authorization from Eric's
next of kin before proceeding. Eric's parents wrote to the Commission
telling it to treat my complaint as coming from them, and the
PCC accepted my authority to act in this matter and conveyed my
complaint to the papers. It centred around inaccuracy in what
was reported, and distortion by what was not reported, ie any
of the evidence in Eric's favour, including the official opinion
of the Crown. There were also minor points eg concerning gender-bias;
and the Record's portrayal of the estrangement between
Eric and his so-called "real mum" as due to his being
corrupted into callousness by the McFarlans rather thanas
was in fact the caseto her decision to sell the story of
their reunion to the tabloids against Eric's express wishes.
The Commission sent me copies of the defences
submitted by the papers against my complaint, and requested my
comments. So far so good, though Bill McFarlan predicted that
the PCC would find a way to wriggle out of it; a senior journalist
warned me that the Commission exists to protect the interests
of the press against the public rather than vice versa; and someone
else described complaining to the PCC about the press as "like
taking somebody up for poaching before a committee of poachers."
The Star defended its claim Eric "insisted"
abuse made him "a gay pervert", saying Bill McFarlan
told it so, and Eric had also told the Sun he was gay.
Bill actually told the Star memories of abuse made Eric
feel "asexual"sexlessnot "homosexual":
and the Sun quote was the afore-mentioned disastrous subbing.
The Star asserted that the public would
understand references to Eric "hoarding evil child pornography
videos" and having a "sordid secret sexlife" as
meaning that both the videos and the sordid sex-life had been
forced on him against his will. I conducted a survey which proved
this wording would cause the public to assume Eric wanted the
videos and the sordid sex-life, and sent the results to the PCC.
As it turned out this was a wasted effort: events would show that
the PCC had no interest in whether the papers' defences were true
or reasonable, since it meant to accept them regardless.
The Star's insistence that it was appropriate
to refer to Eric's "sordid secret sexlife" because he
had been raped reinforced my existing complaint of gender discrimination
in breach of the PCC's Code of Practice, on the grounds that no
mainstream paper would imagine this was a reasonable way to describe
a female rape victim.
The Mirror's defence amounted to "We
didn't mean what we said but we're not going to correct it".
It admitted it knew what the relationship between Eric and Currens
was and suggested that it should have called Currens Eric's "acquaintance"
rather than his "friend": again reinforcing my complaint
of gender discrimination, since no mainstream paper would call
a rapist a "friend" or "acquaintance" of a
female victim unless they'd known each other well before the rape.
The Daily Mail's reaction was "This
is a long and complicated complaint and we can't be bothered to
deal with it". The Mail seems to regard the PCC as
a pushover: probably not unconnected with its then Editor-in-Chief
being a senior member of the Commission. The Mail on Sunday
later published an in-depth article on Eric, which concluded
that he was the innocent victim of a miscarriage of justice: but
its sister-paper the Daily Mail never retracted its assertion
that Eric was a self-confessed pervert who publicly claimed that
his own abuse justified his revolting crimes; who had been convicted
of offences he was actually cleared of; and who had died an object
of universal disgust.
The Record admitted in black and white
to deliberate bias and suppression of the evidence, stating that,
because Eric's version of the charges against him didn't match
what it had been told by its contacts, it had decided not to report
Eric's own statements about his own story (Eric's version of the
charges of course matching the Crown's). The text of its answer
was even more hysterical and inaccurate than the original articlesbeing
mainly a list of reasons why it thought Eric was a pervert, in
the form of wild misquotes of the already very inaccurate data
provided by Stephen Wilkie and his more or less anonymous policeman.
I pointed out that the issue of Eric's guilt
or innocence was largely irrelevant. The case made for and by
Eric was a major part of the story, whether the Record believed
it or not and indeed whether it was true or not. Genuine newspapers,
as opposed to propaganda rags, are supposed to report all the
facts and let their readers make up their own minds: not make
readers' minds up for them by filtering those facts to fit their
editorial opinion. The Record's sincere if confused belief
that Eric had been convicted of taking 300 indecent photographs
which the Crown in fact accepted as belonging to Currens did not
absolve it from mentioning that large numbers of other persons
and organizations thought otherwise.
The Edinburgh Evening News explained
that it hadn't had time to do any research so it made it up (reallyit
wasn't put quite so bluntly, but that was the gist of it). I replied
that the Evening News is owned by the same company as,
and shares a building with, two prominent Scottish broadsheets
which had carried full reports which would be available from their
I demonstrated that most excuses offered by
these papers were spurious. Despite this, the PCC swallowed whatever
the papers had said on their own behalf and regurgitated it as
its adjudication. E.g., the Edinburgh Evening News submitted
a defence that it had published a longer and more sympathetic
piece in its final edition. I pointed out that this was irrelevant,
since this longer piece repeated the same errors as the earlier
one plus a few more, and was actually more misleading than the
original. The PCC rejected my complaint of inaccuracy against
the Evening News on the grounds that it had published a
longer piece in its final edition.
The implication was that the Commission never
actually read my response to the papers' defencesand asked
me to provide one only to create an illusion of giving my complaint
a fair hearing, when it had never had any intention of so doing.
One point concerned the Record's headline calling
Eric a "pint-sized pervert". The PCC's Code of Practice
forbids pejorative reference to physical handicap. It also states
that the Code must be honoured in the spirit as well as in the
letter. In its adjudication the PCC paraphrased what the Record
said about it, which was that Eric's car number-plate was
A4 WEE. I considered this was
(b) adhering to the spirit of the Code not
"as well as" the letter but instead of it; and
(c) reinventing that spirit to fit the Commission's
Had the Commission presented sensible reasons
for rejecting my complaintreasons which I hadn't already
shown were spuriousI would have accepted its judgement.
However, the PCC did not deal with my complaint in any meaningful
The Commission's adjudication entirely ignored
many points of my complaint. Instead, it pretended I had raised
quite different points which fitted the answers it wished to give.
For example I had stated at least five timesonce for each
paperthat I wasn't objecting to these papers expressing
the opinion that Eric was a "pervert". Under the PCC's
Code of Practice papers are entitled to express any opinion, however
unsupported, provided they make it clear that it is just an opinion.
I was complaining about them claiming falsely
that Eric had actually been convicted of being an owner and user
of "vile" child-pornography and an habitual manufacturer
of numerous grossly indecent images. However, the PCC piously
rejected my complaint about the papers expressing the opinion
that Eric was a pervertwhich I hadn't madeon the
grounds that the papers were entitled to express any opinion they
likedwhich I'd already said.
The Commission took the line that it was understandable
that the papers had made the assumptions that they did. In fairness
to the tabloids, at the time of Eric's original court-case even
one broadsheet journalist who was supporting him had assumed the
"vulgar" photo's both belonged to Eric and showed boys
"flashing". However, there was no justification for
any paper to claim that Eric himself admitted taking these photo's
(other than in pleading guilty), since his very detailed and forceful
statements to the contrary had been prominently reported, and
some of the tabloids were certainly in possession of these statements
which they quoted as regarded other matters.
In any case, the fact that it was understandable
that reporters might have become confused as to what Eric was
charged with and why, was irrelevant. The PCC's Code of Practice
states that papers must distinguish between opinion and fact,
and correct any serious errors which may occur: it does not exempt
errors resulting from honest misunderstanding, or opinions which
seemed reasonable on the basis of that misunderstanding. By suggesting
that it does, the Commission was once again a) adhering to the
spirit of the Code instead of the letter; and b) making that spirit
up as it went along.
The PCC did acknowledge errors of fact in all
cases, but ruled that these were not significant enough to warrant
correction. That is to say, it did not consider that portraying
a man who had been cleared by the Crown of being a user of child-pornography
as having been convicted of being a user of child-pornography
was a significant error!
There was absolutely no indication that this
irrelevant ruling, which failed to address either much of my complaint
or the PCC's own Code of Practice, was intended to be other than
completely final. Unlike the Broadcasting Standards Commission,
the Press Complaints Commission is not a statutory body. It answers
to no-one, and there is no redress if it doesn't do its job. However,
this is the sort of thing we have MPs for.
I contacted Robin Cook, who is based near me
and has an interest in the press. Mr Cook wrote back expressing
sympathetic interest but referring me to my constituency MP Malcolm
Chisholmthe MP who later resigned from the Cabinet on a
point of principle. Malcolm proved to be an absolute gem.
Malcolm contacted the PCC, informing it he had
also written to Chris Smith. Almost by return he received from
Lord Wakeham, the Commission's chairman, a letter so defensive
that a teacher friend said it sounded like a shifty schoolboy
explaining why he hadn't done his homework. Lord Wakeham protested
that the PCC was not "a committee of poachers" since
it also has lay members, and said what a pity it was I hadn't
expressed my dissatisfaction to the Commission at the time, and
if I would state my reasons for considering that my complaint
had not been dealt with adequately he would speak to the Commission
about re-opening it.
Lord Wakeham stated that the Commission's main
reason for rejecting my complaint was that Eric was no longer
alive to comment and only he could know the full facts. I wrote
to him as follows:
"This is entirely irrelevant. I was extremely
careful to confine my complaint to matters which were in the public
domain and/or could be confirmed by persons directly involved
and still living; ie with whether the papers concerned had presented
an accurate, undistorted picture of the known events of the case.
We do not need Cullen himself, alive, to confirm that he made
such-and-such a statement to the press, when it was quoted verbatim
by The Scotsman and The Herald. We do not need him
to tell us that the Crown accepted absolutely that he was not
the owner or user of the tapes found in his possession, nor that
the sheriff at the original court-case stressed that he was not
being accused of being a child-abuser, nor that the conduct of
Strathclyde Police towards Cullen was severely criticized by the
Lord Advocatethese things are documented.
Presumably you mean that only Cullen himself
could know whether or not he really was a gay "pervert"
etc. This is beside the point. I stated repeatedly that I was
not complaining about these papers giving their opinion that Cullen
was a "pervert" etc: just to their falsely presenting
this as the opinion of the Crown; and suppressing all evidence
to the contrary even where this had received wide coverage from
the heavyweight elements of the media...
Cullen's living word would not contribute particularly
to the debate: since the Commission would have no proof that he
was telling the truth. We have to consider information which is
available and provable, which the papers which were the subject
of my complaint signally failed to do."
Lord Wakeham stated that one criterion used
in assessing complaints of distorted coverage was whether a report
had made it clear there were two sides to a story. I pointed out
that whilst these papers had presented two sides, they had invented
Eric'sclaiming his explanation was that he was a pervert
excused by his own suffering, or that he was doing a favour for
a paedophile "friend". This was more misleading than
openly one-sided coveragemaking readers think they'd been
told Eric's version of events and there was nothing more to say
Lord Wakeham's letter included a summing-up
of the case as the PCC understood it. This listed my original
complaint, and the papers' responses to that complaint, in some
detailif not very accurately. But it made no mention at
all of the reply in which I had refuted almost all of the papers'
responseseven though the PCC itself had asked me to make
that reply. Given that in its original ruling the PCC had simply
accepted the papers' excuses as gospel even though I had shown
they were rubbish, I have every reason to believe that it had
never even read my replyand that I was asked to make it
for purely cosmetic reasons.
Lord Wakeham's summing up of the case also misunderstood/misrepresented
many of the points in the original complaint. I pointed out these
distortions, and the general omission of any mention of my original
A detailed document, setting out exactly why
I considered that the PCC had not dealt with my complaint adequately,
was sent to Lord Wakeham on 4th February 1998 as per his request.
In March 1998 Eric's abusive uncle Jack Williams
was convicted of extreme sexual offences against three boys. In
covering this, the Record, Star and Mirror again
portrayed Eric himself as a user of extreme child-pornography.
All stated that Eric had been "jailed for... possessing obscene
videos, showing him with two under-age boys"an identical
distortion which they must have copied verbatim from some press
agency report. The Star in addition printed a vast headline
describing Eric as "WEE PERVY", a photograph captioned
"... Evil abusers turned Cullen into a perv" and statements
that Eric had been "nicknamed Wee Pervy after a child porn
conviction" and had "claimed William's [sic] sexual
abuse had turned HIM into a perv" after having been "jailed
for child porn offences".
The tabloid tendency to refer back only to their
own previous pieces, without outside input, magnifies inaccuracies
by "Chinese Whispers". Eg, in covering Eric's death
the Mirror, despite prominently describing Currens as Eric's
"friend", did also say "Cullen claimed he paid
Currens... blackmail money to stop him from naming the actor as
one of his sex victims". By the funeral report the Mirror,
quoting itself out of context, had made Currens Eric's "friend"
(im)pure and simple. Had the PCC adjudicated in favour of my original
complaint, an accurate account would have appeared as a correction
in all these papers and been filed under "Wee Burney"
where the reporters covering Williams could see it. Since only
their editors had seen my complaint, they reproduced the same
I raised a supplementary complaintmainly
in hopes of galvanizing the PCC into action. A few weeks later
I withdrew this secondary complaint against the Record (only)
since it had published a much fairer, more accurate piece on the
occasion of Williams being sentenced. Then I largely forgot about
In July I wrote to Malcolm pointing out that
it was now five months since I had sent Lord Wakeham my reasons
for considering the PCC's adjudication inadequate, and I had still
had no response. Malcolm wrote to the PCC, which then sent me
a reply which I could see at once was negative. This arrived close
to the anniversary of Eric's death, and owing to emotional stress
I was unable to look at it in detail for several weeks.
When I did, I discovered the PCC had again replied
to a question it hadn't been asked. Instead of answering Malcolm's
enquiry as to the status of Lord Wakeham's offer to re-open my
original complaint, its response concerned the ancillary complaint
about coverage of the trial of Eric's uncle.
Enclosed was a ruling on this secondary complaint
which it claimed it had already sent me, although I hadn't received
it. It rejected my complaints against the Record, Star
and Mirror (despite my having withdrawn the one against
the Record) on the grounds that I wasn't directly involved
(even though it was in possession of a letter from Eric's parents
telling the Commission to regard me as their proxy).
Accompanying this was a letter, addressing me
but in response to Malcolm's inquiry, stating that:
"These complaints went over much of the
essential matters raised by your original complaints and the Commission
were of course aware of your objections on these when they considered
the more recent matters.
The fact remains that the Commission did not
feel that it could deal more fully with the alleged inaccuracies
in the unhappy circumstance that Eric Cullen is no longer alive
to comment on the events in his life."
This is obvious nonsense.
(a) Nothing in the PCC's Code of Practice
suggests it cannot deal with complaints concerning the dead.
(b) If it were the PCC's normal practice
to reject complaints on behalf of the dead, it would not have
asked me for authorization from Eric's next of kin, without any
suggestion this was an unusual request. It clearly has an established
routine for such complaints.
(c) These are not merely "alleged"
inaccuracies. They are misrepresentations of the outcome of a
court case, presenting the defendant as convicted of something
of which he had not been accused, ie being a user of extreme child-pornography.
Once again the PCC was making its so-called
Code of Practice up as it went along.
In September I pointed out to Malcolm that I
had still not received any word on the status of Lord Wakeham's
offer to re-open the original complaint, seven and a half months
after providing the documentation he requested. The indications
were that even if the Commission responded it would again say
"we cannot deal with this because the subject is dead"
despite this being demonstrably irrelevant. The PCC seems to have
no interest in reasoned assessment of complaints, but only in
finding any excuse to sidle out of a complaint involving papers
whose editors are prominent members of the Commission. I believe
Lord Wakeham only offered to re-open the case because he knew
Robin Cook was interested, and once Mr Cook looked less like Blair's
successor-in-waiting he decided he could safely ignore the matter.
I pre-empted the PCC and sent what was basically
a preliminary version of this article to Roger Gale MP, Vice Chairman
of the Conservative Backbench Media Committee. He wrote to Lord
Wakeham pointing out that the whole affair is now a matter of
"legitimate Parliamentary record", he would be grateful
if Lord Wakeham would now "respond very specifically to each
of the individual points" in my complaint, and he "await[ed
his] detailed response with very considerable interest".
Lord Wakeham, however, again rejected my complaint
on the grounds that:
(a) Readers would have understood that the
repeated statement that Eric was a "child-porn pervert"
was only editorial opinion.
(b) It was impossible to rule on whether
the papers had been inaccurate when they claimed that Eric was
convicted of being an owner and user of child-pornography, since
Eric was no longer alive to tell us what the actual charges against
him had been.
(c) It was impossible to rule on whether
the papers had been inaccurate when they claimed that Eric's official,
public version of events was that he was "perv" corrupted
by his own suffering, since Eric was no longer alive to confirm
that he had really made the numerous verbatim quotes and written
statements in which he furiously denied being any sort of pervert.
(d) I had no right to complain on Eric's
behalf as I am not a close relative.
Even more interesting, characteristic and symptomatic,
this reply by Lord Wakeham was tacked onto the end of the exact
same summation of the case which he had sent to Malcolm Chisholm
a year before. It had obviously just been Copy-and-Pasted from
the original. You may remember that on that occasion I had written
to Lord Wakeham about the fact that his summation distorted many
of the points in my original complaint, and omitted the whole
of my reply to the papers' responses. Yet here was that exact
same text, with all its inaccuracies.
Once again, it seemed clear that the PCC had
not read what I had written and had never had any intention of
doing so. The whole business about offering to re-open the case,
asking me to explain why I felt my complaint had not been dealt
with properly etc. had been nothing but a front to fob off Malcolm
Roger Gale and I wrote back pointing out that:
(a) Readers had been told, quite falsely,
that Eric had been convicted of being a user of child-pornography,
which would certainly make them think the "child-porn pervert"
label was a statement of fact; and in any case the PCC's Code
of Practice states that "newspapers. . . should distinguish
clearly between comment, conjecture and fact"not that
they should bung them all in together and vaguely hope their readers
would be able to sort it out for themselves.
(b) Everyone else concerned with the court
case, including the Procurator Fiscal who set the charges, is
very much alive, and I had already offered to provide official
documentation from the court.
(c) All the reporters etc. to whom Eric
had made the statements denying his guilt are still alive to confirm
it, and if the PCC won't take their word there's actually no reason
why it should take Eric's.
(d) The PCC had been instructed to accept
me as a proxy for Eric's parents by them, and had accepted me
as such quite happily for two years.
Lord Wakeham, however, replied that the PCC's
ruling is final and it has nothing further to say on the matter.
I am therefore proposing to take it up with the Court of Human
Rights at The Hague. Roger Gale considers that I have a good case,
but I have to think it through thoroughly and decide exactly how
I am going to present it before I begin, since I can't afford
In spring 1999, following reports about a book
being written about Eric by his friend Bill McFarlan, Edinburgh
Evening News columnist Helen Martin wrote that "The fact
is that Eric was found in possession of child porn videos. Yes,
he was a victim himself. So are many practising (unlike Eric)
paedophiles. That may explain in part, but it doesn't excuse.
It doesn't help us forgive their crimes or their support of an
illegal industry which subjects children to assault in the name
of entertainment. It doesn't, no matter what [Bill] wants to believe,
turn them into innocent victims." (Eric and Bill had in fact
founded a charity specifically to combat the child-porn industry).
I called the writer concerned: and she was actually
very apologetic and helpful when she heard the true facts. She
printed a correction stating that Eric's supporters say that the
pornographic tapes etc. found at Eric's house had been dumped
on him by his abusers (and saying that if this was true then it
was "the most appalling miscarriage of justice ever")followed
by a letter from myself pointing out that this was also the official
opinion of the Crown.
This means that, alone of the five papers which
were the subject of my complaint, the Evening News has
now informed readers of the all-important point that the Crownnot
just a handful of sentimental friendsbelieved that Eric
Cullen was not a "child-porn pervert". It also demonstrates
why it is so important to get corrections into print. Perfectly
decent, well-intentioned journalists who happen to be in a hurry
get their "facts" by rummaging through their own paper's
clippings file on a given subject. Even if an editor acknowledges
an error, if the correction never appears in the paper itself
it never gets into the clippings library, so the inaccuracies
of the original story are endlessly regurgitated.
It also proves conclusively that I was right
in the first placewhen I complained to the PCC that the
Evening News' original coverage of the story would mislead
people (in this case, one of its own reporters) into thinking
Eric was the owner and user of the "library of pornographic
material" which the Crown itself said belonged to his abusers.
In summer 2000 the Daily Record and its
sister paper the Sunday Mail published articles claiming
to "prove" that Eric was an active abuser. These were
based round a report that Eric's former supporter, Betty Maxwell
Carter, had seen film of Eric abusing a boy. Even if this had
been true it wouldn't have proved Eric was a pervertit
is sadly very common for abusers to force abused youths to "perform"
with fellow victimsbut in fact it was almost certainly
pure fantasy. I suppose it was understandable that the Record
should believe such a story, coming as it did from a friend of
Eric'sbut if they'd been on the ball the fact that she
was admitted to a psychiatric hospital a few days later should
have warned them to treat her story with caution.
In 2002 the Record published a series
of articles about the fact that Betty, now on the board of a prominent
charity, had invented an imaginary brother and an imaginary fellow
committee member: though typically it portrayed her as deliberately
bad rather than (as her medical history suggests) mad. It still
managed to use this against Eric, by mentioning that "Bad
Bet" had been a friend of his but notof coursereminding
readers that she had been the source of its most recent accusations
against him, which were therefore totally unreliable.
Even if the Press Complaints Commission had
responded adequately to my complaint, and even ruled in my favour,
it is clear that it would have done so not because it had given
serious consideration to the issues involved but because I threatened
to hit it with a big stick. As the former publicity officer of
a human rights charity I have the confidence and know-how to do
so: but anybody who lacked my prior experience and bloody-minded
persistence would have even less hope of getting a fair hearing.
Many people in Britain regard the press not
as a champion of liberty but as a force of oppression in its own
right. A dealer in Japanese antiquitiesnot someone who
would normally be considered disenfranchisedonce said to
me with regard to the British press and the PCC "I hate the
lot of them, but we're only little people: what can we do?"
I fear that the system in which editors sit
on a committee adjudicating on complaints against their own papers
means that no major complaint will ever be passed except by threatening
to hit the Commission with a big stick. It's like finding that
the defendant in a court-case is also the judge, the jury and
both the defence and prosecution counsel. The more respectable
tabloids promise piously that they will abide by the rulings of
the PCCbut that's an easy promise to make when they themselves
decide what those rulings will be.
It would surely be fairer if voting-rights on
complaints were confined to the lay members of the Commission,
with the press members acting in a purely advisory capacity. As
things are, the "little people" don't stand a chance.
Labour doesn't want to limit the freedom of
the press by making the PCC a statutory body. However, this basically
just means giving legal status to the Code of Practice. The Code
allows papers to say whatever they like (within the limits of
eg libel laws which already apply): it simply requires them to
correct errors, and to differentiate between fact and speculationhardly
the end of the free world. At present the Code isas Charles
Moore, Editor of The Daily Telegraph, and a prominent member
of the Code Committee, put itlike Stalin's constitution
for the Soviet Union, the Code was wonderful in theory, but in
practice not worth the paper it was written on because it was
not applied (The Daily Telegraph, 18 September 1997).
This is a quite separate matter to the issue
of privacy laws. In considering whether or not to introduce stronger
laws to protect the privacy of the individual, there is a possible
conflict between the interests of the individual and those of
the wider public who mayfor whatever reasonwant
or need the individual's privacy to be invaded.
As regards tightening up the accuracy of press
coverage, the interests of the individual and of the wider public
are identical. Not only is it against the individual's interests
to be lied aboutit is against the public's interests to
be lied to. This was particularly true in Eric's case, since he
was not just a public figure but one who was very much loved,
and many people will have been cause quite unnecessary distress
by the entirely false reports that he was a "child-porn pervert"
A journalist called Meg Henderson wrote that
Eric had caused great emotional harm and loss of innocence to
children, because they had had to find out that a public figure
they had trusted and admired really had sexual designs on them.
Eric of course had no such designs: but since the press caused
children to think that he had, the harm will have been done anyway.
We uphold the unique rights of the press because
it claims to perform a public service, disseminating the facts
readers need to make informed judgements. If its product is largely
fictionalas in Eric's caseand it doesn't bother
to correct it when this is pointed out, then it isn't real news
but disinformation which actually makes it harder for readers
to make informed choices; it isn't a public service, just commercial
entertainment; it isn't sacrosanct; and there's no reason why
it shouldn't be subject to the same controls as broadcasting.
Most con artists attempt to extract a lot of
money from each of a few victims. Papers which present wild invention
or unsubstantiated rumour as if it were real news are perpetrating
a confidence-trick designed to extract a little money from each
of hundreds of thousands of peoplebut the motive is much
the same, and the profits even greater.
Personally, I recommend the following:
(a) That a statutory body be set up, having
much the same set of rules as the current Press Complaints Commission
but actually applying them, according to reasonably consistent
standards which could be verifiedas opposed to making it
up as it goes along as is the case at present.
(b) That the code of conduct applied to
the press by this statutory body be set by a committee consisting
mainly of members of the press (as is the case with the current
Press Complaints Commission)but that decisions on whether
that code has been breached should be made by independent lawyers,
with members of the press acting solely in an advisory capacity.
This would prevent the sort of situation I faced, in which I found
myself complaining to a committee which was chaired by the editor
of the paper I was complaining about!
(c) That papers should be allowed to choose
whether to opt into the system of statutory controls or not: but
that if they choose not to they should be legally obliged to carry
a prominent notice of that fact, warning readers that the paper
has chosen not to guarantee the accuracy of its content.
(d) That papers which do opt into the system
should be obliged to publish prominent corrections of any serious
inaccuracies, either voluntarily or after a ruling by the statutory
commission. At the same time it should be accepted that mistakes
do happen, so these corrections should be presented as the paper
fulfilling its obligations to its readers, rather than as a punitive
imposition by the commission.
(e) That if a paper fails to correct a serious
inaccuracy, even after being instructed to do so by the statutory
commission, the commission should have the power to impose a significant
(f) That this fine be imposed not against
the paper as a whole but against the editor who refused to print
(g) If a system of fines is found to be
undesirable or unworkable, or if an editor refuses to pay such
a fine, papers which fail to print prominent corrections after
being instructed to do so should be considered to have opted out
of the system of controls, and thereafter be obliged to carry
a prominent warning as at (c) above.
In response to Malcolm Chisholm's intervention
I received a letter from the Department for Culture, Media and
Sport saying that the PCC provides a valuable public service free
of charge, that making it a statutory body would be unprecedented
and unworkable, and that the government would only do so if the
system of self-regulation broke down completely. I wrote back
pointing out that the Broadcasting Standards Commission provides
a clear precedent and a similar public service and works very
well, and that the only reason self-regulation couldn't be said
to have broken down was that in order to have broken down it would
have to have been working in the first place.
I didn't get a reply.
30 March 2003