Councils face an uphill battle in challenging inaccurate reporting on social work because the Press Complaints Commission’s adjudication process is loaded in favour of newspapers.
That was the message from Bob Franklin, an expert on the representation of social work in the media, and Julian Petley, professor of journalism at Brunel University. They said the problem was highlighted by the PCC’s handling of a recent case involving Edinburgh Council and the Daily Mail.
Edinburgh complained to the PCC, which is funded by newspapers and magazines, that the Mail had misled readers in its coverage of an adoption case in which two boys were placed with a gay couple.
With the PCC’s intervention, the Mail published a letter from Edinburgh’s lead member for children and families, Marilyne Maclaren, on 15 July.
But the original version, which has been seen by Community Care, differed significantly from the published version.
Allegations that the reporting was biased, inaccurate and merged conjecture with fact were removed, along with a warning that the Mail’s coverage would harm efforts to recruit social workers and foster carers.
“This shows how desperately difficult it is to get a fair hearing after being on the wrong end of unfair reporting,” said Franklin.
An Edinburgh Council spokesperson said that it had been deemed appropriate to conclude the complaint by having the edited letter published. However, Community Care understands the council plans to publish the original letter on its website, a move supported by Franklin and Petley.
Petley added that the case underlined the unfairness of negotiations between the PCC and complainants, who are typically “pushed to accept something which is a good deal less strong than they would really like”.
Stephen Abell, deputy director of the PCC, rejected this allegation. He said the council “accepted the publication of the letter – with that wording, which was based on a text submitted by Councillor Maclaren – as a means of settling the case”.
Abell added that “the PCC did not in any way compel this acceptance”.
“Had the complainant suggested that the council was unhappy with the [edited] letter, the commission would have reached a full ruling on the case,” he said.
“The commission has a clear majority of public members, including the chairman, and none of the staff are journalists. This guarantees its independence.”
Community Care‘s Stand Up Now for Social Work campaign is calling for an end to inaccurate and misleading reporting on social work. We are running a half-day workshop for practitioners on working with the media on 2 December in London. Phone 020 7347 3574 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org