An Idea to Improve Newspaper Corrections

Emotions play a big part in many complaints against the press. Invasions of privacy undoubtedly hurt a person’s feelings, and often a person’s sense of their damaged reputation is related to how they think other people perceive them. In many cases, all the wronged party seeks is a correction in the newspaper. They would happily forgo substantial financial damages if only the newspaper would apologise and publish a correction.  The BBC’s current series See You In Court makes this point very clearly in the case of Sheryl Gascoigne, smeared by three tabloid papers.

Unfortunately, “equal prominence” corrections cause problems for the press. Newspaper editors are often reluctant to publish corrections, because it weakens their credibility, and damages the editorial control they feel they have a right to retain. Very often, news companies would prefer to pay damages and keep quiet about a mistake, rather than print an apology. When the corrections do come, they often seem unsatisfactory to the claimant, buried within the paper.

I have been experimenting with Flipboard and Instapaper this week, two iPad applications which pull content from sources on the web, and repackage it in their own typographic design. This is only possible because web designers have realised that their content must be “platform agnostic”. Design and Content are now kept totally separate in the digital world.  These are the fruits of a battle fought and won against <table> layouts and text embedded in JPEGs (see my Creative Review letter of 2005 for more on this).

It occurred to me that in 2011, news organisations can afford to make all their content similarly agnostic, at very little extra cost. Currently, when they publish a correction, they routinely do so somewhere obscure in the paper, and on an equally obscure page on the website. But Flipboard reminds us that the newspapers are not bound by how their content is displayed online.  Modern technology and cheap digital printing means this same flexibility applies offline, too. Just as I can enlarge the font on a web-browser so everything appears in 40pt Arial, so content printed in the middle pages can be brought to prominence too. I think a few well placed instructions in this area, from the PCC to the newspapers they regulate, could reap psychological dividends for the complainants at no extra cost.

My idea: when the PCC rules against a paper and orders an apology, the paper will print that apology as usual. However, it also publishes, online in PDF form, a redesigned version of then same article. The alternative design template carries the style sheet of the front page of the paper, complete with masthead and a big bold typeface. This PDF is formally ‘published’ by the newspaper, with it’s own ISSN – derivatives of the papers main ISSN are available for electronic editions and supplements.

I’ve mocked up an example, using a recent clarification English PEN secured from The Sun, following a complaint to the PCC.  The first image is the actual clarification as it appeared in the newspaper.  The second is the same text, redesigned by me.

What this means is that the redesigned apology can be reprinted, reproduced and distributed by the claimant and anyone else who wishes to comment on the story. This satisfies the crucial psychological itch at the heart of many complaints to the libel courts and the PCC. Meanwhile, the editors and publishers retain control over the design of the main printed product they put on sale, and the cost of creating a supplementary version of their article is zero (you would just type in a reference to an article and click ‘generate’). In previous times, designing and printing an alternative design was prohibitively expensive. Now the cost is trivial, meaning publishers would have no grounds to refuse to perform such a repackaging.  This idea isn’t perfect, but it would offer more redress than the current process.

Question:  Does compelling a publisher to re-issue something they have published, but with a different design, constitute an infringement of free expression?