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Corrections: The art of getting it right after getting it all so wrong –especially Scottish Review

Veteran journalist and editor Hamish McKay discusses the art of the Newspaper correction which has come into vogue again in recent weeks.

Newspaper corrections and clarifications are very much a current topic as the Daily Record, Daily Mirror and other papers in the Trinity Mirror stable this week followed the Daily Mail’s example by launching a penitent stool nook on page two.

However, Andy McSmith in his diary column in The Independent, immediately pounced, pointing out: “On Tuesday, the Daily Mirror did the honest thing and reported that it could be implicated in the phone-hacking scandal because of a suspicious entry in a private detective's notebook.

“And it got the facts wrong. The paper reported that the notebook might contain the words ‘the Daily Mirror’ when it meant that there might be a person's name in it ‘relating to the Mirror’.

“So in the corrections column yesterday, the Daily Mirror corrected a report in the Daily Mirror about the Daily Mirror. Surely a first in British journalism.”

In his evidence to the Leveson inquiry on press standards, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian , explained that in his statement to the inquiry on press freedom last month, he quoted David Broder, the former Washington Post commentator, and his definition of what a newspaper was – a "a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we heard about in the past 24 hours ... distorted despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias by the very process of compression that makes it possible for you ... to read it in about an hour".

That passage, and exposure to the American tradition of public editors or ombudsmen, inspired him to appoint Britain's first Readers' Editor in 1997, said Rusbridger.

“We note with encouragement that, since the start of your inquiry, two other newspaper groups have decided to publish regular corrections and clarifications columns on page 2. We would be happy to share with you our thinking and experience based on nearly 15 years of running truly independent columns, and the value they bring for the newspaper and for readers.

“This very local, responsive form of regulation – what counsel to the inquiry termed, I believe, ‘internal regulation’ – seems to us the cornerstone of responsible journalism and has a material impact on culture, practice and ethics.”

There was a certain element of buck-passing from the Daily Mail when it said on Wednesday: “Due to a miscaptioned agency picture, the photograph accompanying yesterday’s ‘Lesser Spotted Siblings’ was not in fact of Wayne Rooney’s brother John but of his other brother Graeme.”

It is doubtful if readers know or care what an “agency” picture is and the Daily Mail could just have held its hands up and simply said: ‘we got it wrong’.

For the most honest and graceful of corrections, there was a masterpiece this week on the media website, Scottish Review.

It is so beautifully written by the editor, Kenneth Roy, that it is best to let it speak for itself.

“I should make it clear (for the avoidance of doubt, as our learned friends insist on adding) that, when it was announced here on Monday that Miss Shirley Temple, the film actress, was no longer a threat to the existence of small magazines because she had been dead for some time, readers were not necessarily expected to accept this statement as literally true. It was intended to have the quality of biblical metaphor.

“Or, to put this another way: she's no' deid yet.

“Within half an hour of her demise being casually mentioned in parenthesis, a vigilant reader emailed with the shocking intelligence that, not only is the lady still alive at the age of 83, she sits on the boards of such charming companies as the Walt Disney Corporation and the Bank of America.

“Good heavens, she is very much in a position to threaten the existence of small magazines should it come up her still functioning back to do so.

“The disturbing possibility arises that, on top of our other worries, she might be able to sue us on the grounds that the accusation that she is dead is damaging to her reputation for being – well – alive.

“In such a potentially litigious week, this would be too much. If a writ arrived from California, possibly off the Cargolux flight due to arrive outside this window later today, we would probably just lie down in Liberator House and die ourselves.

“Alternatively, we could attempt to mount a defence. We could say – it would have the small merit of truth – that when news of Miss Temple's current robust state of health hit us, the deputy editor gasped audibly.

“She then swiftly removed the offending reference to Miss Temple's demise and a more accurate version of Monday's editorial was substituted.

“But would this do any good? It could be argued that significant damage had already been done. Readers of the Scottish Review in many parts of the world, across several time zones, had come to terms (as people do) with the sad realisation that they had somehow failed to notice that Shirley Temple had popped her clogs yonks ago; the truth being that she is alive and well and running the Bank of America, a source of great comfort to investors everywhere.

“The next pressing question: what is my excuse? I might well plead (m'Lud) that I was distracted by the soft purring of the Scottish literary community and so hypnotised by its use of big words that I quite forgot which film actresses were still alive and which had passed to that Universal studio in the sky.

“Or I could fess up and acknowledge that, since Shirley Temple had raised her action against the magazine Night and Day as long ago as 1936, I lazily assumed that, 75 years later, she would be 'no longer with us'. What I failed to remember – it was my fatal mistake – was that Miss Temple came to the suing business earlier than most.

“She was only eight years old at the time, which surely makes her the youngest libel claimant in the history of motion pictures. It might even qualify for a retrospective Oscar as Most Promising Litigant.”

Roy explained that Night and Day had already folded when the case was finally settled in 1938. Shirley Temple and Twentieth Century Fox were awarded damages of £3500.

“That sounds like a helluva lot for 1938. Would it be worth in today's money more or less than the golden hiya of half a million for the new chief executive of the Galloway Gazette, Ashley Highfield?

“I offer an unreserved apology to the unlate, great Shirley Temple for my dubious innuendo that she had turned up her toes.

“Whether the Scottish Review will ever recover from the blows of this week, or whether it will fade into a People's Friend cosiness, including a weekly knitting pattern and improving stories of love among the over-nineties, only time will tell.”

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