The Sun story about Chris Huhne that was a total invention (and which the other papers happily copied)

Remember that front page Sun story from 13 March? On the off-chance Voice readers missed this exclusive, let’s refersh your memory of the splash:

Disgraced MP Chris Huhne was ridiculed on his first day in Wandsworth jail yesterday — after a warder called him to breakfast by yelling “Order! Order!”

Only one small problem with the story: it was a complete fabrication.

sun huhne lie

The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade has the story:

According to the article, “the mocking warden” mimicked the commons speaker by saying: “The right honourable member for Wandsworth North — down to the office.”

It also said other prisoners laughed at Huhne, that they had bullied him and that he had been transferred to a wing for vulnerable prisoners.

But the story was just that – a story. When Huhne’s partner complained about the article to the Press Complaints Commission, the paper was unable to substantiate any of the claims.

The result? The PCC negotiated a resolution of the complaint, which involved The Sun removing the article from its website and publishing the following “correction”:

“In an article, ‘Order! Order! The Rt Hon Member for Wandsworth. Come to the office’ (13 March), we stated that a prison officer ridiculed Chris Huhne by calling him to breakfast on the Tannoy system.

We also reported claims by families of inmates that he had been moved to a wing for vulnerable prisoners after being bullied and badgered for money. We have been contacted by Mr Huhne and his partner Ms Carina Trimingham who say that he was not been moved or bullied and got on well with other prisoners. We are happy to set the record straight.”

In other words, the main page one page story breached the first, and arguably most important, clause of the editors’ code of practice, about accuracy.

Happy to set the record straight? You bet. Happy because the commission did not feel it necessary to censure the paper for publishing claims that it obviously could not prove.

Happy because it published the mealy-mouthed correction seven weeks later at the foot of page 2. Happy because it had got away with a flier. And it didn’t even have the grace to apologise.

Of course the too-good-to-be-true-(literally) story was picked up by the rest of the press. And not just by the tabloids.

Roy Greenslade’s own Guardian still has the story here (‘The disgraced former cabinet minister Chris Huhne was ridiculed on his first day in jail, when a prison officer called him to breakfast shouting “Order! Order!”, it was reported’), as do the Telegraph here (‘Disgraced former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne was ridiculed on his first day in jail when a warder called him to breakfast shouting “Order! Order!”, it was reported today’).

Only the Independent (of the non-paywalled quality press) appears to have updated its original story to reflect the facts rather than The Sun’s inventions.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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16 Comments

  • The Guardian and Telegraph stories are accurate. They include the words “it was reported”. As the picture makes clear, it was indeed reported. Neither newspaper claimed that the story was true.

  • The Sun telling lies to sell papers, depressingly enough doesn’t strike me as news, rather the boiled down essence of Murdoch’s business strategy…

  • you know everyone I speak to about pass regulation outside of politics says there should only be one hard and fast rule – corrections should be printed on the same Page and in the same font size as the original error. compensation is just a detail and most people don’t give a dog if it’s statutory or not. They just want newspapers to stop lying; and if they’re caught lying, to be held to account for it.

    I’ve yet to see a press regulation proposal that would actually deliver this outcome, mind…

  • Chris Keating 19th May '13 - 1:49pm

    @Simon – what bollocks. Slapping a “it was reported” or “allegedly” on the front of an article doesn’t void the papers’ duty to check the underlying facts before rushing to print them.

  • Peter Davies 19th May '13 - 2:28pm

    Clearly the Sun doesn’t have enough reporters on the inside yet.

  • It’s all very well saying this, Jennie, but the point, surely is, that no-one WILL be held to account unless the regulation has some kind of force of law. The press has time and time again shown that it cannot, or will not regulate itself in that way. To say that the majority of the public are ignorant of that is undoubtedly true, but it behoves those in political life who know the facts, to ensure the public gets something which has a chance of working.

  • Does the Sun report true stories? I have never noticed.

  • Wish there was a way to +1 Peter’s comment.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th May '13 - 10:52pm

    It’s not all that bad if the Sun don’t do a full page apology in this pretty much none story. I’m not an anarcho capitalist but one of the benefits of the free market is that if you don’t like something then just don’t buy it and when enough people do this companies change.

    Perhaps a better way to regulate the press would have been to make legal aid for libel cases available for everyone.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th May '13 - 10:56pm

    Same goes towards investigating phone hacking.

  • Evan Harris 20th May '13 - 8:10am

    An excellent column from Roy Greenslade.

    The Leveson-compliant Royal Charter, agreed by all the parties and the victims, provides that to be approved (and thus provide entry for subscribers to costs protection), an independent self-regulator must be able to direct, if necessary, the publication of a correction or apology (ie specify the place and prominence of it), and the contract between a subscribing newspaper and the self-regulator would require the newspaper to abide by the direction.

    The current PCC arrangements does not give the PCC any power to require corrections to be adequately prominent.

    The press industry proposed Royal Charter takes the PCC approach, surprise, surprise.

    Declaration: I am Associate Director of Hacked Off.

  • Evan, “be able to” is not the same as “it’s going to happen” though, is it? When The PCC was launched there were all sorts of prophecies about what it would do to curb the excesses of the press and almost none of them came to pass. I predict the same will happen with the royal charter. Especially when the papers are refusing to sign up to it.

  • Evan Harris 20th May '13 - 9:02am

    @Jennie

    When you said “I’ve yet to see a press regulation proposal that would actually deliver this outcome, mind”, I assumed you were taking a view on content rather than on “achievability”.

    Leveson recognised that many/most newspapers would reject even another go at self-regulation if it were required to be (unlike the PCC) effective and independent. But to solve this, rather than make it compulsory, he decided to recommend incentives to joining. These will come into effect only after a year or so (because the system has to be set up first), so it is rather too early to be pessimistic about the joining in or not of the newspapers!

    My point was that the issue you raise is a vital one and the Press Industry’s Royal Charter is not a solution to this problem ab initio.

    Declaration: I am Associate Director of Hacked Off.

  • sorry for using an unclear phrase. Delivering an outcome is different from aiming at a possible outcome IMHO.

    I think the problem with this whole situation, as with so many things, is enforcement. Not just the power to enforce but the will to enforce. Many of the things hacked off justifiably complain about were already illegal, and the police have the powers to enforce that law, but the will to enforce wasn’t there because the police were involved in many of the injustices and crimes. I don’t think Leveson, admirable though it is in many ways, will solve police cosiness with the press.

    It’ll be interesting to see how it all pans out though.

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