This is not Becks and Loos. If Piers is wrong, he must go

Few stories can cause an editor to resign if untrue. Pictures of torture in Iraq would be one of them
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The Independent Online

There is talk about resignation. There is talk about trust. Only this time it is not about Tony Blair and Iraq and WMD. It is about a newspaper editor, Piers Morgan of the Daily Mirror, who published the photographs of British soldiers apparently abusing prisoners in Iraq. He did this shortly after the publication across the world of similar allegations against American troops. This is serious, obviously, and is not a matter to be dismissed as tabloid excess. It is about that fundamental foundation of journalism, accuracy.

There is talk about resignation. There is talk about trust. Only this time it is not about Tony Blair and Iraq and WMD. It is about a newspaper editor, Piers Morgan of the Daily Mirror, who published the photographs of British soldiers apparently abusing prisoners in Iraq. He did this shortly after the publication across the world of similar allegations against American troops. This is serious, obviously, and is not a matter to be dismissed as tabloid excess. It is about that fundamental foundation of journalism, accuracy.

In the case of the Mirror reports, it is accuracy at several levels. Is the report that physical abuse of prisoners by British soldiers took place true? Is the detail of what happened true? Are the pictures genuine? Are the sources of the story and the pictures reliable? How much money was paid to sources, and if money was paid, did it have any influence over the information given.

These questions are being addressed by a variety of interested parties: by politicians - including a Commons select committee which intends to interview Morgan; by the Ministry of Defence; by the military police; by the media. I will limit myself to the narrower question of editors, editorial responsibility and resignation.

I have no evidence to rebut the Mirror's revelations, although it is not difficult to raise questions about the photographs. Competitor newspapers whose instinct is to rubbish big stories in other papers also have no evidence. The Government and other senior politicians are sensibly taking the view that they don't know either and are waiting until urgent inquiries are completed.

The Mirror is mounting a robust defence day by day in a series of reports and editorials. It would be shocking if it did not demonstrate absolute confidence in its reports or it should not have published them. Morgan may be a highly confident man with a few scrapes on his record, but he is also intelligent. He would have known the implications of getting this one wrong. This wasn't Beckham and Loos.

So, clearly, if this story were shown to be flawed in any significant way he would have to go. We do not live in an age where top people are much inclined to carry the can for serious errors for which they carry overall responsibility. Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke of the BBC are notable recent exceptions, having resigned after the Hutton report. Prime ministers do not resign when they get it very wrong. Cabinet ministers only resign when prime ministers tell them to.

Editorial responsibility is very direct. The editor's decision is final and it is he or she who decides whether or not a big story is published. Editors are appointed because they have a range of qualities, but judgement at critical moments is about the most important.

There have been few cases where newspaper editors resigned after getting it wrong. Colin Myler resigned the editorship of the Sunday Mirror after publishing material which brought to a halt the trial of two Leeds footballers in 2001. Frank Giles, editor of The Sunday Times when it published the fake Hitler diaries in 1983, did not resign. But it blighted his career.

Kelvin MacKenzie did not resign his editorship of The Sun in 1987 after he published false allegations of sleaze against Elton John, and had to pay record damages. Peter Preston did not resign his editorship of The Guardian in 1983 after the paper indirectly disclosed the MoD source of the Greenham Common cruise missile story that put Sarah Tisdall in prison. He considered it. He consulted a small group of senior colleagues. He decided to stay.

MacKenzie, again, did not resign after blaming "drunken Liverpool fans" for the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989, under the headline "The Truth". The Press Council described it as "unbalanced and misleading". The people of Liverpool boycottedThe Sun. MacKenzie fought another day.

There are plenty of examples of editors, convinced that their judgement was right, riding the flak and eventually being vindicated. When Andrew Neil serialised Andrew Morton's book on Princess Diana in The Sunday Times in 1992 he was attacked for giving space to tittle-tattle. He stood his ground until it eventually became clear that the book was effectively authorised by Diana.

Peter Preston and his successor at The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, were much criticised for their investigations into Jonathan Aitken when he was a Tory defence minister. They kept their nerve, and Aitken was jailed for perjury.

So editors need nerves of steel, rhinoceros skins and flawless judgement, both of their own reporters who uncover the information and of their sources who provide it. They do not always have to be right, and to be wrong is not always to be out of a job. But sometimes it is. Sometimes the story has such implications - for the bringing of peace and stability and self-government to Iraq for example, or endangering the lives of British soldiers - that it just has to be right. The current Mirror story is one such. It has to be right or Morgan has to be out.

Why should anyone regard Joan Collins as a key voice in the Britain and Europe debate? More than half her life in Hollywood, fading (faded?) celebrity, a string of second-rate movies behind her, a preference for the south of France, and yet she purports to speak for England. She is emphatic about that: England, not Britain. If you were conducting the great debate would you call on the Queen of Hello!?

"Beware of the euro! Even lemons cost more since the single currency came to St Tropez." As political slogans go, hardly designed to catch the floating voter. But this was the way a full-page article in the Daily Mail, trailed on the front page, was presented in August. I remember thinking that the antis could surely do better than this.

"I know what I'm talking about," wrote Joan, "as I have a house near St Tropez and, since the French adopted the euro last year, the cost of running it has risen by nearly 30 per cent."

Last Sunday, incredibly, Joan was back. This time in The Sunday Times, occupying two-thirds of a page headlined "They're trying to kill my England". This time on the EU constitution. "I have an apartment in New York and a house in the south of France," wrote Joan, undermining her credentials to speak for England. But speak she did, at ignorant and hysterical length.

Look out for the next Collins rant. The Express version cannot be far away.

We have just come to the end of Local Newspaper Week. Trinity Mirror Regionals awards have just been presented. The judges' day was made by the front page of the year, which appeared in the Cannock Chase Post. It carried the banner headline "One-legged lotto winner spends cash on sex change."

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

DIARY

A shrinking world

The tabloid revolution, started by our sister paper, has hit Germany. The relatively staid broadsheet Die Welt is launching a compact version later this month. "We hope to reach young readers who do not read any newspaper regularly," says Jan-Eric Peters, editor of Welt Kompact. The move could have implications for The Daily Telegraph. Axel Springer, Die Welt's owner, is a bidder for the broadsheet.

Enemy at the gates

Is Alastair Campbell going soft? Last week he was waxing lyrical in public about his old enemy, the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre (below). "Never let it be said that the Mail has done nothing for the public services of this country," said the King of Spin, referring to new gates at his children's former primary school in Hampstead, paid for by Associated Newspapers. "Every time I walk past I can see to my great satisfaction the Paul Dacre playground, the Paul Dacre climbing frame and the Paul Dacre gates." It seems the Mail dug deep after claiming the death of Campbell's father had made him "the horrible man I am". "You can't libel the dead," Campbell says. "But my father is very much alive."

Deportation order

In a reshuffle at The Daily Telegraph, the paper's sober-suited Washington man, David Rennie, is off to Brussels, having already served in China and Australia. Rennie is highly rated as a reporter, but his stint on the title's Peterborough column was not thought to be a success. "I know Peterborough's not very good," then editor Max Hastings (left) said of Rennie's move to Oz, "but I didn't know they'd brought back transportation."

Sale of the century?

The submission from Scottish Media Group to the Government for its BBC charter review will make uncomfortable reading for Michael Grade, a former non-executive director of SMG who stepped down on being appointed chairman of the BBC. SMG says the Government should sell off the BBC's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, giving the proceeds to the Treasury or using them to reduce the licence fee. A mole at SMG says Grade was not involved in drafting the radical submission. But he'll have some explaining to do at the Beeb.

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