The Press Complaints Commission has made its sternest adjudication – against the London Evening Standard – since it censured the News of the World over a story on Countess Spencer’s stay at an addiction clinic.
The Standard’s editor, Max Hastings, who is a member of the Editors’ Code of Practice committee, has been asked to review the application of the code at his paper and to report back to the commission after publishing a story which one senior industry source said "drove a coach and horses through the code".
On 21 March, the Standard published a two-page feature by Alex Renton on an undercover assignment at a London school, headlined "There was such a staff shortage the security system had to be put in the charge of two-11-year-olds".
The commission received complaints from the head teacher and chairwoman of the governors at Salusbury Primary School in North London about the story’s inaccuracy, the identification of a child victim of sexual assault, misrepresentation and approaching children at school without the permission of the authorities.
Hastings has said he very much regretted the breach of the code and that it had been "a serious mistake".
The complainants objected to Renton’s subterfuge and said parents and staff were angry at the deceit and the children could not understand why a trusted adult had lied to them.
The PCC said it considered the bulk of the complaints were matters that raised serious issues and the story had not been in the public interest, as the Standard claimed.
"There was nothing to suggest to the journalist or the newspaper in advance of the visit that anything was going on at the school that needed to be investigated in the public interest," ruled the commission.
The Standard had argued that its concerns about security, health and teachers’ pay justified subterfuge.
But the PCC said that was retrospective justification and "unacceptable".
"Given that virtually every school will or may have some ‘shortcomings’ at any given point, to have accepted the public interest justification would have been to entitle any journalist at any point to gain access to any school using subterfuge," said the commission. "The code is there precisely to stop such unjustified ‘fishing expeditions’."
The commission was persuaded that the piece contained sufficient information for parents and children to work out the identity of a child who was the suspected victim of sexual assault. "While this may not have been the paper’s intention, it was the result of – at best – thoughtless journalism and the consequence was a serious and highly regrettable breach of the code," concluded the PCC.
It said it had come down hard on the Standard because of the importance of protecting children: "Mr Renton should not have been speaking to children at school in the pursuit of a feature for a newspaper."
Hastings said: "We have made the serious mistake of failing to focus on the code issues involved because we believed our intention in sending a reporter undercover was sympathetic.
"Alex Renton was commissioned only a week or two after he had done a similar piece by working as a porter in a hospital to highlight the difficulties of the NHS."
Hastings acknowledged the paper had been na"ve to repeat the exercise in a school. He added: "Alex Renton’s actions cannot be allowed to set a precedent."
Renton has left to join Oxfam. His move had nothing to do with the complaints.
By Jean Morgan