PCC: considered short correction insufficient
The Sunday Mercury has been censured by the Press Complaints Commission for presenting its belief that author JRR Tolkien’s late son was a serial paedophile as fact when it had never been proved in a court of law.
By publishing such extremely serious allegations without sufficient qualification, the newspaper had breached the terms of the Code of Practice clause on accuracy, the commission ruled. The Tolkien family complained about Sunday Mercury articles on 26 January headlined “Tolkien son’s child abuse shame”, “Tolkien, the archbishop and the lie” and “Church must come clean on perverts”.
The family complained it had not been given sufficient opportunity to reply to the allegations and that there had been intrusion into its grief – the articles were published soon after Father John Tolkien’s death.
The main front-page splash was based on the allegations of one man who had accused Father Tolkien of abusing him as a child, and “hundreds of other children as well”.
The complainants’ solicitors said the Mercury had failed to take care that the articles were accurate and failed to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact.
The newspaper maintained that it had reported an important story professionally and that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that it had “got the right man”. Police had confirmed that “high single figures” of alleged victims had been identified and the newspaper believed that more would have been uncovered.
It contended that it was impossible to report the death of Father Tolkien sensitively, given his background and previous activities.
The newspaper offered to publish a clarification making clear that the articles contained allegations based on the opinion of one of Father Tolkien’s alleged victims and had never been proved in court. The text also reiterated that Father Tolkien had always denied the allegations.
But the newspaper said there was compelling evidence that Father Tolkien was a multiple child abuser and that it had consulted sources within the Crown Prosecution Service and police prior to publication. The thrust of the complainants’ argument was inimical to freedom of speech, it said, as it argued against the right of newspapers to come to reasoned conclusions about criminal behaviour independent of any courts’ decision.
The commission decided the Mercury’s offer of a short correction did not constitute sufficient remedial action.
In its ruling, it said: “The newspaper, of course, had a right to publish the serious allegations levelled against Father Tolkien – particularly as it was clear that they would not ever be heard in a court – but it also had a responsibility to do so fairly. Its failure to do this demonstrated a lack of sensitivity towards the grieving family.”
The commission dismissed complaints of intrusion into the dead man’s privacy and of harassment.
By Jean Morgan