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Three weekly newspapers rapped over junkie slur

Press watchdogs have upheld a complaint against three weekly newspapers in Kent after they reported accusations of heroin abuse against the star of a local amateur dramatic production.

The Canterbury Times, Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Times received an anonymous email claiming that Edward Clark was an “ex-heroin user.”

Mr Clark denied the claims, which were published in all three titles under the headline “Storm over ‘drug addict’ accusation.”

Today the Press Complaints Commission ruled that the newspapers had breached Clause 1 of the Editor’s Code of Practice, which covers the publication of “inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.”

In its ruling, the Commission made clear the newspapers had been guilty of a “clear editorial lapse.”

“The Commission accepts that newspapers often receive anonymous tip-offs which, after further investigation, lead to published stories. However, it is important that newspapers are able to demonstrate that they have taken care to ensure the accuracy of the material,” it said.

“In this instance, the newspaper had reported a serious allegation of drug use which had been made by an uncorroborated, anonymous source.

“Although the complainant’s denial had been obtained (and was reported), there was no suggestion that the newspaper had made other efforts to ascertain whether the original claim had any basis in fact. This, in the Commission’s view, constituted a clear editorial lapse.

“The fact that the complainant’s denial had been published did not absolve the newspaper of its own responsibility for care over the accuracy of the claim against him. The Commission was surprised that the newspaper had assumed the contrary.

“While the Commission welcomed the subsequent attempts made to resolve the complaint, it concluded that the newspaper had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of the Code.”

The newspapers acknowledged that deciding to run the article was “a difficult call” but argued that the anonymous email had contained a serious allegation which had been investigated by contacting the complainant and the operatic society for their comments.

Mr Clark said he had never used heroin in his life and argued that the newspapers should not have published the story based on the unsubstantiated claims of a single anonymous source.

PCC director Stephen Abell commented: “Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice makes clear that the press ‘must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.’ This is particularly important in cases where allegations are made, which have the potential to damage an individual’s reputation.

“This ruling serves as an important reminder to editors of the proper checks that the PCC expects to be made prior to publication.”