Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Press Complaints Commission Upholds Diana's Former Butler's Complaint Against News of the World

The Guardian reports that the Press Complaints Commission has upheld Paul Burrell, former butler to the late Princess Diana, in his complaint that News of the World did not include his denial of its report that he claimed to have had an affair with her. The PCC ruled that the failure to include Mr. Burrell's denial "may have misled readers." Read the PCC's ruling here. Here is an excerpt.

The article reported the claim by Ron Cosgrove, the brother-in-law of former royal butler Paul Burrell, that Mr Burrell had once revealed he had had sex with Princess Diana.

The complainant strongly disputed the central allegation in the article. He said that the sole basis for the allegation was Mr Cosgrove’s claim that the complainant confided the secret to him in a pub in 1993, and denied that such a conversation had occurred. He accepted that the PCC was not the appropriate body to determine whether or not the conversation had taken place, or whether the allegation was true, and restricted the complaint to two issues:

· whether or not the newspaper had taken care not to publish inaccurate information, by investigating the claims properly, including putting them to the complainant for his comment before publication;

· whether or not readers would have been misled by the lack of a denial from Mr Burrell.


Given that, as the complainant had conceded, it was not possible for the Commission to make a finding of fact as to whether the alleged conversation had ever taken place, the principal task for the Commission was to consider whether the newspaper had taken care not to publish misleading information in the way it had presented the story. This boiled down to an assessment as to whether readers would have been misled by the omission of Mr Burrell’s position on the matter, which was that he strongly denied either having had the conversation with Mr Cosgrove or ever having a sexual relationship with Princess Diana.


There were several reasons why the Commission considered that Mr Burrell’s denial of the allegations should have been made clear in the article. The claims about him were significant and substantial, and published with great prominence. The information came from the recollection of a fifteen-year-old conversation, and was not corroborated on the record by anyone outside Mr Cosgrove’s immediate family (as the earlier source remained anonymous). It was clear to the Commission in these circumstances that there was a strong likelihood that the omission of any denial from Mr Burrell may have misled readers into believing that he accepted Mr Cosgrove’s allegations. Given the startling nature of the claims, and the narrow basis for them, the newspaper should have contacted the complainant and published his position on the matter. Readers could then have made their own assessment as to the value of his comments in the context of the piece and in light of his reputation. But they were not given this opportunity. Another way of dealing with the problem would have been to offer Mr Burrell a prompt and proportionate right of reply immediately following publication. The offer to include the denial on the website, made at the end of the PCC investigation, was neither prompt nor proportionate.

It has never been an absolute requirement for newspapers to contact those who are about to feature in articles. This would be impractical for a number of reasons: often there will be no dispute about the facts, or the information will be innocuous; the volume of people mentioned in straightforward stories would make it impossible; and legitimate investigations might on some occasions be compromised by such a rule. However, in this case the newspaper made the wrong decision and the complaint was upheld.

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