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Partial victory claimed against Telegraph on Iran article despite fact that breach of PCC Code "not established"

Press Release by The Westminster Committee on Iran
Campaigners today claimed a partial victory in a case brought against the Daily Telegraph on the grounds of inaccuracy, despite an adjudication from the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) that a breach of their Code of Practice "could not be established". Complainants insisted that their complaint was intended to highlight the way in which the use of anonymous sources could be abused and that their complaint had had little hope of fully succeeding. Nonetheless, the PCC's verdict of "not established" was, they said, equivalent to "an open verdict". Furthermore, the suggestion made by the PCC that Telegraph should consider printing a letter from the complainants was seen as a recognition of the strength of their case. The fact that the article under dispute has been removed from the Telegraph's website is also see by the complainants as a recognition on the part of the paper's editors that the article did not merit too much further scrutiny.

The case concerned a story that appeared on the newspaper's front page on 12 September 2008 under the headline 'Iran Renews Nuclear Weapons Development'. The article, which did not even attempt to support this incendiary headline, went on to claim that enriched uranium had disappeared from Iran's nuclear facility in Isfahan. Quoting a single unnamed nuclear official its authors, Con Coughlin and Tim Butcher, alleged that nuclear material "equivalent to that of six atomic bombs" had disappeared and was believed to have been relocated to covert installations spotted by American spy satellites. In response, to the article the International Atomic Energy Agency took the unprecedented step of writing to the newspaper and publishing a public statement stating that allegations were "fictitious".  There was no evidence of any missing nuclear material and that "all nuclear material at the Uranium Conversion Facility in Isfahan remains under Agency containment and surveillance". The IAEA further pointed out that "uranium is not enriched at Isfahan as the Telegraph story states but at the fuel enrichment plant in Natanz."

The PCC received a number of complaints on the story and decided to take forward one from the Westminster Committee on Iran, which raised the issues of accuracy, media impartiality and the misuse of unnamed sources. The complaint also highlighted the fact that the co-author of the piece, Con Coughlin, has had his anonymous sources prove unreliable in the past as in his 2003 article which revealed a link between the 9/11 hijacker, Mohammed Ata, and Iraqi intelligence which was latter proved to be fictitious. In its judgment, the PCC said it could not take earlier cases into account due to the amount of time that had elapsed, even if they expose a pattern of inaccurate reporting.

Executive Director of the British American Security Council (BASIC), Paul Ingram, who complained to the PCC about previous Coughlin stories, said today:

"Over the last few years Con Coghlin has published in the Telegraph several claims about Iran's activities that are based entirely upon unidentified intelligence sources, and have not had any supporting reports or evidence published anywhere else. This is highly unusual and particularly dangerous when such claims could have contributed to a build up to military conflict."

Chair of the Westminster Committee on Iran, Stefan Simanowitz, said today:

"We welcome the fact that the PCC recognised that this complaint was important enough to adjudicate on. This case demonstrates that it is seldom possible to prove that a story, no matter how incredible, is inaccurate when based on evidence of an anonymous source, and highlights the necessity for greater self regulation by editors and journalists. The reliance on unnamed sources is an essential tenant of press freedom and any perceived abuse of this journalistic priviledge is very damaging. The media must recognise that following their collective failure to adequately examine the case for war against Iraq, the onus is on them to ensure impartial and accurate reporting especially where stories might impact significantly on public opinion and foreign policy."

Details of the judgment in Simanowitz v Daily Telegraph (Case 083618) are attached or can be obtained from the PCC

The Westminster Committee on Iran is an independent organisation set up to increase dialogue and understanding between British parliamentarians and politicians in Tehran.

... Payvand News - 03/21/09 ... --

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