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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Behind The Sun

On August 19th The Sun printed this story on page 11 about my dad:

Voice of Darts Sid Waddell down to just £5,000


COMMENTATOR Sid Waddell — dubbed The Voice of Darts — left his family just £5,000.
The Geordie legend, 72, died last August from bowel cancer.
The value of his estate did “not exceed £325,000”. With debts, funeral bills and inheritance tax, no more than £5,000 was left for wife Irene and their five children.
Cambridge-educated Waddell — famed for his vivid vocabulary — worked for ITV and the BBC and then Sky Sports.
Recently cash has poured into the sport through TV deals and sponsorship. Waddell’s last match was the 2012 World Championship final, where a £200,000 share of a £1million prize fund was at stake.

At his funeral he was credited with helping turn a pub game “into a global phenomenon”.

The first thing to say is that the story wasn't brought to our attention until a couple of weeks after it was published. My stepmother was in the USA on a three week holiday (so much for my dad leaving her in penury...)

The second thing to say is that the estate of a dead darts commentator really isn't in the public interest, but I know The Sun would disagree. They would argue that Grants of Probate are a matter of public record and therefore they have a right to report them. (Though, of course, having the right doesn't make it right.)

The third thing to say is that the story is complete bollocks. The Sun doesn't understand how probate works. When someone dies, their estate passes automatically to their spouse. Everything was in joint names and so it passed to my stepmum. But after my dad's death, we discovered there was a small financial investment in his name which required a grant of probate. It was this The Sun had found in the Probate Registry and concluded that it was the sole contents of my dad's estate, and proved to be the basis for the story inferring that my dad had left us penniless. (I have three sisters and one stepbrother. I'm the youngest and I'm 41 with three kids of my own. We're all reasonably successful, so the idea we've been left potless by my old man is preposterous, even if it was true...)

But most preposterously of all, no one from The Sun called my stepmother, me or anyone else in the family about the story. If they had, we could have set them straight and saved them the trouble of printing something so inaccurate. Picking up the phone and making calls to stand up a story is one of journalism's most basic task. You learn it on your first day. It's unbelievably sloppy not to do it in this case. Even sloppier is the inability of the newsdesk or the subs to notice the family weren't quoted, even if it was a no comment, and ask Jack Losh to call or email us. I can't think of a single reason why no one called. It beggars belief. I've read a great deal about the 'chilling effect' of Leveson recently. Newspapers are terrified to put a step wrong, apparently. So scared they don't even make a routine call to stand up a story. We're back in Kelvin McKenzie territory here. He told Leveson: 'Basically my view was that if it sounded right it was probably right and therefore we should lob it in'

So they lobbed it in. The decision not to call us was even more ridiculous because my dad was a good friend to the press. He liked the company of journalists. When I grew disillusioned with journalism, and went off on my rants about the press, he'd listen carefully enough and agree. But I could tell he thought journos were a decent bunch at heart, sports journalists at least, spoiled only by the odd rogue among them. He liked the old school sort who enjoyed a pint and didn't misquote you, but whenever anyone called from whichever newspaper it might be, local or national, he always spoke to them and made sure to give them a colourful quote. He understood they had a job to do. I know he'd be disappointed that they failed to pick up a phone and check this out before going to press.

We were all upset. My dad was not one to show off his wealth, but he had done alright and as a working-class lad, the son of a coalminer, he was proud of what he had achieved. My stepmother was an extremely successful television producer in her own right and together they were comfortably off. Money wasn't an issue for them and it certainly isn't for my stepmum after my dad died. As I said, if Jack Losh had called we could have explained all this and saved him and the newspaper some embarrassment, and saved us the upset of reading a palpably untrue story about our dad in the paper. 

We also saw the funny side. The piece infers, with its reference to £1 million prizes, that darts is awash with cash yet none of that was shared with my dad. Following this line of thought, the skinflint employer who denied my dad his rightful share was Sky...owned by a Mr R. Murdoch, who also happens to own The Sun. So The Sun are inferring that their own boss is a miserly employer. It's probably only accurate inference in the article, come to think of it. Sky were actually a good employer and my dad enjoyed working for them. They also paid him well.

We complained of course. In only five paragraphs the article made two clear breaches of the PCC Editor's Code of Practice: it was inaccurate and misleading and therefore in breach of item 1 (Accuracy) and it was an intrusion into grief (item 5), bearing in mind that this article was published just days after the 1st anniversary of our dad’s death. We sent an email to the Sun's Ombudsman, Philippa Kennedy. 

At the same time my stepmother wrote a letter to Stephen 'Stig' Abell, the Sun's Managing Editor, expressing our concerns about the story. To his credit, Abell replied quickly. To his discredit, he was disingenuous in the extreme. He claimed the story did not seek to suggest there was anything untoward about my dad's finances 'but merely to report - factually - in a brief piece - the outcome of the probate process.' If the report did not mean to suggest anything untoward then why did the headline say he was 'down to just £5000?' According to the wisdom of Paul Dacre, I know we're meant to read the headline in conjunction with the story beneath. Well, that also says he left his family 'just £5000.' It's blatantly clear what they're suggesting. A factual piece (or an attempt at it) would have left out the 'justs' and the 'onlys' and said my dad left less than £325,000 and no more than £5000. But of course that would never have made the paper, so it needed a bit of topspin. Abell would have been far better off admitting than being so mealy-mouthed.

We got a far better response from the ombudsman. Ms Kennedy accepted immediately that the story inferred that my dad had all but left us on the workhouse steps. She conducted a swift investigation and, after liaising with us, The Sun printed this apology on October 4th: 

In an article 'Voice of Darts Sid down to just £5K'  (19 August) we stated that commentator Sid Waddell, who died in August, 2012, left his family just £5000.  This is incorrect. We would like to clarify that the amount referred merely to an application through Grant of Probate to release an investment in his name only. There were no debts and the bulk of Mr. Waddell's estate passed automatically  to his widow.  We are sorry for any distress caused

We can only praise Philippa Kennedy and the sensitive way she handled our complaint. Funnily enough, The Sun hired her after the Leveson inquiry concluded, presumably in response to that 'chilling effect' we keep hearing about. It was an excellent decision. All newspapers should appoint one. It's a way to respond to reader complaints quickly and sensitively. Of course, there will be many cases when the case can't be resolved by an ombudsman. After all, they're employed by the newspaper, which means they're not independent, and that independence is essential in more disputed cases. But in cases like this, where it's clear the newspaper has cocked up massively, it saves everyone time and trouble.

We were glad to have it resolved, but there is still one thing that troubles me about it. Has journalism really sunk to the level where reporters, or agencies acting for them, haunt probate registries looking for information about dead celebrities with the hope of telling a 'rags to riches to rags' story? I don't remember doing it as a hack and I chased my share of ambulances.

But it seems it's become common practice. On September 4th The Daily Mail and others ran a story about the comedian Frank Carson dying 'penniless'. It was based on the same type of information used to source the piece about my dad. There is every chance they made the same mistake: his estate might well have passed to his widow in accordance with his will, and the amount referenced in the story might have been a policy or two that was in his sole name. There's no quote in the story so we can assume no one checked this one out either.

But, ridiculously, halfway down the story reveals that Carson had a second estate in Spain where he owned property. He also had two houses in Ireland. Owning three houses hardly makes you penniless, does it? You'd think the Mail would know that, given how much they bang on about house prices. Never mind though - lob it in!

Damn that chilling effect!

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