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Why news stories get pulled

Slateford

The removal of a story about UK prime minister Boris Johnson and his current wife between editions of The Times on Saturday has set off a wave of conspiracy theories. But why do newspapers pull stories?

Stack of newspapers

Speculation has ranged from “superinjunctions” to “D notices” – the former name for national security warnings from the UK government - fuelled by the fact that it is unusual for a newspaper to abandon a story between first and second editions, and all the more so about significant political figures.

There are typically three broad reasons an article gets pulled like this.

First, and to debunk the conspiracies, is a Court order restraining publication, an injunction (or its notorious sibling the superinjunction, in which the fact of the injunction occurring is also restrained). Injunctions are usually sought where there is a threat to misuse confidential or private information. The argument typically runs that the information is true but is so confidential there is no public interest in it being published. Finally, the remedy has to be effective – so it would be an exceptional situation to have an order granted where significant publication has already taken place. All three of those reasons explain why there cannot have been an injunction here.

That takes us to the most common reason newspapers withdraw a story between editions - a legal complaint that causes them to genuinely fear litigation. This can be privacy or data protection, but where there are denials of a story most commonly is a libel threat. Journalists contact the subject of stories before publication as part of their risk management – put allegations to them, let them raise objections or errors and on that basis seek to publish without the risk of litigation. Because of that process a change of heart between editions is incredibly rare – usually it only happens where the newspaper has made an error in their fact checking or information becomes available between editions that was not available prior to publication. The reason for withdrawing is typically a fear of libel litigation so significant that it is imperative to mitigate the damage caused to limit the number of people that see the original copy.

In this instance, the experienced journalist Simon Walters responsible for the story stands by it, while others in public life have supported his reporting. The article also relates to senior politicians and allegations around the intended misuse of public money – it is hard to imagine matters more apt for protection under public interest defences to a libel claim. While a libel complaint may have been made, a reaction like this on a well-sourced story on matters of public interest is highly unusual. Indeed, in many years of dealing with complaints against the media, the withdrawal of a story between editions has only occurred infrequently in situations of very serious errors in reporting.

This then brings us to the third reason that media organisations pull stories: because they can. It is one of the great contradictions of public life that journalism simultaneously can fill a vital role in informing the public on matters of great public interest, while also serving the campaigning and political motivations of the commercial entities and proprietors who own them. Media organisations often do deals to kill stories – it can be the threat of withdrawing access to a politician, a football team or a celebrity, or it can be a promise to help them with another story or a campaign the organisation wants to undertake.

So back to Mr and Mrs Johnson: we can be certain there is no injunction. While there may have been a libel threat, in our experience The Times is more robust than to buckle in this type of situation. Which unfortunately leaves the depressing impression that in this case the article was most likely pulled for some other reason.