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Watchdog rules on Hull Daily Mail 'porncoder' exposé

Mild wrist slap for smut website scandalmongery

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The Press Complaints Commission has issued a mild wrist slap to the Hull Daily Mail for its coverage of Paul Smith - the man behind local news site HU17.net who was discovered to have a bit of previous form knocking together smut websites.

Back in March, the Mail ran a series of stories headlined "Town website publisher's porn business", "The sickening porn behind this man's veil of respectability" and "Town website: the sordid truth".

The paper claimed Smith was responsible for coding "thousands" of pornographic sites, and duly dispatched an undercover reporter posing as an escort girl to solicit his services.

He agreed to do the business for between £150 and £250, and when the scandal broke the Mail rolled out Beverley Mayor David Elvidge to splutter: "I was not aware of the websites he has designed. I am speechless."

Stephen Parnaby, the leader of East Riding Council, told the paper: "The council did not know about his past. Clearly, if we did, there would be something wrong. It's not the reputation that I would want to endorse about Beverley and/or tourism."

The exposé didn't have everyone in Middle England choking on their Coco Pops, however. Local virger Neil Pickford said: "HU17.net is very worthwhile and we've found Paul to be an extremely enthusiastic promoter of life and events in Beverley. We are happy to continue supplying information to the website in the future."

Hull Daily Mail commenters were equally unimpressed, and wasted no time venting their spleens until the paper eventually suspended all comments on the stories. One thundered: "What a total non story! This man has done nothing illegal and runs a perfectly legitimate web design business. There is no question that any of these sites host illegal material so where is the story?

"This story is a disgrace to journalism and shows just what depths the HDM has now sunk to in an effort to retain readers. Here's one more reader the HDM can say goodbye to!"

Another wrote: "I for one have reported this dreadful peice [sic] of reporting to the press complaints commission & i also urge any other decent people would do the same - Press Complaints office number is 0845 600 2757."

Well, said commission's ruling on the matter is here. It states that the Mail was in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code because "readers would have been misled as to the scale of the complainant's involvement in adult websites".

Specifically, the PCC says:

The Commission accepted that there was a legitimate public interest in the newspaper examining the business activities of the complainant, given his role in publishing a local community website. However, such high-profile scrutiny carried with it the responsibility to be accurate.

While it was not in dispute that the complainant had designed some pornographic websites in the past - and owned a substantial number of domain names - the newspaper had not been able to corroborate the significant claims that the complainant had "designed thousands" of such sites (as many as 3,991) or owned the domain names to "almost 4000 sites". These were crucial allegations and the newspaper should have been able to substantiate them fully (and been in a position to provide concrete evidence to the PCC).

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