Decision of the Complaints Committee 00247-17 Versi v express.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. Miqdaad Versi complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that express.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Terror in Spain: Gunman screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ opens fire in supermarket”, published on 12 January 2017.
2. The article reported that “a gunman had opened fire in a Spanish supermarket while shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’”, and attributed the information to police in the sub-headline. It said that numerous shoppers were inside the shop when the gunman entered and fired several shots. It said that “one witness told local media that the man, who was standing a few yards from him, yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’”.
3. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to report that police had said that the gunman had shouted “Allahu Akbar”. He said that the Spanish newspaper story from which this article appeared to be sourced had initially reported that the source of the claim was an individual witness, and not the police. He said that the account of this witness in the Spanish article was contradicted by other witnesses, who thought the man said something in the Basque language; he said this made the claim conjecture rather than fact, not least because the police had said that this information should not be relied on. He said that according to an updated version of the Spanish article, police sources had subsequently ruled out any political or religious motive for the attack, and said that the gunman potentially had psychological issues.
4. The publication said that the article was a breaking news story, where claims, counter-claims, facts and conjecture have to be digested to produce an article to report unfolding events. It said that the article accurately reported the unfolding story, and cited a Spanish newspaper article which reported that the man had shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he carried out the shooting. It said that this article did not report that police had denied the use of the phrase. The publication said that when the Spanish newspaper subsequently updated its story to report that police did not believe there was a political or religious motive for the attack, it published a second article updating the story, which included a line that said “local media initially reported that the gunman shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ but that was later denied by Spanish police”. It said that this article linked back to the original article. Nonetheless, while it did not consider that the original article was inaccurate in the context of a breaking news story, it deleted the original article and offered to publish following clarification on the corrections and clarification section of the website:
On 11 January 2017 we published an article headlined “TERROR IN SPAIN: Gunman screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ opens fire in supermarket.” The article was accurate at the point of publication because it reported the breaking and rolling news event. However, as Spanish police have now denied that the gunman said those words, the original article has been deleted and the circumstances of the event clarified with an updated article headlined “Gunman opens fire in Spain supermarket – then calmly eats a Banana”.
5. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
Findings of the Committee
6. The article was a breaking news story which relied upon local media reports in Spain of what had occurred in the supermarket. Fast-developing news stories such as this will, by their nature, involve the reporting of detail which, while believed to be accurate at the time of publication, is clarified or refuted as events become clearer. Nonetheless, Clause 1(i) of the Code places a requirement on newspapers to take care not to publish inaccurate information in such circumstances. In this instance, the Committee considered that in relying on local media reports of an incident that took place in another country, and in clearly attributing the claims to those present at the scene during the attack, there was no failure on the publication’s part to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1(i). However, the claim that a gunman shouted “Allahu Akbar” was a significant inaccuracy that required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).
7. The publication had published a news article which updated the story and reported that police had denied reports that the man had shouted “Allahu Akbar”; this sentence also contained a hyperlink back to the publication’s original article which had included this claim. While the Committee welcomed the prompt action taken by the publication, readers of the original article would not have been aware that Spanish police had subsequently denied that the gunman had shouted those words. As a result, the updated story was not sufficient to meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii).
8. However, on receipt of the complaint, the publication had offered to delete the article from its website, and it offered to publish a clarification on its website which explained why the original article was deleted. The Committee noted that the clarification was not offered on receipt of the complaint. Nevertheless, in circumstances where steps were taken by the publication to update the story as soon as it became aware of the police’s position, the Committee considered, on balance, that the action taken was sufficiently prompt to meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii).
9. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the claim that the gunman had shouted “Allahu Akbar” had come from an eyewitness, and not police as reported in the sub-headline. However, in the context of a fast-developing news story, where the police did not initially dispute this account, and the article went on to make clear that the claims was made by an eyewitness to local media, it did not consider that any inaccuracy on this point in the sub-headline was significant. There was no breach of Clause 1.
10. The wording of the clarification offered by the newspaper made clear the position that Spanish police had denied the gunman had shouted “Allahu Akbar”. However, it also stated that the article was correct at the time of publication, which was not the correct position as police had not claimed that the gunmen had shouted “Allahu Akbar”. In order to avoid a breach of Clause 1, the newspaper should omit this assertion when the correction is published on the clarifications and corrections section of the website.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 12/01/2017
Date decision issued: 20/04/2017