01033-18 Heimlich v Mail Online

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01033-18 Heimlich v Mail Online

Summary of Complaint 

1.    Peter Heimlich complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1(Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Ed Byrne saved my life! Irish comedian jumped down from the stage and performed the HEIMLICH manoeuvre on fan, 29, who was choking on an M&M in his gig”, published on 1 February 2018. 

2.    The article reported that a comedian had saved the life of a woman “when he jumped offstage mid-performance and performed the Heimlich manoeuvre after spotting her choking on an M&M”. It said that the woman, who was named and whose age was given, had been eating the snack at a theatre in Bradford, when it became lodged in her throat. The article included a photograph of the woman apparently at the gig with her friend, and included extensive quotations from her describing the incident. She explained that she was “within seconds of passing out” when the comedian “saved” her. The article also included several photographs of the comedian. 

3.    The article was removed from the publication’s website the day it was published, after the publication found that the comedian had denied the central claim of the story. 

4.    The complainant said that the article was wholly inaccurate, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). He said that the incident it reported on had never occurred, and that the comedian had confirmed this. He said that the publication had failed to take sufficient care over the accuracy of the article, and had failed to correct the inaccuracy it contained because no correction or clarification had been published. 

5.    The publication denied that it had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article, in breach of Clause 1(i) of the Code. It had received the story via an unsolicited email from a named member of the public. It had responded by asking the individual to describe what had happened; she had then provided the date, time and location of the event, as well as the details of her alleged story. The publication had then asked the individual to provide photographs and a contact telephone number, and she provided several photos, one of which claimed to show her at the comedy gig. The individual had declined to provide a telephone number, but this was not uncommon for members of the public who might be uncomfortable speaking with journalists. The publication had then sought further biographical details from the individual, including her age, where she lived and her job; the individual had provided this information. No payment was made to this individual, and there was no reason to disbelieve the story; the publication said that the use of tips in this way was standard practice. Because the story was light-hearted, and showed the comedian in a good light, there was no obligation under the Code to put the allegations to him prior to publication. 

6.    The publication also denied that it had failed to meet the obligation imposed by Clause 1(ii) of the Code to promptly correct inaccurate information. It said that the article was removed 14 hours after it was published, because it was contacted by the woman pictured in the article, who said she was not the woman named in the article, and had no knowledge of the events reported. The publication then contacted another publication which had run the story, and found that the comedian had repudiated the article’s claims. The publication then contacted the individual who had provided the story, who maintained that it was accurate. However, the decision was made to remove the article at this point. The publication said that removing an article was an appropriate approach to correcting an inaccurate piece, and that the original complainant was satisfied with this outcome. Nevertheless, the publication offered to publish the following clarification: 

On January 3 we published an article with the headline “Ed Byrne saved my life!” which reported claims that the comedian saved a fan from choking on an M7M using the Heimlich manoeuvre during his stand-up show in Bradford. The information was received and published in good faith. Nevertheless, after publication Mr Byrne said on social media that the claims were “completely untrue” and the article was swiftly withdrawn. We are happy to set the record straight. 

7.    The complainant did not consider that the publication’s offer was adequate: he had contacted the publication three days after the article was published, and a correction had not been offered until three months later. This did not represent a ‘prompt’ correction. 

8.    The publication said that the complainant’s initial contact had been interpreted as a media enquiry; his email had been headed “Blogger inquiry”. When it received the complainant’s substantive complaint from IPSO, it offered a correction within 10 days. 

Relevant Code Provisions 

9. 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 

10.    The publication had published an article based on a tip from a member of the public. It had subsequently taken some steps to verify this information, including asking for details of the time and location of the alleged events; seeking biographical details about the individual; and asking for photographs of her. The story did not make any negative or damaging claims about the comedian, and the publication had no reason to believe that the individual was misleading it, in circumstances where no money was being exchanged. Therefore, in this instance, the Committee considered that there had been no failure to take care over the publication of the article, and no breach of Clause 1(i). 

11. The Committee then considered whether the publication had met its obligation, under Clause 1(ii), to correct significant published inaccuracies. The comedian who was the subject of the article had stated that the article’s central claim that he had performed the Heimlich manoeuvre on a fan was “completely untrue”.  Because this claim was central to the article, this represented a significant inaccuracy - regardless of the nature of the piece. A correction was therefore required to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). The publication had offered a wording which made clear that the comedian had denied that the incident had occurred. This corrected the inaccuracy the article had contained. The correction had been offered shortly after the complaint was passed to the publication by IPSO, and the complainant’s initial contacts with the publication had not been presented as a complaint, but as a media enquiry; the promptness of the offer of correction was therefore sufficient. The publication had offered to publish the correction in its clarifications and corrections column at the top of its news page, for a period of 24 hours, before archiving it in the usual way; this was sufficiently prominent given that the article had appeared online for only 14 hours. The wording, prominence, and promptness of the offered correction were therefore sufficient, and there was no breach of Clause 1(ii). This correction should now be published. 

Conclusions 

12. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required 

13. N/A.

Date complaint received: 09/04/2018

Date decision issued: 27/07/2018

 

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