Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01432-21 Agbetu v Mail Online
Summary of Complaint
1. Toyin Agbetu complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Fury over Sadiq Khan's woke statue taskforce: London mayor unveils monuments commission - including social rights activist who defaced a statue of Sir Robert Geffrye and academic who said white supremacy can be traced back to Britain”, published on 9 February 2021.
2. The article, which appeared online only, reported on the recently announced members of the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, a “diversity taskforce to review landmarks in the capital.” A bullet-point beneath the headline stated that the commission “includes [the complainant], who famously confronted the Queen at [a] ceremony”. The article included a picture of the complainant, which was captioned “[The complainant] grabbed headlines in 2007 after disturbing a ceremony at Westminster Abbey marking the abolition of slavery”. The article went on to state that the complainant, “a social rights activist, praised activists who painted red the hands of slaver Robert Geffrye's statue in Hackney, to symbolise the 'blood on his hands'. He hailed them as committing 'a transgressive, yet progressive act of public service' by 'making visible the history and human cost of those involved in such monstrous evil'.”
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said he had not defaced a statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, and that it was a breach of Clause 1 to report that he had, as the headline did. He noted that he was not named in the headline, but it was clear that the headline was intended to refer to him; he was the only “social activist” named in the article. He also said that the article quoted him in a manner that was misleading; it had removed the portion of his comment in which he made clear that action such as defacing statues should only be considered once “all legitimate democratic process” have been exhausted.
4. The publication said it accepted that the headline was inaccurate. It also said that it accepted that the “social activist” referred to in the headline was the complainant. However, it noted that it would not be clear to readers who the headline was referring to without reading the article – at which point they would become appraised of the true position, which was that the complainant had praised those who had carried out the defacement. For this reason, it considered that the significance of the inaccurate headline was lessened. It then said that the inaccurate headline had been published due to human error; when correcting a typo in an earlier version of the headline, the inaccurate statement that the complainant had defaced the statue had incorrectly been added to the headline.
5. The publication said that, upon being contacted directly by the complainant – and prior to him making an IPSO complaint – it had amended the headline, which now read as follows:
Fury over Sadiq Khan's woke statue taskforce: London mayor unveils monuments commission - including social rights activist who praised people who defaced a statue of Sir Robert Geffrye and academic who said white supremacy can be traced back to Britain
The publication also offered to add a footnote to the article, acknowledging the correction and making the true position clear. It proposed to publish the following wording:
A previous version of this article said that Toyin Agbetu had defaced a statue of Sir Robert Geffrye. We are happy to make clear this was an error and apologise for any misunderstanding.
It said that it had proposed the footnote to the complainant, who had not responded. It therefore proposed to publish a standalone article, to be published in its usual Corrections & Clarifications online column. The wording of the article would be as follows:
An article headline published on February 9 suggested that Toyin Agbetu had defaced a statue of Sir Robert Geffrye. We are happy to make clear this was an error, and apologise for any misunderstanding. As stated in the article, Mr Agbetu did not paint the statue but rather had praised those who did so.
6. The publication did not accept that the body of the article inaccurately reported on comments made by the complainant. It noted that his reasons for praising the activists were made clear in the article and that truncating the quote did not render it misleading or inaccurate, where it was not in dispute that he had praised the activists.
7. The complainant said that the action offered by the publication would not be sufficient to resolve his complaint, where he considered that he had been deliberately targeted by the publication. He also noted that the article included a photograph of him, and that he was referred to in the bullet points below the headline – he therefore did not agree with the publication’s position that it would be necessary to read the article to identify him as the “social activist” referred to in the headline.
Relevant Code Provisions
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.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
8. Clause 1(i) requires that publications take care not to publish inaccuracies, including in headlines. In this instance, the publication accepted that the headline under complaint was inaccurate: the complainant had not defaced a statue. It also accepted that the headline referred to the complainant, albeit it said that this would only have become apparent upon reading the article, which made the true position clear. The Committee noted that the terms of Clause 1 do not allow for an inaccurate headline to be corrected by an article. In any event, the Committee did not accept that the article’s reference to the complainant having praised activists who had defaced a statute was readily understandable as a correction to the headline claim that he had participated in the act himself. The publication accepted that the headline was intended to refer to the complainant, and he was named and identified by his photograph in the article. The publication of this inaccurate claim represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article and a clear breach of Clause 1 (i).
9. The inaccuracy had the potential to greatly damage the reputation of the claimant. The headline reported, as fact, that the complainant had defaced a statue, when in fact he had only spoken out in support of those who had. By inaccurately claiming that the complainant committed a potentially criminal act, the publication had published a significantly inaccurate statement. As such, correction was required under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
10. The Committee considered whether the action taken and proposed by the publication was sufficient to avoid a further breach of Clause 1 (ii). For corrective action to satisfy the terms of Clause 1 (ii), it must be published promptly and with due prominence. The corrective action should also make clear what information is being corrected, and what the true position is.
11. The Committee noted that the inaccurate headline had been amended soon after the complainant had contacted the publication directly, and that the publication had attempted to liaise directly with the complainant in proposing a footnote wording to record the corrective action. The Committee noted that the complainant had not engaged with these attempts to liaise, as he had wider concerns that he did not consider were addressed by the publication’s proposed wording. Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s attempts to engage directly with the complainant, while noting that the complainant was not obliged to resolve the matter directly with the publication.
12. The Committee, while noting the complainant’s wider concerns, was satisfied that the breach of Clause 1 (i) was sufficiently addressed by the publication’s two proposed offers of correction. Where the original inaccuracy had appeared in the headline of the article – albeit briefly – and had the potential to be greatly damaging to the complainant personally, the Committee considered that it was appropriate for a stand-alone correction to be published, and for the correction to include an apology. This, in conjunction with a footnote amendment to the original article, was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii): both proposed wordings made clear what was being corrected and the true position; both included an apology; and both were offered promptly and with due prominence, appearing both beneath the original article and as a stand-alone correction. There was no further breach of Clause 1 (ii) on this point.
13. The Committee turned next to the alleged breach of Clause 1 which the complainant considered arose from the article’s truncation of his full quotation, in which he expressed support for those who had defaced the statue while making clear such actions occur when “legitimate democratic processes” have been exhausted. The Committee noted the context in which the quote was presented: The quote was presented to illustrate that the complainant had “praised” those who had defaced a statue. Although the Committee appreciated that it is often frustrating to public figures, truncating quotes is necessary and common practice in journalism. In this instance the full quote was clearly supportive of defacing a statue, so abridging it did not render the article inaccurate, misleading, or distorted where the quote was included – at least in part – to illustrate his support for the activists who had defaced the statue, and where the complainant did not dispute that he had done so. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
14. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1 (i).
Remedial Action Required
15. The correction and footnote which were offered clearly put the correct position on record, and were offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.
Date complaint received: 10/02/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 21/06/2021Back to ruling listing