01824-17 Kwik fit v The Mail on Sunday

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01824-17 Kwik fit v The Mail on Sunday

Summary of complaint

1. Kwik Fit complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “THE GREAT Kwik Fit FIT-UP”, published on 12 February 2017.

2. The article reported on an investigation which the newspaper had undertaken into the service provided at five garages across Britain, which were owned and run by the complainant. The article explained that prior to being sent to the garages, the five cars had MOTs, undertaken at an “independent garage overseen by forensic vehicle examiner”. It said that “each car was then transported to a nearby Kwik Fit branch by flat-bed truck to avoid jolts or damage”.

3. The article said that the undercover investigation had “revealed how the firm charged reporters posing as customers for parts that were never changed and urged them to have expensive repairs – some of which an independent expert said were completely unnecessary”. The article’s subheadline reported: “how Britain’s biggest garage firm ripped off our reporters posing as customers”.

4. The online version of the article was headlined “The great Kwik Fit fit-up: How Britain’s biggest garage firm charged for unneeded alignment of car wheels, claimed they'd changed spark plugs when they hadn’t and used scare tactics to sell a new wheel bearing”, and was otherwise substantially the same as the print version.

5. Prior to publication, the newspaper had presented the investigation’s findings to the complainant, and they had provided the newspaper with a detailed statement in response, which had included criticism of the quality of the newspaper’s investigation and the findings of its expert. The article had reported the complainant’s statement, at each stage where a difference of opinion had arisen.

6. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to suggest that it had “fit up” or “ripped off” its customers: the limited issues identified in the article, had related to a difference of opinion between the complainant and the newspaper’s independent expert, and therefore the use of this terminology, which implied systematic failings and a deliberate or fraudulent attempt to overcharge customers, was not justified.

7. The complainant said that the article had inaccurately reported that its employees had recommended an “unnecessary” re-alignment of a vehicle’s wheels, at their garage in Nottingham. It said that a pre-alignment reading of the wheel, created through use of a recently calibrated Hunter wheel alignment machine, had shown that the offside front wheel had been slightly out of alignment, and following the car’s service, the post-alignment reading had shown that this had been corrected. The complainant provided the print out from the wheel alignment machine which it said showed this correction, and said that in those circumstances, it was inaccurate to report that this diagram had shown “supposed” wheel alignment issues.

8. It further said that it had undertaken its own investigation into the alignment of the car’s wheels, following the issues the article had raised, and had found that the car’s previous MOT had contained an Advisory Notice Item in relation to the “slight movement in the upper attachment” of the “nearside front upper Macpherson strut”. It said that this may have accounted for the discrepancy between the findings of their own wheel alignment reading, and the newspaper’s independent expert’s view.

9. The complainant said that the article had inaccurately reported that spark plugs hadn’t been changed in the vehicle which had been serviced in its garage in Nottingham. Prior to publication, the complainant had undertaken its own investigation into the matter by attending the garage. During the visit, it said that the investigator had found spark plugs in the waste container which had been clearly marked as Ford OE parts. It said that no other services had been conducted between the service on the reporter’s car and the complainant’s own investigation, and the spark plugs found in the waste container had been consistent with those which are used in the model of car which had been serviced. The complainant accepted, however, that the spark plugs had not been changed in the vehicle which had been serviced in its Birmingham garage.

10. The complainant said that the article had distorted the conversation which had taken place between their employee, and the undercover reporter, at the complainant’s garage in Birmingham, by claiming that he had used “scare tactics”. The article had detailed the advice which their staff member had given to the journalist, relating to the possible consequences if they did not pay to get their wheel bearing replaced. It said that he had told the reporter: “Like I says madam, I don't want to scare you because we're not in the game to scare you but in the worst case scenario they can actually dry up and they get hot, basically, and then dry up and it could actually collapse.'” The complainant said that the article had inaccurately characterised this advice as “scare tactics”. It said that the advice had been given only after the reporter had queried the dangers associated with driving a car with a damaged wheel bearing. The complainant said that another employee had made clear that the potential for the wheel to come off was “very, very rare”.

11. It further noted that this advice had not differed substantially from that of the newspaper’s independent expert, who had said: “'Detachment of a wheel due to a wheel bearing fault is extremely rare.”

12. The complainant said that the use of the photograph of their employee in the article, had breached his privacy, and it said that the advice he had given, did not justify the caption’s use of the word “warning”.

13. The complainant said that the article had given the misleading impression that the customer had been allowed to drive away from its garage in Mansfield, in a vehicle in a dangerous state of repair. It said that the garage had not been able to change the oil filter on the vehicle at the time of the service, because the relevant part had not been in stock, but said that, as made clear in the article, the customer had been informed and had been invited to return the vehicle later that day, or the following weekend.

14. The article had included a quote from the newspaper’s independent expert, which said: “Had the leak not been detected and all the oil lost, the engine could potentially seize up and stop working. This would be potentially very dangerous if this occurred, say, on the outside lane of the motorway.” The complainant said that this had significantly distorted the issues raised by the service, by presenting a worst case scenario, which would be highly unlikely to arise.

15. The complainant said that the article had provided no evidence to support the article’s assertion that the garage in Derby had not provided the car with sufficient anti-freeze fluid in the screen wash tank.

16. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the service provided by the complainant had revealed failings, which justified the article’s claim that they “fit up” and “rip off” their customers. It said that the complainant had charged for £201.55 of work which it said had been considered by its independent expert as unnecessary; this was just one aspect of the poor service offered by the complainant which it said had justified the article’s headline. 

17. It said that it had conducted a careful investigation with the assistance of a highly qualified professional vehicle examiner, who had been a member of the UK Register of Expert Witnesses, and who had been working as an expert witness since 1990. It said that the expert was registered with the Engineering Council as an Engineering Technician, he was a full Member of the Institute of the Motor Industry and was also registered as an Advanced Automotive Engineer.

18. It further noted that it had offered the complainant an opportunity to examine and comment on the investigation’s findings prior to publication. Where there was any dispute between the independent expert’s findings and the complainant’s own investigation, this had been made clear throughout the article.

19. The newspaper said that it had taken great care to ensure that, prior to taking the car to the complainant’s garage in Nottingham, a wheel alignment test had been accurately carried out on the vehicle. It said that the car’s wheels had been fully aligned at the independent garage before being transferred to the complainant’s garage by flatbed truck to avoid jolts or damage. It said that in those circumstances, it was accurate for the article to suggest that the wheel alignment undertaken by the complainant had been unnecessary, and to characterise the results of the complainant’s alignment reading as showing “supposed” wheel alignment issues.

20. It said that the characterisation of the advice which the employee had given regarding changing the wheel bearing, as “scare tactics” was justified; it was an accurate reflection of the conversation which the reporter had with the member of staff at the garage. It noted that the article had taken care to include the fact that they had said that the wheel could come off in a “worst case scenario”.

21. The newspaper said that the article had accurately reflected the findings of its independent expert, regarding his concerns that the spark plugs had not been changed in the car serviced in Nottingham. It said that the expert had found that the marks he had made in UV marker on the spark plugs, prior to the car’s service, were still visible on the plugs, and combustion stains were present which were inconsistent with what would be expected on brand new plugs.

22. The newspaper said that in the garage in Mansfield, the reporter had paid for a full service, which had included the changing of the oil filter, which had not taken place. Whilst it accepted that the reporter had been invited to return to the garage in order to have the filter changed once the necessary parts had arrived, it said that she had been told that if she had not returned, “nothing” would happen. It said that this advice was one example of the poor service provided by the complainant, given that the oil filter had been left leaking, and the newspaper’s independent expert had made clear the potential danger if this leak had been left undetected.

23. The newspaper said that its independent expert had used a calibrated Draper Expert Refractometer to test a sample of the screen wash solution and discovered that the screen-wash strength had been left too weak. It said that as a result, the fluid would have offered very little, if any protection, below the freezing point of water. 

24. The newspaper did not accept that the article had breached the privacy of the individual shown in the photograph. It said that the individual pictured was a senior member of the team at the garage, and therefore was required to take some personal responsibility for Kwik Fit’s failings. The article did not name him, and, given that his job involved dealing with the public, it was not unreasonable to show his picture.

Relevant Code Provisions

25. 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.

Clause 2 (Privacy)

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Findings of the Committee

26. The newspaper had undertaken tests on each of the five vehicles at an independent garage, prior to commencing its investigation. The newspaper had, as part of that investigation, employed the assistance of a qualified expert witness, who had been asked to comment upon the service provided by the complainant and, in doing so, had raised a number of concerns; the newspaper had been entitled to rely on this opinion. The Committee further noted that prior to publication, the newspaper had provided the complainant with an opportunity to comment on the findings of the investigation, and where a difference of opinion had arisen, the complainant’s position had been reported. The Committee acknowledged the steps which the newspaper had taken, in order to establish the basis of its criticism of the complainants, prior to publication; these steps had demonstrated that it had taken care to publish an accurate account of the concerns raised during its investigation. In those circumstances, there was no breach of Clause 1 (i).

27. It was clear, as reflected in the article, that there were significant differences in opinion, between the findings of the complainant’s own investigation, and that of the newspaper’s independent expert. It was a matter of debate as to whether the car’s wheel alignment had been “necessary” or the level of anti-freeze had been “sufficient”, whether the advice which the complainant’s employee had given in Birmingham had been reasonable, or whether the failure to change the oil filter, had posed a significant danger, nor whether or not the spark plugs in Nottingham had in fact been replaced. The Committee’s role is not to adjudicate on these disputes, or to attempt to attempt to reconcile these conflicting accounts. Its role, under the terms of Clause 1, is to consider whether the article had characterised the issues raised by the newspaper’s investigation, in a significantly misleading way.

28. The newspaper’s characterisation of the service provided by the complainant was strong: it had claimed that the complainant had “fit up”, and “ripped off” its reporter, and had employed “scare tactics” in order to do so. The Code does not prohibit editorialising or the use of hyperbolic headlines in order to present to its reader the essence of a story, or to provide a framework through which the body of the article can be understood. The Committee considered that the article’s use of the phrase “fit up” would have been understood by its readers, in the context of the complainant’s name, “Kwik Fit”. In those circumstances, and where the basis of the headline’s claim had been made clear throughout the article, the Committee did not conclude that the article had given the significantly misleading impression that the complainants deliberately defraud their customers, and the headline was supported by its accompanying text.

29. The Committee further considered the use of the term “ripped off”. On balance this terminology had reflected the newspaper’s belief, based upon the concerns raised by the newspaper’s independent expert, that their reporter had been overcharged and had received poor service. These concerns had been set out clearly in the article, and the Committee had particular regard to the newspaper’s decision to report the complainant’s position, at each stage where a difference of opinion had arisen. There was no breach of Clause 1.

30. The image of the complainant’s employee had been taken in a public place, and did not disclose any private information about him. There was no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusion

31. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

32. N/A

Date complaint received: 13/03/2017
Date decision issued: 19/07/2017



Back to ruling listing