Decision of the Complaints Committee 02183-14 Independent Police Complaints Commission v The Times
1. The Independent Police Complaints Commission complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Police watchdog hid truth about Duggan shooting”, published on 28 October 2014 in print and online.
2. The article claimed that the newspaper had obtained new information, through a Freedom of Information Act request, which showed that the IPCC “hid the truth” about the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan “to protect Scotland Yard from ‘anti-police feelings’”. This referred to a decision by the IPCC to delay for four days the release of a ballistics report showing that a bullet which had lodged in a police officer’s radio during the incident, narrowly avoiding injury to him, was police-issue. (It was subsequently established that, in fact, Mr Duggan had not fired a gun during the encounter.) The IPCC had received the ballistics report on 5 August and released it on 9 August. The article noted that on the same day, another newspaper had published a report questioning the likelihood that Mr Duggan had fired at police.
3. It further claimed that the IPCC had “suppressed” the report, which it said “indicated that Mark Duggan had not shot at officers when he was stopped by police”. It quoted an “internal briefing note” by then-IPCC Commissioner Rachel Cerfontyne, giving as a reason for delaying publication “our knowledge that a number of community events are taking place this weekend, where it is considered that tensions and anti-police feeling will be high”. The article acknowledged that Ms Cerfontyne had also cited as a reason the fact that the police officers involved were shortly to be interviewed, and were as yet unaware of the results.
4. The complainant said the claims that it had “hid the truth” in order to protect the police, and that the ballistics report “indicated that Mark Duggan had not shot at officers when he was stopped by police” were inaccurate, damaging, and not substantiated by the material the newspaper had obtained via the FOI request. The ballistics report did not establish that Mr Duggan had not fired at police; it only ruled out the bullet lodged in the radio as possible evidence that he had done so. It was not, at that stage, clear whether a non-police-issue weapon found at the scene had been fired. The article suggested wrongly that Ms Cerfontyne had failed to act impartially.
5. Further, the article had misled readers as to the reason for the delay. Ms Cerfontyne had cited three reasons in her internal note setting out the reasons why the information would not be published “at this stage”: “Our preference for the officers to provide their statements… without being aware of this[;] The unpredictability of the community impact of this information, and our knowledge that a number of community events are taking place this weekend, where it is already considered that tensions and anti police feeling will be high[;] Our inability to context the information, so it would only be partial and we could not control the interpretation or speculation, the [post mortem] result, total number of shots discharged and further forensic analysis will enable us to provide a fuller and more comprehensive account”. Ms Cerfontyne concluded by stating that it was her “strong wish that we issue this information in a controlled and managed way”. Ms Cerfontyne had given an interview to the newspaper, prior to publication, in which she had explained further the reasons she had decided to delay publication of the report; this information was not properly reflected in the published article.
6. The complainant argued that in light of the concerns it had raised, the newspaper should withdraw the article from its website.
7. The newspaper defended its report as fair and accurate. The IPCC had made a deliberate decision not to release information which it knew contradicted widely-circulated accounts of the shooting. This was significant in the context of widespread reporting during this period that there had been an “exchange of fire” at the scene. This followed a briefing by a member of the IPCC press office, for which the IPCC had subsequently apologised (although the newspaper did not dispute the complainant’s position that Ms Cerfontyne had not been aware of that briefing at the time). The ballistics report was the first piece of information to undermine this narrative.
8. It was perfectly accurate to describe that decision as suppression, and given that the report challenged the false narrative that Mr Duggan had fired at officers, it was not inaccurate to use the phrase “hid the truth”. Ms Cerfontyne’s reasons for not releasing the report had been quoted at length in the article; three substantial paragraphs had explained the IPCC’s position on this point.
9. The article had not claimed that the ballistics report had “established” that Mr Duggan had not fired at police; it said that the report “indicated” this. This was accurate: the only evidence to support the idea of an “exchange of fire” – which had been promulgated by the IPCC itself – had been the bullet lodged in the police radio. Police officers present at the scene may have feared that Mr Duggan would shoot them, but they had never stated that he actually did so.
10. The newspaper saw no reason to remove the article from its website. While it did not believe it was required to do so under the terms of the Code, after receiving a complaint direct from the IPCC the newspaper had published a clarification in its regular corrections and clarifications column – and as a footnote to the online article – as follows:
We stated (News, Oct 28) that a ballistics report the day after the shooting of Mark Duggan “indicated that [he] had not shot at officers when he was stopped by police.” The Independent Police Complaints Commission has asked us to clarify that the report revealed only that the bullet which hit a policeman and lodged in his radio was police-issue; it was not known at that stage whether Duggan’s gun had been fired.”
Relevant Code Provisions
11. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.
iii) The Press, while free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
12. The complainant strongly denied that the documents obtained by the newspaper justified its claim that the complainant had “hid the truth” or “suppressed” the report.
13. These claims represented an interpretation of the documents obtained under a FOI request, which had been extensively quoted from. The IPCC had accepted that, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, a member of its staff had added credibility to false claims in circulation that Mr Duggan had fired at officers, and had later apologised. The decision to withhold the ballistics report prevented the public circulation of information that tended to undermine these false claims. The Committee acknowledged Ms Cerfontyne’s position that she had not been aware of this at the time. The Committee concluded that the references were not significantly misleading in this context.
14. As both parties accepted, the ballistics report did not prove that Mr Duggan had not fired at police; however, it did rule out one potential piece of evidence that some had taken to suggest that he had. In this context, it was not significantly misleading to say that the ballistics report “indicated” this. Similarly, “anti-police feeling” was among the three reasons cited by the IPCC Commissioner who had made the decision not to release the report.
15. Finally, the Committee did not agree that characterising the Commissioner’s comments about “anti-police feeling” as a desire to “protect Scotland Yard” suggested that the Commissioner had failed to act impartially. It had clearly been part of her consideration that releasing this information could further inflame tensions with the police. This aspect of the Commissioner’s email was quoted in full, and the article had set out the other reasons she had given for not releasing information about the report.
16. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 03/12/2014
Date decision issued: 26/02/2015Back to ruling listing