Decision of the Complaints Committee 02200-18 Pswarayi v Swindon Advertiser
Summary of complaint
1. Tashinga Pswarayi complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Swindon Advertiser breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Arrest warrant for phone thief who may have fled”, published on 1 December 2018.
2. The article reported that a warrant had been issued for the arrest of the complainant - who had been convicted for stealing his girlfriend’s phone - because it was thought he had “gone home to his wife and children in Africa”. It said that in the summer, the complainant had been given a suspended sentence, and ordered to do 160 hours of unpaid work and pay £3,000. The article stated that the complainant had failed to turn up for three appointments with the probation service earlier in November, but that “it is believed he has failed to come back from Zimbabwe where he has a wife and four children”. The article quotes the prosecutor as saying “The sentencing court knew he was going to Zimbabwe on July 22 and would return on July 30…He has apparently a wife and four children in Zimbabwe and a girlfriend who was the victim here. He has plainly not come back”. The article said that the judge issued a warrant without bail to bring the complainant before the court “to face the allegation of failing to comply with the terms of a suspended sentence”.
3. The online version of the article, published on 30 November 2017, was headlined “International arrest warrant issued for man believed to have fled back to wife in Zimbabwe after stealing girlfriend's phone”, and appeared in substantially the same format.
4. The complainant, who acknowledged that he was not present in court, said that the article breached Clause 1 because, contrary to the online headline, the court had not issued an ‘International Arrest Warrant’ – it had issued a Bench Warrant. He said it was inaccurate to say that he “fled” to Zimbabwe: he had been cleared by probation and the sentencing judge in his original trial to attend business in Zimbabwe until 29 October. He provided correspondence from an individual who was present at his probation induction demonstrating that she understood he would be travelling to Zimbabwe over the summer, and not returning to the UK until October. The article had acknowledged that the sentencing court was aware he was going abroad, so it was misleading to state that he had “fled”. He also said it was inaccurate to state that his wife lived in Zimbabwe, and to say that he had four children.
5. The publication denied that the article breached Clause 1. It said, whilst the warrant was not technically an ‘international arrest warrant’, describing it as such was not significantly inaccurate where the warrant was issued on the assumption that the complainant was overseas. The publication nevertheless offered to amend the headline to remove reference to an “international” warrant.
6. The publication denied any breach of Clause 1 on the other points: the information relating to them had been heard in court. It acknowledged that the complainant had initially had permission to visit Zimbabwe, and accepted that it had been inaccurate to state that 30th July had been referred to as the return date for the visit. However, he had apparently stayed in Zimbabwe when he was due before the court, so it was not inaccurate to state that he had “fled”. The publication also considered that the article text made the position clear on this point. The publication also provided a reporter’s note of the comments made by the prosecutor on behalf of the probation service, stating “He’s plainly not come back and will you issue a warrant without bail”. The publication nevertheless offered to amend the article to remove the reference to the complainant having “fled”.
7. The publication said that the court had heard from the prosecution that the complainant had a wife and four children in Zimbabwe, and it provided a reporter’s note in support of this claim.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. 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
9. The article was a report of court proceedings following the complainant’s alleged failure to adhere to the terms of his suspended sentence. As a result of these proceedings, and on the basis of the information presented by the prosecutor, a warrant was issued to summon him to court. In reporting on information heard in court, publications are not responsible for the accuracy of the information heard; they are responsible for reporting accurately what is heard. In considering whether the article breached Clause 1, the Committee considered whether the article was an accurate account of court proceedings.
10. The article had stated that the complainant had a wife and 4 children in Zimbabwe. The article claimed that the prosecutor said “He has apparently a wife and four children in Zimbabwe”, and the publication was able to provide its reporter’s notes to support this. As he was not present in court, the complainant was not in a position to dispute that this was heard. Because this information was heard in court, and as the prosecutor’s words were included, making clear that this statement was based on a belief, rather than a firm fact, there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of this information in breach of Clause 1(i). This claim was not central to the article, which was a report of the warrant issued against the complainant, and in these circumstances, this did not represent a significant inaccuracy, and there was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).
11. Neither version of the article stated as fact that the complainant had fled the country. The online article had stated that the complainant was “believed to have fled”; the print article said he “may have fled”. The basis for this belief was the account of the prosecutor, who stated that the complainant was sent letters summoning him to attend probation three times in November, and who said that the complainant “has apparently a wife and four children in Zimbabwe…he has plainly not come back”. The publication was able to provide a reporter’s note supporting this, and while the article had wrongly suggested that the complainant was due to return on 30 July, the key claim that the complainant had “not come back” was accurately reported. The complainant had not alleged that the article had inaccurately reported information heard in court, and the publication’s paraphrasing of the prosecutor’s comments was not misleading. The court had therefore heard that the complainant had remained in Zimbabwe when he should have been attending appointments with the probation service. In these circumstances, it was not significantly misleading for the publication to suggest that he “may have fled” or was believed to have done so. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of this information, in breach of Clause 1(i), and no significant inaccuracy that required correction under Clause 1(ii) on this point.
12. The article had stated that an “International arrest warrant” had been issued for the complainant. This was based on the publication’s understanding, based on the prosecutor’s account in court, that the complainant remained in Zimbabwe at the time of the warrant being issued. While the warrant that was issued was not an International Arrest Warrant in legal terms, it was a warrant issued on the understanding that the complainant was abroad. Understood in ordinary terms, this was not misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 07/03/2018
Date decision issued: 21/05/2018