02294-20 Chan v The Mail on Sunday

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02294-20 Chan v The Mail on Sunday

Summary of complaint

1. Pak Hung Chan complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday breached Clause 1(Accuracy) and Clause 12(Discrimination of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "WILL THEY EVER LEARN? A CHINESE MARKET YESTERDAY published on 29 March 2020.

2. The article reported that “China had celebrated ‘victory’ over the coronavirus by re-opening squalid meat markets”. It reported that at a market in south-west China “bats and scorpions” were “offered for sale as traditional medicine” and that  “rabbits and ducks [were] slaughtered and skinned side by side on a stone floor covered with blood, filth, and animal remains.” It featured a photograph of live cats in a cage with the caption: “CRAMMED INTO CAGES: Cats are offered for sale in a market in Guilin, south-west China, yesterday”. The article also featured a photograph of live dogs in a cage with the caption “WAITING TO DIE: Terrified dogs ready for slaughter in Guilin”.

3. The article was also published in much the same format online on 28 March under the headline “Will they ever learn? Chinese markets are still selling bats and slaughtering rabbits on bloodsoaked floors as Beijing celebrates 'victory' over the coronavirus”. The article featured the same photographs. The image of the cats was published with the caption “Cats waiting to be slaughtered for their meat in a market in Guilin Southwest China”. The image of the dogs was published with the caption “Dogs and rabbits are butchered and sold at a meat market in Guilin, southwest China, on Saturday, 28 March 2020 despite infection concerns about this type of market”. The online article also featured a video of a woman eating a bowl of bat soup with the headline “fears Coronavirus may linked to contaminated bat soup”.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate. He said that the photographs were old images taken in Vietnam and featured in an article in a Hong Kong publication in 2015 and therefore were not taken on the date reported. The complainant said that the news agency which published the photographs no longer existed and noted that the photographs had since been removed from the Hong Kong publication’s article. The complainant provided a screenshot taken by another individual on Facebook which he said demonstrated that the photograph of the cat was old and published in the 2015 article and said that two people had also claimed on Facebook and Twitter that this was the case. The complainant noted that the image in the screenshot had the photographer and agency’s copyright notice at the top of the image, whereas this had been removed in the image published in the article under complaint.

5. The complainant said that the video of the woman eating the bat was also inaccurate. He said the claim that there were fears that coronavirus was linked to contaminated bat soup was a myth and sensationalism. The complainant also said that the origin of the video was unknown but it had been suggested that the video was taken on the island of Palau, and was first published on Chinese social media. He also said that the article made it appear as though live bats were being sold and had made claims about various animals being slaughtered, without photographic evidence which demonstrated this.

6. The complainant said that the article discriminated against Chinese people in breach of Clause 12.

7. The publication denied any breach of the Code. It said that it was assured by the photographer, the proprietor of the news agency, which it considered reputable, that the images were taken in China on 28 March 2020. The publication provided the print counterpart of the online article published in the Hong Kong publication and noted that this version did not feature the photographs in question. The publication accepted that it may have appeared as though the images had been subsequently removed from the online article. However it said that this was due to a technical issue related to a change to the Hong Kong publication’s online archiving system; the publication provided a link after this had been fixed, and as with the print version, the images were different and the images published by the Mail on Sunday were not featured. The publication emphasised that the complainant had not provided any evidence to support his suspicion that the photographs were taken in Vietnam in 2015; he had only produced social media postings from people who claimed to have seen the images previously. The publication provided a redacted screenshot of the metadata which it said demonstrated that the image of the dogs was created on 28 March 2020. It also noted that the sign in the background of the image featured writing in Mandarin, not Vietnamese.

8. The publication said that the video was included with the online article because of the theory that Coronavirus had been linked to bats and originated in meat markets which sold bats. The publication emphasised that the video made no suggestion that it had been shot recently. It said that it was sourced from a library and its inclusion was not inaccurate or misleading.

9.  The complainant accepted that it was possible that the photographs were taken that day but suggested that the publication provide IPSO with the files of the original photographs to be certain.

10. The publication emphasised its reluctance to provide further information or ask the photographer to make further communications on security grounds, due to the risk of persecution or harassment by the Chinese authorities who could discover their identity. 

Relevant Code Provisions

11. 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.

12. Discrimination

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

13. The complainant’s position that the photographs were taken in Vietnam in 2015 was based on information he had seen posted by other individuals on social media and was not based on first-hand experience or knowledge. The complainant did not have first-hand knowledge of the circumstances in which the screenshots he provided were taken, or first-hand knowledge regarding where and when the photographs within the screenshots were taken. The publication had provided copies of the 2015 articles by the Hong Kong publication in which the photographs were allegedly published and the images were not featured. The meta-data provided by the publication showed the date that one of the images was created, as well as Mandarin script in the background of the image, a point not disputed by the complainant. The Committee was satisfied that the publication had provided material in support of its position that the images were taken in China on 28 March 2020 and there was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

14. The article made no determination as to when or where the video was taken. It was published with a headline which simply reported that there were fears that coronavirus was linked to the consumption of bats, which did not represent a factual declaration that this was the case, nor did the article explicitly state that the video was taken in China; its inclusion did not render the article misleading. The article did not report that live bats were for sale and the complainant’s position on this as well his basis for disputing that rabbits and ducks were slaughtered was based on speculation. Further, the selection of material for publication is a matter of editorial discretion as long as the code is not otherwise breached and the publication was under no obligation to publish photographs to accompany this information. Regarding the complainant’s claim that the article was sensationalist, the Code does not prohibit publications from sensationalising or taking an editorial viewpoint provided they take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

15.  The terms of Clause 12 are designed to protect specific individuals mentioned by the press against discrimination on the basis of their race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or any physical or mental illness or disability. These terms do not apply to groups or categories of people, and therefore the complainant’s concerns that the article discriminated against Chinese people in general did not engage the terms of Clause 12.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

17. N/A

Date complaint received: 31/03/2020

Date complaint concluded: 29/07/2020

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