Decision of the Complaints Committee 04100-18 The Transparency Project v Mail Online
Summary of the Complaint
1. The Transparency Project complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Nurse's one-year-old son is taken from her care after she let him sit in a Bob The Builder toy car that was 'inappropriate' for his age”, published on 5 June 2018.
2. The article was a report of a judgment of the family court, in which various Orders were made, including a Special Guardianship Order providing that a one-year-old child should live with his relatives, rather than his mother. The judgment has the citation SCST v O, A & U  EWFC B24.
3. The article had four sub-headlines beneath the main headline, which were: “Qualified nurse has one-year-old boy taken from her care by social services”; “Woman has ‘extremely low range of intellectual ability’, family court hears”; “She left child in a Bob The Builder toy car that was ‘inappropriate’ for his age”; and “Concerns also raised over the feeding and nappy changing of the baby”. The article reported in further detail the evidence presented by an Independent Social Worker. It reported that the judge had said that all professionals involved were concerned about the mother’s “lack of insight”, and that the social worker had “highlighted” some of those concerns. The article explained the toy car incident in further detail, reporting that the social worker had told the court that, for about an hour, she had observed that the woman had “maintained limited eye contact and communication” with the child and that she had said that the Bob the toy car was “inappropriate” for his age because there was “a potential risk of [the child] falling if [the woman] lost control of him”.
4. The complainant said that the headline, and text of the article were misleading, as they implied that the child was removed from his mother’s care mainly or wholly because of the issue around the toy car incident. The complainant said that the word “after” in the headline implied a causal link between the toy car incident and the judge’s decision. The complainant said that on a proper reading of the judgment, the reason for the reduction in contact was that the mother posed a risk of physical and emotional harm to the child, as she could not meet his needs; the car incident was one, arguably relatively minor, example of the behaviour which led to this concern. It noted the judge’s finding that it was clear the child had suffered physical harm from his father, from which the mother had failed to protect him. The complainant said that the article did not make clear the breadth and depth of the proven concern leading to the judge’s decision.
5. The publication said that editors are entitled to attract attention to content with headlines that highlight what is singular or unusual about a story; they are not under an obligation to place in a headline what others consider to be the most serious detail in a story. In any event, it said that the judge specifically highlighted the incident involving the toy car as raising “significant physical safety concerns”, and that its headline was not misleading. It noted that the copy had been provided by an agency reporter with extensive experience of court reporting, and had been covered in a similar way by other publications. The publication acknowledged that the judge’s decision was based on a number of factors, and said that these were clearly identified in the subheadlines, and in the body of the article.
6. The publication argued that IPSO should not consider the complaint, as the complainant was a third party, with no direct involvement in the case.
Relevant Code Provisions
7. 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. The Committee first considered the issue of jurisdiction. IPSO is able to consider complaints made by a third party “seeking to correct a significant inaccuracy of published information”. The complaint in this case related to the care taken in reporting a publicly available judgment. There is a public interest in ensuring that court proceedings are reported accurately, and the Committee did not consider that it required the input of those involved in the proceedings in order to make a finding on the accuracy of the reporting in this instance. The Committee decided that it did have jurisdiction to consider this matter. The Committee then turned to the complaint made under Clause 1 (Accuracy).
9. The toy car incident, and other observations conducted by the social worker on that occasion, were cited in some detail by the judge, quoting from the social worker’s concerns, as a factor in her consideration. As such, the publication was entitled to highlight this incident; its prominence was a matter of editorial discretion. The question for the Committee was whether the article as a whole had given an accurate impression of the severity and extent of the reasons for the judge’s decision or whether by highlighting the toy car incident it distorted the reasons for the judge’s ruling, suggesting that was the principal reason for the care order.
10. The specific concerns about the toy car incident were reported accurately, and in full in the article. It was clear that this incident was one of a number of factors, which led to serious concerns about the mother’s ability to care for the child. The article had also reported a number of other concerns expressed by the judge about the mother’s “basic parenting skills” such as concerns raised over the feeding and changing of the child; the mother’s “extremely low range of intellectual ability; the mother’s inability to “meet the needs” of the child, and her “limited eye contact and communication” with the child. The judge had not indicated which factors weighed most heavily in her decision, and so there were no grounds to establish that the publication’s decision to emphasise one such factor represented a distortion of the judgment.
11. The complainant had made a specific complaint that the headline was misleading both because the publication had highlighted the incident with the toy car, and because of its use of the word “after”, which the complainant considered created a misleading link between the incident and the decision. The Committee noted that while, under Clause 1 (i), a headline must be supported by the article it accompanies, it is not required to serve as a summary. Publications are entitled to use headlines to highlight one aspect of a story that is particularly engaging or powerful, so long as they do not distort or mislead. In light of the Committee’s findings above, and in particular it’s finding that the toy car incident had been cited by the judge as a factor in the decision, the Committee did not find that the prominent reference to it in the headline was a breach of Clause 1 (i). In addition, the Committee considered that the word “after” in the headline made clear that the incident was part of a chronology of events, outlined in the article, which had led to the child being removed from the mother’s care after the toy car incident.
12. The article was not a law report of the case, but was intended for general readership. There was no failure to take care over the reporting of the judgment, and the article did not contain a significant inaccuracy requiring correction. There was no breach of Clause 1.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Date complaint received: 24/06/2018
Date decision issued: 21/09/2018
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