Decision of the Complaints Committee – 06159-19 McGurk v oxfordmail.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. John McGurk complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that oxfordmail.co.uk breached Clause1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "Dangerous' Ferrari driver John McGurk from Stratford-upon-Avon convicted of lying after Oxfordshire 'race'" published on 5 July 2019.
2. The article reported that a Ferrari driver, who was on trial for "an alleged street 'race'", had been "cleared of dangerous driving but convicted of lying about who was the driver." The article reported that the complainant, the driver of the vehicle, was "found not guilty of dangerous driving and guilty of doing acts tending to pervert the course of justice". Regarding his conviction, the article reported that the complaint had "between September 4 and October 18 2017, pursued a course of conduct which amounted to perverting the course of public justice by nominating somebody else as the driver". It reported that prosecutors had claimed that the complainant had "lied to police by falsely claiming that somebody else had been behind the wheel at the time", in order to "frustrate the police investigation into dangerous driving". It reported that it had been claimed that the complainant had driven at "up to 80mph", "before overtaking in a line of cars before a bend…".
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate. He said the headline was misleading as it referred to him as "dangerous", when he was not convicted of dangerous driving. The complainant also said there was no "race" as reported in the article and that it was inaccurate to report that he was convicted of lying about who was the driver. He said that he was convicted for sending letters which obstructed the police investigation; he had nominated himself as the driver within the 28 day period, and did not claim that another individual was behind the wheel. Further, the complainant said that he did not "overtake a line of traffic" as there was only one car; the accusation was that he had overtaken traffic on double white lines but nevertheless he was found not guilty of this charge. The complainant also said that the reporter was not in attendance at court on the day of the hearing.
4. The publication denied that the article was inaccurate. It said that the complainant was described as "dangerous" in court by a witness and that a witness had described the incident as a "race". The publication said that the article presented the terms in speech marks in the headline and this made clear these points were the claims of witnesses. It emphasised that the article reported the details of his conviction accurately. The publication provided the charge sheet from the trial which stated that the complainant was on trial for committing an act/series of acts with intent to pervert the course of justice. Regarding the details of this charge, it stated that the complainant had sent a series of letters seeking to frustrate the investigation into an offence of dangerous driving by nominating another individual as the driver. That the complainant had later nominated himself as the driver was irrelevant; he was convicted of this offence and the article had reported this accurately. The publication said that the complainant had misinterpreted the article, which did not report that it was claimed he overtook a line of cars and instead reported that it was claimed he overtook ‘in’ a line of cars. The publication provided the reporter's notes from the trial, which it claimed supported the accuracy of the information in the article.
5. The complainant did not dispute that he was convicted of
the charge of perverting the course of justice as outlined on the charge sheet,
but disputed that he had perverted the course of justice by nominating somebody
else as the driver as reported. The complainant said that he had sent letters
to the police requesting further information regarding the timing of the
offence in which he suggested that he may have been conducting test drives at
the time. However, the complainant said that this did not constitute nominating
another individual as the driver. The complainant provided a copy of the
letters to IPSO.
6. Notwithstanding its position that there was no breach of the Code, during IPSO's investigation the publication offered to amend the headline to "Ferrari driver jailed for perverting the course of justice after lying about who was behind the wheel". It also offered to publish a clarification with the online article which stated:
"The headline of this article was amended to reflect the fact McGurk was found guilty of perverting the course of justice, but cleared of dangerous driving"
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.
v) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.
Findings of the Committee
8. The headline stated that the complainant was "dangerous" and that he was found to have lied after a "race". The Committee noted the publication's position that these were the claims of witnesses. However, it was misleading to refer to these claims in a headline that summarised the details of the complainant's conviction, in circumstances where the complainant was found not guilty of the dangerous driving offence and this was reported in the article; the claims in the headline were not supported by the text. This represented a failure to take care not to publish headlines not supported by the text in breach of Clause 1(i). A clarification was required under the terms of Clause 1(ii).
9. The amended headline removed the claims of the witnesses and reported the offence for which the complainant was convicted, as reported in the text of the article. The Committee considered that the amended headline and the clarification offered by the newspaper during IPSO's investigation clarified the position with due prominence. This was sufficient to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
10. The charge sheet provided by the publication stated that the complainant had sent letters seeking to frustrate the investigation and that he had nominated another named individual as the driver. In obtaining the charge sheet, sending the reporter to court to hear the case, and the production of contemporaneous notes, the newspaper had taken care not to publish inaccurate information regarding the conviction. The Committee took into account the letters sent by the complainant to the police in which he had suggested that another person may have been driving the car at the time of the offence. While these letters were not available to the newspaper prior to publication, the position advanced by the complainant in the letters corroborated the description of the offence on the charge sheet and as reported in the article. Given that the complainant had been convicted of perverting the course of justice, the Committee did not consider that it was significantly misleading to report that the complainant was convicted of lying about who the driver was. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
11. The article made clear that it had been claimed that the complainant had overtaken ‘in’ a line of cars, as opposed to overtaking a line of cars which the complainant accepted was the charge against him. The distinction between the reported claim and the complainant’s position did not represent a significant inaccuracy in circumstances where the article had made clear that he was acquitted of this charge. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
12. The complainant's wider concerns regarding the reporter's attendance at court did not engage the terms of the Editors Code.
13. The complainant was upheld under Clause 1(i).
Remedial Action Required
14. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.
15. The publication amended the headline and had offered to publish a clarification in a prominent position and sufficiently promptly as to meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii). This should now be published to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
Date received: 16/08/2019
Date concluded by IPSO: 03/04/2020
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