06211-19 Mackenzie v Press & Journal

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee - 06211-19 Mackenzie v Press & Journal

Summary of complaint

1. Valerie MacKenzie complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Press & Journal had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Thousands take part in march through city” published on 19 August 2019.

2. The article reported on a Scottish Independence march which took place in Aberdeen on 17 August 2019. It reported that the pro-Independence group that organised the march estimated that 12,000 people had taken part. A Unionist group was reported as having estimated that only 2,563 pro-Independence marchers had attended the event. The article also reported on a smaller pro-Union counter-demonstration and showed a photograph of it. The photograph was captioned: “Around 2,500 pro-Union supporters turned out for a counter-rally”.

3. The complainant, who attended the main march, said that this picture caption was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said that this was because the number of pro-Union counter-demonstrators was around 30 rather than the reported figure of 2,500. The complainant was also concerned that the publication had a pro-Union bias. She also said that the inaccuracy and the decision to report the estimates of the Unionist group further displayed this bias. Finally, she was concerned by the fact that this Unionist group had been given a platform as she disagreed with its views.

4. The publication accepted that the photo caption was inaccurate and said it was due to human error, namely the mistaking of the pro-Union group’s estimate of the Independence march for an estimate of the group’s own counter-demonstration. The publication stated that the inaccuracy, whilst regrettable, was not significant. It said that the photo of the counter-demonstrators showed a much smaller number than the caption reported, and that the article accurately presented the source and context of the 2,500 figure and so the incorrect status of the caption would be clear to most readers. In any event, the publication stated that they had complied with Clause 1(ii) by taking prompt steps to correct, explain and apologise for the erroneous estimate. The publication issued the following correction on page 2 the day after the original article was published:

In a picture caption on page five of yesterday’s edition, it was wrongly stated that “around 2,500” pro-Union supporters attended a counter-rally against a pro-independence march in Aberdeen on Saturday. That was in fact the number of people that the pro-Union group estimated had joined the main independence march. We are happy to correct this error and apologise for any confusion caused.

5. Three days later, after having been able to establish a formal estimate, the publication issued a further clarification that made clear the true number of counter-demonstrators. It stated:

In a picture caption on page five of Monday’s edition, it was wrongly stated that “around 2,500” pro-Union supporters attended a counter-rally against a pro-independence march in Aberdeen on Saturday. In fact there were estimated to be around 40-60. The 2,500 figure – as correctly stated in the article the caption accompanied – was the number of people that the pro-Union group estimated had joined the main independence march. We are happy to correct this error and apologise for any confusion caused.

Relevant Code Provisions

6. 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

7. The publication accepted that the Unionist estimate of the number of pro-Independence marchers was mistaken for an estimate of the number of counter-demonstrators. Reporting this represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1(i).

8. Reporting that 2,500 counter-demonstrators attended the march when in fact the accepted figure was 40-60 was a significant inaccuracy due to the large difference between the reported and actual figure. This was significantly inaccurate as to the scale of the counter demonstration. Moreover, the article was centred on these two demonstrations and the relative number of people taking part in them. Therefore a correction was required under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

9. The corrections published identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record. They were also offered promptly – 1 and 3 days after the original article respectively. This was done with due prominence, appearing on Page 2 in the regular corrections column, with the original article having appeared on page 4 and 5. The Committee welcomed the fact that the publication, on receiving the estimate of the number of counter protestors, had published a second correction to make this clear.

10. The Code makes clear that publications have the right to be partisan, to give its own opinion and to campaign, so long as the Code is not otherwise breached. Therefore, the fact that the complainant believed that the publication displayed a pro-Union bias did not engage the terms of the Code. Moreover, newspapers are free to report the opinions of others and to choose what they publish. In this case, the complainant’s concern that the publication had given the Unionist group she disagreed with a platform did not engage the terms of the Code.

Conclusion

11. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial Action Required

12. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

13. The corrections published by the publication identified the inaccuracy, explained it and set out the correct position, and was offered promptly and with due prominence. This was sufficient to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

 

Date complaint received: 19/08/2019

Date decision issued: 13/11/2019

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