Decision of the Complaints Committee 07543-18 White v Mail Online
Summary of complaint
1. Steven White complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “German children banned from sending their Christmas wishlists to Santa ...because it breaks EU's privacy laws”, published on 22 November 2018.
2. The article reported that Roth, a town in Bavaria had banned children from publicly hanging Christmas wishlists – including their name, age and address - on a tree in its market, “blaming new EU privacy laws”. A bullet point below the headline stated that “GDPR rules prevent children leaving their personal details on trees in public”. The article explained that the town council’s lawyer had said that GDPR rules had left them with no choice but to ban the traditional practice. It stated that, under the GDPR, the council “must obtain written permission from the parents of the 4,000 children who usually take part, making it clear their data could be shared with third parties”. The article quoted from the town’s events manager, who said that “’There won’t be any sparkling children’s eyes in front of the Christmas tree’”. It included a response from a European Commission (EC) spokesman, who said that the town had incorrectly interpreted the rules.
3. The complainant said that the article’s headline was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) because it suggested that the EU had been the cause of the ban, when the town had misinterpreted the law.
4. The publication denied any breach of Clause 1(Accuracy): it said that the article accurately reported that the Roth town council had blamed the GDPR for affecting its Christmas tradition. It said that the article made clear that it was reporting the town’s interpretation of the legislation, including the views of the town’s events manager, and that it had made clear that the European Commission disputed the town’s interpretation of the effect of the GDPR on the practice.
5. Nevertheless, the publication amended the article’s headline to read “German children stopped from sending their Christmas wish lists to Santa…because of council fears that it would break EU’s privacy laws”. It also removed two of the bullet points below the headline, and added two new bullets to reflect the position of the European Commission that the practice could continue as usual. The EC’s position was also reflected in a more extensive comment from the organisation, which stated that the GDPR had not changed the existing requirement for parental consent. On receipt of the complaint from IPSO, the publication also published the following clarification as a footnote to the article:
Since the publication of this article, we have been contacted by the European Commission to advise that Roth town council’s fears that their annual Christmas tradition of the town’s children hanging their Santa wish lists on the tree in the public market would be stopped due to the new EU privacy laws were misplaced. We are happy to clarify that all that is needed for the children to publicly display their wish lists to Santa is parental consent, and that this procedure has been in effect for the past 20 years. The new EU privacy laws have had no impact on these types of Christmas traditions whatsoever. The EC have also confirmed in a statement that the Bavarian town of Roth’s Christmas tradition will go ahead as usual.
In addition, the publication offered to publish the following standalone correction on its News homepage, to appear for 24 hours before being archived in the usual way:
On the 22nd November 2018, we published an article which originally carried the headline ‘German children banned from sending their Christmas wishlists to Santa ...because it breaks EU's privacy laws’. The article, which appeared in the Daily Mail under a different headline, reported on Roth council’s concerns that new GDPR laws would mean the German town’s annual tradition of children hanging their Santa wishlists on the Christmas tree in the town centre would need to be cancelled. After being contacted by the European Commission, the Daily Mail article was amended online to clarify that Roth’s annual Christmas tradition would not need to be cancelled due to the new EU privacy laws. A footnote was added which stated that the new EU privacy laws have had no impact on these types of Christmas traditions, and that the Roth’s Christmas event would go ahead as usual. The Mail Online headline was corrected to read: ‘German children stopped from sending their Christmas wishlists to Santa ...because of council fears that it would break EU's privacy laws’. We are happy to make this clear and apologise for any confusion caused.
The publication said that a correction on its News homepage - as opposed to its main homepage - was sufficiently prominent, in circumstances where the article had appeared halfway down the homepage for a period of 12 hours, and where a large number of its articles appeared on the main homepage each day.
6. The complainant said that this proposed correction was not sufficiently prominent to remedy the inaccuracy in the article.
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 article had stated as fact, in its headline, that children had been banned from sending their Christmas wishlists “because it breaks EU’s privacy laws”. It had also stated prominently in the bullet points that “GDPR rules prevent children leaving their personal details on trees in public”. Both of these claims were adopted as fact, and were not attributed to the representatives of Roth. It was accepted that it was not the case that the use of the wishlists broke GDPR rules, or that the rules prevented the practice. In these circumstances, there was a failure to take care over the accuracy and presentation of the headline and bullet point, in breach of Clause 1(i). This gave rise to a misleading impression of the effects of GDPR legislation, which required correction to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
9. When it received the complaint from IPSO, the publication had appended a footnote correction to the article; it had also taken steps to amend the article to attribute the claims made regarding the effect of the legislation to the representatives of Roth, and to include a more detailed statement from the European Commission. This action was sufficiently prompt, having been offered within 10 days of the matter being passed to the publication, and the correction made clear the inaccurate information the article had contained, and the correct position.
10. However, in this instance, the inaccuracy had featured
prominently in the headline and bullet points of the article, and the article
had appeared on the publication’s homepage for a period of 12 hours under the
headline - which contained the inaccuracy. In these circumstances, a footnote
correction was not sufficiently prominent to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii),
and a standalone correction was required. A standalone correction had been
offered, which addressed the inaccuracy, and would appear on the News homepage
for a period of 24 hours before being archived in the usual way. This was
sufficiently prominent, and had been offered promptly once the complainant had
expressed his view that a footnote correction was insufficiently prominent.
There was no breach of Clause 1(ii), and this correction should now be
11. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).
Remedial action required
12. Having found a breach of the Code, the Committee
considered what remedial action was appropriate.
13. The standalone correction offered by the publication
addressed the inaccuracy within the article, and had been offered promptly once
the complainant had made clear his view that the footnote correction was
insufficiently prominent. The offer to publish this correction on the News
homepage was sufficiently prominent to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii), and this
should now be published.
Date complaint received: 27/11/2018
Date decision issued: 15/02/2019
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