Decision of the Complaints Committee 13179-17 Betts v Mail Online
Summary of complaint
1. Simon Betts complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Exposed: Labour anarchists ‘joke’ about burning down Tories’ houses while threatening ‘war’ in days before election as party’s signs across the country are daubed with Nazi graffiti” published on 3 June 2017.
2. The article reported that, in the run up to the general election, many Conservative Party placards had been defaced. The article reported that users on social media had commented that the placards showed you “who to rob” and “who to torch” and stated “labour anarchists” were plotting to burn down or rob homes displaying Conservative Party placards. The article included a comment made by the complainant in the thread, where he had stated “the posts make good kindling. Just saying!” The article included a photograph of the complainant and a screenshot of the comment that he made on social media.
3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate, as it had taken the comments made by himself and other social media users out of context. The complainant said that his comment was a light hearted reference to a friend using the posts of the placards as kindling for his wood burning stove, and believed the article gave the misleading impression that he intended to burn down the homes of Conservative Party supporters. He said that by making reference to Labour Party supporters being involved in a plot to burn or burgle homes, the article implied that they intended to carry out criminal damage.
4. The complainant also said that the inclusion of his photograph in the article represented a breach of his privacy, and stated his position that the publication had chosen that particular photograph, which showed his face covered in fake blood, to portray him in a negative light, and to fit with the narrative of the article.
5. The publication did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that the article did not state, either explicitly or implicitly, that the complainant was going to burn down the homes of Conservative Party supporters, but accurately reported the comments he had made on social media, in the context of a discussion about what he and other Labour party supporters wished to do to the election material. Regardless, the publication offered to include a footnote clarification to the article, stating:
“Since this article was published we have been contacted by Mr Simon Betts, one of the Facebook users featured. He states for the record that when he made the comment “The posts make good kindling. Just saying! ;-) x”, he was not suggesting that the posts holding the placards should be used to commit arson, which we are happy to make clear.”
6. The publication said that it was entitled to characterise the comments made as a plot, as others reading the thread online, would not be able to distinguish between the suggestions made by those commenting and their true intentions. The publication said it had presented the comments at face value and had accurately reported the comments and the wider context of the social media posts they were made in connection to.
7. The publication said that the complainant’s photograph and the comments he had made on Facebook were all publicly available. The publication denied that it had specifically chosen the photograph to portray the complainant in a particular light, and noted that all individual photographs of the complainant publicly available on his profile showed him wearing some form of makeup or fancy dress.
Relevant Code provisions
8. 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.
Clause 2 (Privacy)*
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Findings of the Committee
9. The article had accurately reported the comments the complainant had made on social media, as well as the wider context in which they were written. The article had not suggested that the complainant’s comments showed he was planning to burn down homes, but were included as examples of comments made in a series of discussions about damage to election material. The basis for the claim that Labour party supporters were discussing burning down Conservative party supporters homes was made clear in the article, where it reported that some users had commented the Conservative Party placards showed you “who to torch.” The article was not misleading on this point. However, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to publish a footnote clarification in order to set out the complainant’s position and noted favourably that the publication had attempted to contact the complainant, prior to publication, to seek his comment.
10. In circumstances where the article had accurately reported comments made by various users in an online discussion about damaging election material of another political party, the publication was entitled to characterise this as a ‘plot,’ notwithstanding the complainant’s position that they were light hearted. There was no breach of Clause 1.
11. The complainant’s photograph had been publicly available on his social media account. The photograph was used to show the complainant’s likeness in connection to publicly available comments about election material. Given that this photograph was already in the public domain, and showed nothing private in nature about the complainant, the Committee did not consider that the publication of this photograph represented an intrusion into his private life. There was no breach of Clause 2.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action required
Date complaint received: 06/06/2017
Date decision issued: 02/10/2017