Decision of the Complaints Committee 18875-17 Dickinson v Mail Online
Summary of Complaint
1. Tim Dickinson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in tweets relating to an article headlined “BREAKING NEWS: Driver 'deliberately mows down pedestrians after mounting the pavement outside the National History Museum before being pinned to the ground and arrested by police in front of stunned tourists'”, published on 7 October 2017.
2. The article referred to in the tweets reported on an incident that took place at the Natural History Museum where a car mounted the pavement. The article was amended multiple times as the day progressed to reflect the changing understanding of the incident. The article was originally published at 14:47. At 15:02, the words “Driver ‘deliberately mows down pedestrians’” were included in the headline for the first time. The original article was brief and stated that this was “according to reports”. A 15:12 update included tweets from several onlookers suggesting that the driver had acted deliberately. Between 15:11 and 18:43, the publication shared this headline, including the phrase “driver ‘deliberately mows down pedestrians’” in 7 tweets on one of its social media accounts. At 18:00, the Metropolitan Police confirmed publicly that the incident was not terrorist-related. Subsequent to this, at 18:37, the headline of the article was changed to remove the word “deliberately”, but at 18:43, a tweet was sent which stated “Eleven injured as driver ‘deliberately mows down pedestrians’ outside London’s Natural History Museum. The image of the linked article below this text did not bear this headline and stated “Eleven injured as car mounts pavement outside Natural History Museum”. At 22:05, a tweet was published stating “Police reveal cab with three girls in that mowed down 11 people near London’s Natural History Museum was not terror”.
3. The complainant said that, after the article had been amended, the publication had subsequently tweeted once more that the car had mounted the kerb “deliberately” in the tweet of 18:43. This tweet was therefore inaccurate. The complainant was also concerned that the publication did not tweet to alert its readers to the change in the story – to make clear that the incident was not a terrorist incident - until 22:05, when it had publicised the original story multiple times. The complainant said that the ‘amendment’ to the article represented a significant shift in the story, from a potential terror attack to a traffic accident, and that consequently the publication should have rapidly alerted its readers to this via its social media accounts.
4. The publication defended the content of the tweets in the context of the article which they referred to. It said that this was a fast-moving breaking news story, and that in the earlier version of the article it had accurately reported eye-witness claims that the car had mounted the pavement deliberately. It said that the article – in both its original and many updated versions - did not contain a significant inaccuracy such as would require correction, as it had not reported the motives of the driver as fact: it had caveated the claim that the driver had acted deliberately using quotation marks, and had included the basis for the claim by referencing tweets from eye witnesses.
5. The publication said that, when the article was amended at 18:37, to remove the reference to the driver “deliberately” mowing down pedestrians, it added a bullet point in a prominent position making clear that the incident was not being considered as terror-related. It said that it therefore ensured that, once the facts had been established, they were prominently displayed. It said that there was no need to make a formal correction as there had been no significant inaccuracy in the original article.
6. With regard to the complainant’s concerns about the tweets, the publication said that the tweet sent at 18:43 unintentionally included the word “deliberately” after the article had updated due to a caching delay on the website, and because the change had not, at that point, been relayed to the publication’s social media team. It noted that all of the tweets linked to the amended article regardless of their content. The publication denied that the delay in tweeting the amended story until 22:05 was significant; it said it was not common practice for every update to an article to be tweeted. However, it conceded that, to some readers, there might appear to have been a delay in amending the story, and said that this was regrettable; it offered to address the matter with its social media team.
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 Committee noted that a tweet from a social media account of a regulated publication could give rise to a breach of Clause 1 i), in circumstances where insufficient care had been taken over the accuracy of the tweet; where the tweet gave a misleading impression; or where the linked article did not support the content of the tweet. It noted, further, that were a significant inaccuracy to be posted on Twitter, it may be appropriate for a publication to tweet any correction with sufficient prominence and promptness, in line with its obligations under Clause 1 ii).
9. In this case, in order to assess the accuracy of the tweets in question, the Committee had to consider the accuracy of the article they referred to. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that, at the time of going to press, it was not known whether the incident was terror-related. However, in its original article about the incident and in the subsequent updated versions of the article, the publication clearly presented the idea that the driver had acted “deliberately” as a claim, using quotation marks, and supported this interpretation with tweets from eye-witnesses within the article text. It did not present this as fact, and made clear the basis for suggesting that the driver might have acted deliberately. When the police statement clarified that the incident was not terrorist-related, the article was amended and the true position was displayed with sufficient prominence within the article. In the context of a breaking news story, where the available information was rapidly changing, there was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1 (i).
10. The publication used its Twitter account to link to the story throughout the day. One of these tweets, published at 18:43, continued to make reference to allegations that the driver had acted “deliberately” after the article had been amended at 18:37 to reflect the police statement. Since the article and tweets had always presented this as a claim, there was no significant inaccuracy that required correction, and therefore no possible breach of Clause 1 (ii). Whilst there was a delay in tweeting about the amendment to the article, given that the article had not contained a significant inaccuracy, there was no obligation to publish a prompt correction. The amended article made the true position clear, and all the tweets linked to this article. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 07/10/2017
Date decision issued: 11/01/2018Back to ruling listing