Decision of the Complaints Committee 20364-17 Taylor v Huddersfield Daily Examiner
Summary of complaint
1. David Taylor complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Huddersfield Examiner breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Boffin, 71, made bombs for hobby”, published on 22 November 2017.
2. The article, which appeared on the front page, was a court report which described the details of a case in which the complainant pleaded guilty to two counts of making explosive substances. The sub-headline stated “Chemical analyst caught with explosives like those used in 7/7 blast”. It said that the complainant, a retired chemical analyst, had avoided jail after making “an explosive of the type used in the 7/7 bombings”. The article said he had made two types of explosives “hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD), which was used in the 7/7 bombings, and pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN)”. It said that the court had heard that he had made them “as a ‘hobby’”. It quoted the prosecutor as stating that the chemicals “are unstable and cause serious damage and harm if they do indeed explode…they are obviously dangerous”. The article explained that the explosives were “stored in plastic bottles and jars”. It said that the complainant “admitted that he had a keen interest in fireworks and said he was using the chemicals to make fireworks”. It said he had “started to apply for an explosives license through the Home Office but had not completed the application”. The article included the Recorder’s sentencing comments, where he said that one of the explosives found had been illegal to obtain for a number of years, and said of the complainant that his “naivety was bordering on somewhat close to recklessness. You need to be a lot more careful in regards to your hobby in the future”.
3. The article appeared online with the headline “Boffin made bombs of the type used in 7/7 attacks – for a hobby”. The remainder of the article was the same as in the print edition.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate, because he had not been accused or convicted of making “bombs”. He said that he had pleaded guilty to a charge of manufacturing HMTD and PETN contrary to section 4 (1) of the Explosive Substances Act 1883. He said that it was misleading to state that he made “bombs of the type used in [the] 7/7 bombings”, when these attacks involved several kilos of explosives, and he had prepared only 5g of explosive. He also said that the explosive HMTD was stable in its pure form, and therefore did not pose the risk suggested. He said it was accepted by the police and court that there was no “bomb-making”; his interest was purely in chemistry and firework-making, and the explosives were described in police evidence as “prepared pyrotechnics”.
5. The publication denied any breach of the Code. It conceded that the term “bomb” was never used in court, but said that the explosives the complainant made were described as major components of a bomb, and were disposed of in a controlled explosion. It said that it was accurate to describe the explosives as “bombs”, where they were stored in plastic bottles and jars, and where the definition of a bomb is “a container filled with explosive or incendiary material, designed to explode on impact”. It said that, where HMTD was described in court as “a major component of the 7/7 bombing attacks”, it was not significantly inaccurate to describe the complainant’s explosives as “bombs of the type used in 7/7 attacks”. It provided videos showing the explosive effect of 5g of HMTD to indicate that even this small quantity could cause serious damage. However, the publication did not dispute that the explosives had been intended for use in fireworks, and offered, as a gesture of goodwill, to amend the online headline as follows:
‘Boffin made fireworks using chemicals found in 7/7 bombings – for a hobby’.
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.
Findings of the Committee
7. The complainant had been convicted of an offence in relation to the manufacture of illegal explosives. The explosives created by the complainant included one which was a component in the bombs used in the 7/7 attacks. However, it was not disputed by either party that the intended use of these explosives was in the creation of fireworks, and this was heard in court, as the article reported. At no time were the materials described as “bombs” in court, and there was no suggestion that this was their intended use: the court appeared to accept that the materials had been produced as a hobby, and the Recorder included this in his sentencing remarks.
8. While it is important that publications are allowed some latitude in how they characterise actions and objects, to refer to the materials produced as “bombs” or “bombs of the type used in 7/7 attacks” in the articles’ headlines went beyond this as the Committee did not accept that the word would be understood by readers in the manner asserted by the newspaper. The use of the words “for a hobby” in both headlines indicated that the explosives had not been created for ‘terrorist’ purposes, but the use of the word “bombs” had mischaracterised the complainant’s purpose in creating the explosives; the article text did not contain any suggestion that the explosives had been created for destructive purposes, as the word “bombs” implied. The print sub-headline accurately stated that the complainant had been found to have made “explosives”; however, the publication had not taken care to ensure that the headline claim that the complainant had made “bombs” was supported by the text, in breach of Clause 1(i). Although the publication had offered to amend the online article headline, no standalone correction had been offered either in print or online. The articles were reports of court proceedings and, because the headlines gave the significantly misleading impression that the complainant had made “bombs”, when this was not heard in court, this represented a breach of Clause 1 (ii), and a correction was required.
9. The complaint was upheld.
Remedial action required
10. The Committee upheld the complaint as a breach of 1 (ii). The inaccuracy in the original article had appeared on the front page of the print publication, and the main article, which had not contained a significant inaccuracy, had appeared on page 4. Requiring a front page correction is a serious sanction, which will be appropriate where there has been a significant breach of the Code. In this instance, the inaccuracy lay in one word of the headlines – the word “bombs”. The sub-headline of the front page was accurate: it made clear that the complainant had been convicted for making “explosives”; similarly, the use of the words “for a hobby” indicated that the explosives had not been prepared for ‘terrorist’ purposes. In these circumstances, a front page correction was not appropriate: the correction should appear on page 2, in the publication’s established corrections and clarification column, with the full wording to be agreed with IPSO in advance. The online correction should appear in the top section of the publication’s homepage for a period of 24 hours, with the same prominence as afforded to other homepage articles. The proposed amendment to the online headline should also now be made.
Date complaint received: 05/12/2017
Date decision issued: 20/04/2018
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