Decision of the Complaints Committee 20385-17 Hill v express.co.uk
Summary of complaint
1. Ciaran Hill complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that express.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “Oxford Circus: Police ‘responding like terror attack’ as Oxford Street gunman runs amok,” published on 24 November 2017.
2. The article reported on an ongoing incident in Oxford Circus, which at the time of publication, was being treated as a possible terror attack by the police. The article reported on this breaking news story and was regularly updated as more information about the nature of the incident became known.
3. The complainant said that the headline was inaccurate because it presented as fact that a gunman was involved. He said that although there were unconfirmed reports of shots being fired, this had not been confirmed by the police. He said that a statement was released by the police 20 minutes after the article was published, which said there was no evidence of any shots having been fired.
4. The publication did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that the article reported on a breaking news story and so the article was subject to frequent updates as additional information became available. It could not confirm what the article had said at the time this headline was published, and therefore said it was not possible to ascertain if the article made clear that the reports of the gunman referenced in the headline were unconfirmed.
5. It provided a
timeline of events to show that at the time of publication there were numerous
reports circulating on social media that alluded to shots being fired. It said
that the headline was changed 15 minutes after it was published and the
reference to a gunman was removed. The publication also offered to publish the
following correction as a footnote to the article:
At 17.36 on 24 November 2017 this article was headlined
“Oxford Circus: Police ‘responding like terror attack’ Oxford Street gunman
runs amok”. The article focused on the developing news events around Oxford
Circus in central London. However that original headline did not make
sufficiently clear the claim 'gunman running amok’ at the scene was in fact an
unconfirmed report. Consequently at
17.51, 15 minutes later, the headline was amended to “London terror: Oxford St
shoppers told STAY INSIDE as police ‘respond like terror attack’”.
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.
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
7. The article reported on a breaking news story, and was updated frequently to reflect emerging developments and report the correct position as it became clear. In this context, the Committee considered the accuracy of the headline only.
8. The Committee
noted that it is important that, during serious, breaking news stories, readers
are able to rely on the accuracy of published reports. At the time of publication,
there were a number of first hand reports that made reference to gun shots
being heard at the scene. In these circumstances, the publication was entitled
to report these claims, however it had a duty under the Code to take care over
the presentation of claims. While the Committee noted that the presence of
quotation marks does not always clearly distinguish a statement as a claim, it
can be useful to indicate that a statement has not been confirmed as fact. Where the headline did not make clear either
in the language used or the presentation of the claim the reference to a gunman
on the scene was unconfirmed, it had not taken sufficient care over the
presentation of this claim, in breach if Clause 1 (i).
9. This failure to take care had resulted in this statement being presented as fact. In these circumstances, the headline had failed to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, in breach of Clause 1 (iv).
10. The complaint was upheld.
Remedial action required
11. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.
12. The publication
had promptly updated the headline, to remove reference to the gunman as new
details of the incident emerged. It had also offered to publish a
clarification, which made clear that the headline reflected unconfirmed reports
and had been changed shortly after publication. The Committee considered that
this correction was sufficient to meet the requirements of Clause 1 and should
now be published.
Date complaint received: 24/11/2017
Date decision issued: 23/02/2018
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