Decision of the Complaints Committee – 29111-20 Robinson v Harrow Times
Summary of Complaint
1. Mike Robinson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Harrow Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Fire engine is blocked by low-traffic planters”, published on 12 November 2020.
2. The article reported that planters had “blocked” a fire engine’s access to attending an incident in the London Borough of Harrow. It reported that the vehicle was spotted in Harrow View – one of the areas being trialled as a low-traffic neighbourhood by the local council – with firefighters consequently “being forced to run down neighbouring streets to attend [the] incident”. The article, which appeared on page 2 of the newspaper, noted the comments previously made by a local resident in a letter to the newspaper which questioned whether emergency services had been fully briefed on the new measure. The article also included comments previously made by the local councillor and stated that both Harrow Council and the London Fire Brigade (LFB) had been contacted for comment about the incident in question. The article was illustrated with a photograph of planters, with a separate image of a fire engine included. The photograph was captioned: “Planters have been installed as part of an initiative to reduce traffic”.
3. A substantially similar version of the article was published online on 6 November, under the headline “Harrow LTNs criticised as fire engine blocked by planters”.
4. The complainant said the article was inaccurate and misleading, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). Firstly, he said, the article incorrectly reported that that planters were in Harrow View. In fact, they were situated in “Pinner View”. Whilst he accepted that the main photograph showed the planters in Pinner View, he said that the article failed to make this clear or that the photograph was historic: it had been taken when the planters were first installed in October 2020. The complainant expressed concern that the cropped image of the fire engine included within the article was also historic, having been taken in 2010 and of a vehicle that was no longer commissioned by LFB. He also said the article had reported uncollaborated claims as fact, without any evidence to demonstrate that the alleged incident had occurred.
5. The newspaper accepted that it had, due to human error, incorrectly reported where the incident in question had occurred. The newspaper said that once it had been made aware of this error by another reader, it had immediately taken steps to address it: amending the online version of the article and adding the following footnote to record this: “An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the incident took place in Harrow View - it has now been updated”.
6. In addition, the newspaper published the following correction. This was published online on 13 November and in print on 26 November:
“In a story in the Harrow Times on November 12 headlined ‘Fire engine is blocked by low-traffic planters’ our reporter mistakenly reported that planters were in Harrow View. They were in fact in Pinner View. We apologise for the error. That headline also reflected a claim made by one person in the story that was not verified and should have been marked with single quotes to indicate this. The same was true of the headline ‘Planters block fire engine’s way’ on the wrap of the paper, which also lacked quote marks. We apologise for any misunderstanding this caused”.
7. Whilst the publication accepted that the complainant’s first point of complaint represented an inaccuracy, it did not accept that his further concerns raised a breach of the Code. The publication said the article had clearly reported the recollection of an eyewitness to the incident. It added that its reporter had been provided with a video and photograph of the incident, and whilst it had been unable to publish these due to concerns relating to copyright and quality, this had assured the newspaper that the event had taken place in the manner described. The newspaper added that it had contacted both Harrow Council and the LFB for comment prior to publication. With this, the newspaper maintained that it had taken reasonable steps prior to publication to take care not to publish inaccurate information. It denied breaching Clause 1 (i) on this point.
8. In regard to the complainant’s concerns about the images used in the article, the newspaper did not accept a breach of Clause 1. The newspaper said, in the absence of an acceptable photograph of the incident as it occurred, it had elected to combine a Google Streetview image of the location (and specifically the planters in question) with a stock image of a fire engine in order to help to convey the essence of the story. The newspaper added that the extracts from a readers letter included in the article referred to other similar incidents in the local area, noting that its sister publication previously reported on a similar incident involving an emergency vehicle in Redbridge.
9. During the course of IPSO’s investigation, the newspaper provided the email correspondence it had received from the LFB on 28 January 2021, nearly three months after the incident. The publication’s initial request to LFB for comment on 5 November enquired about “an incident at around 6:30pm on November 4 which saw a fire engine get stuck in Pinner View, Harrow, as access was blocked by traffic-easing measures.” The LFB did not respond to this initial request until 28 January during IPSOs investigation of the matter. The statement, provided by the LFB, reported that whilst responding to an automatic fire alarm sounding in a nearby street “one fire engine stopped by the planter and proceeded on foot”. It added that a second fire engine took a different route to the location and did not get stuck at the planter on Pinner View. The newspaper said that this correspondence from the LFB supported and verified the version of events it had reported. It accepted that in order to avoid any confusion, it would have been beneficial, with hindsight, to include further details of the claims made by eyewitnesses, such as that firefighters were seen running in Cunningham Park. Notwithstanding this, the newspaper, in an effort to resolve the matter, offered to publish a further correction to address any outstanding concerns.
10. The complainant did not accept the publication’s offer of resolution, nor did he accept that the statement provided by the LFB exonerated the newspaper of its responsibilities under the Code to accuracy.
Relevant Code Provisions
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
11. The article had incorrectly reported that the incident had occurred on “Harrow View”. Whilst the Committee appreciated that this was clearly human error, as demonstrated by the inclusion of the correct street name in the request for comment sent to the LFB on 5 November, it took the view that this was a significant inaccuracy, and therefore the newspaper was obliged, in accordance with the terms of Clause 1 (ii), to correct this promptly and with due prominence.
12. The newspaper had amended the online version of the article, appending a footnote to the piece to record this alteration, and published a correction online and in the next edition of the newspaper on page 2. This made readers aware of the correct position and apologised for any confusion caused. This correction was published promptly following notification by a separate reader and was sufficiently prominent, appearing on the same page as the original article, and as a correction online. As such, the Committee considered that this was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
13. The article had been based on an eye-witness account of the incident. In the view of the Committee, the newspaper had taken the appropriate steps to verify the accuracy of this account. These steps included contacting the LFB and Harrow council for comment and obtaining a video of the incident which it elected not to publish. Without receiving a substantive response from the LFB or the council before publication, the newspaper had made clear that it was publishing “reports” of the incident. Whilst the headline had presented it as fact that a fire engine was blocked by low-traffic planter, the Committee noted that the newspaper had viewed footage of the incident and the text of the article made clear that the vehicle “appeared to be blocked”. As such, it did not consider that the headline was significantly misleading.
14. Given the manner in which the article was presented, and the steps taken by the newspaper prior to publication, the newspaper had, in the view of the Committee, taken sufficient care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information. As such, there was no breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point. The Committee also noted that the response provided by the LFB on 28 January demonstrated that the article did not mischaracterise or misrepresent the nature of the incident: a fire engine did stop at the planter on Pinner View, with firefighters subsequently continuing on foot to Cunningham Park.
15. The Committee did not find that the other points identified by the complainant raised a breach of Clause 1. It was not significantly misleading for the newspaper to have used a stock image of a fire engine for illustration, particularly when there was no clear indication that it was the fire engine in question. Neither was it significantly misleading for the article to have used an image captured from Google Streetview of the planters, given there was no suggestion that the planters had significantly altered in the intervening period between the image being captured and the incident in question. In addition, in the view of the Committee, the comments made by the unnamed woman in the article were clearly presented as an extract from a previous letter to the newspaper and readers would understand it reflected the claims made by the letter’s author rather than statements of fact. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
16. The complaint was upheld in part.
Remedial Action Required
17. The published correction put the correct position on record and was offered promptly and with due prominence. No further action was required.
Date complaint received: 16/11/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 26/5/2021Back to ruling listing