Ruling

00006-21 Hackett v Hull Daily Mail

    • Date complaint received

      21st October 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00006-21 Hackett v Hull Daily Mail

Summary of Complaint

1. William Hackett complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Hull Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Parent's anger over last-minute U-turn decision to close school”, published on 4 January 2021.

2. The article, which appeared on page 8 of the newspaper, reported that a primary school would not be reopening after the Christmas break, “despite parents being urged by the government to send kids to school.” It said that parents at the primary school had received an email “advising that pupils should not come back to school on Tuesday.” The article then went on to quote the email in full; the email stated that union opposition to teachers returning to schools was “going to have an impact on us at [school] and how we arrange learning over the next few weeks. Our Senior Leadership Team is currently taking stock of the situation and will be looking at how we can arrange learning in the short term as we await further developments from the Government and the Unions.” A further quote from the email stated: “When we have made arrangements we will let you know exactly what is happening as soon as we can. It may be wise to start thinking about alternative arrangements for child care and how your children will engage in online learning if we have to close.”

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline “[Named] Primary School closed as parents angered over last minute U-turn decision”.

4. Links to the articles were posted on the publication’s Facebook and Twitter pages on the same date as the article’s online publication. The text of the posts said “East Yorkshire Primary School shuts as parents angry over U-turn”, and they included a quote from the article: “’I find it staggering how the school is choosing not to take government advice’”, while another said “A letter was sent out to parents”.

5. The complainant said that the article and social media posts were inaccurate in breach of Clause 1; the school was not, at the time of the article’s publication, planning to close. The complainant said that the email was intended merely to make parents at the school aware of the then-current position of teaching Unions and the government, and how this may impact the school in the future. He noted that the email quoted in the article confirmed this, as it did not state that the school would be closing and instead made clear that “arrangements” were still being made and that the school was “await[ing] further developments from the Government and the Unions.”

6. The publication said it accepted that the original article and headline were inaccurate, as the school had not told parents that it would be closing at the time of the article’s publication. It said that a parent had contacted the newspaper and informed it that the school would not be reopening, and had passed it a copy of the email; however, it was unable to provide a copy of the email that the parent had forwarded to the publication, as the reporter had deleted it from their inbox. It did, however, provide the original messages which passed between the parent and the newspaper. The publication had then attempted to contact the school to verify the information, but had not been able to make contact prior to the article’s publication. The next day, and after the article’s publication, the headmaster of the school contacted the publication to make it aware of the true position, which was that the school was intending to open the following day.  The publication noted that the school did not in fact open the following day, as government guidance came into force and mandated schools to remain closed to a majority of pupils.

7. After the headmaster contacted the publication, it amended the online version of the article and deleted the social media posts linking to the article. The amended headline read “[Named] Primary School warns parents of serious disruption and home learning if teachers stay away”. The amended article went on to report that “[a] primary school has warned it faces serious disruption and potential closure as a result of uncertainty whether teachers will follow calls to not go in because of fears over Covid infection. Parents at [Named] Primary School received an email from the headteacher on Sunday afternoon advising that pupils may have to move to home learning when the school is due to reopen on Tuesday. This is due to unions recommending that schools should not currently reopen due to the rising cases of coronavirus.” It also added a footnote to the amended version of the article, which read as follows:

This article was amended on January 4 to reflect the uncertainty whether the school will reopen on Tuesday Jan 5. The article had originally stated that the school would close upon the union's recommendation. In fact the school closed due to the Government’s guidance. We are happy to clarify this.

The publication noted that the school had not expressed any dissatisfaction with the corrective action undertaken by the publication.

8. The complainant said that, regardless of the article’s later amendment, the inaccurate version had remained online for over 16 hours and had been shared numerous times to the publication’s social media channels during this time. He also noted that the print version of the article had not been corrected.

9. The publication published a print clarification on page 8 of its print edition on 3 February 2021. The wording of the print clarification was, as follows:

Our article 'Parent's anger over last-minute U-turn decision to close school', 4 Jan 2021, reported that the headteacher of [Named] Primary School sent an email to parents advising that children should not go back into school on Tuesday 5th January, due to union's recommendation. The headteacher has since advised that the email did not state the school would be closed, but that it was warning the parents that some or part of the school may have to close. In fact, the school did not open on the Tuesday due to Government guidance. We are happy to clarify this.

10. The complainant said that the action taken by the publication would not be sufficient to resolve his complaint, noting that no correction had appeared on social media and that he expected that any correction to be published on social media with the same prominence and repetition as the original article; he said that several social media posts linking to the article had remained online for 36 hours after he made his complaint to IPSO. The complainant had not been able to demonstrate that they had remained online for the period of time specified, as the social media links to the original inaccurate story had been deleted prior to IPSO making the newspaper aware that the article may raise a possible breach of the Code. However, the complainant had provided screenshots of the posts in question, demonstrating they had been live at the time he had made his complaint.

11. The publication said that it did not consider that it would be proportionate to publish a correction on its social media channels, where the social media posts linking to the article had been removed as soon as it became aware of the potential confusion arising from the article.

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

12. Under the terms of Clause 1 (i), the newspaper was required to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information. The original article reported that the school would not be reopening after the Christmas break “despite parents being urged by the government to send kids to school.” This was inaccurate; at the time of the article’s publication the school was on course to reopen. The email quoted in full in the article made the true position clear, which was that the school was – at the time of publication – awaiting further guidance, and was evaluating “if [it] had to close”. While the Committee noted that a parent had informed the publication that the school was closing – though it noted, with concern, that the original email from the parent to the publication had been deleted – and that the publication had approached the school to verify the information in the article, where the email itself quoted in the article appeared to contradict the parent’s position, the Committee found that the publication had not taken sufficient care not to publish inaccurate information. The publication had published a story announcing the closure of a primary school, based only on unverified comments from a parent and despite being in possession of an email which contradicted these comments. There was a clear breach of 1 (i).

13. The article was published during a period of great confusion regarding plans for in-person schooling, and reported information which was inaccurate and may have led to greater confusion amongst the local community. The inaccuracy was therefore significant and required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

14. The Committee turned next to whether the action taken by the publication had been sufficient to avoid a further breach of Clause 1 (ii). For corrective action to satisfy the terms of Clause 1 (ii), it must be published promptly and with due prominence. The corrective action should also make clear what information is being corrected, and what the true position is.

15. The online article was amended, and a footnote added to the article, on the same day it was published. The print article was corrected nearly a month after the original print article’s publication. Both the print clarification and the online amendments and footnote made clear what was being clarified, and what the true position was. They appeared with due prominence, with the print article and clarification both appearing on the same page of their respective editions and the amended article replacing the original inaccurate article and the footnote appearing at the bottom of the article. The Committee found that the corrective actions undertaken by the publication both in print and online versions of the article were sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

16. The Committee considered the social media posts, which had been live at the time the complainant made his complaint to IPSO. Where text appears in a social media post, and that text constitutes a significant inaccuracy, any correction must be issued on that same medium to meet the due prominence requirement of Clause 1(ii). As such, to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii), the newspaper was required to publish corrections on both its Facebook and Twitter accounts. It had not done so, and there was a breach of Clause 1 (ii) in relation to the Facebook and Twitter posts.

Conclusions

17. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

18. Having partially upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

19. The newspaper had taken steps to correct the print and online articles in line with the terms of Clause 1(ii); the breach of Clause 1 (ii) arose solely from social media posts made on Facebook and Twitter. As such, the Committee concluded that the appropriate remedy was the publication of corrections on the publication’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

20. The social media corrections should make clear the original inaccuracy, and set out the correct position. They should be posted on the same Facebook and Twitter accounts as the original posts, and remain on the social media feeds for a period commensurate with the publication’s standard practices for editorial content. The wording of the corrections should make clear that they have been published following an upheld correction from the Independent Press Standards Organisation.


Date complaint received: 01/04/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 15/09/2021

 

Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Reviewer found that the IPSO process was flawed, as the Committee had not ruled on the complaint in relation to the social media posts, instead considering the complaint against the article alone. The complaint was therefore returned to the Committee to consider the complaint in relation to the social media posts, and the Committee issued an amended ruling.