Ruling

00328-16 Herry v The Sunday Mercury

    • Date complaint received

      12th May 2016

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00328-16 Herry v The Sunday Mercury

Summary of complaint

1. Damieon Herry complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Mercury breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) and Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Teacher fired for knife threat on pupil loses dismissal case”, published in print on 4 October 2015, and “Teacher sacked after ‘knife threat to pupil’ loses race discrimination case”, published online on 4 October 2015.

2. The article reported that the complainant, a teacher who had been sacked for allegedly threatening a pupil with a craft-knife, had lost his claim for racial discrimination against Dudley Council. It said that the complainant had claimed that he had been victimised and harassed by Hillcrest School and Community College because of his Caribbean background.

3. The articles were identical in print and online except for the headline.

4. The complainant said that he had not lost his job or been suspended because he had allegedly threatened a pupil with a craft-knife. He explained that in February 2009, a pupil had claimed to have felt threatened by him during a session in which he had demonstrated how to use a craft-knife safely. He provided the evidence that he had given to the employment tribunal in which he had said that he had been summoned to speak to the Vice Principal on the grounds that he had “acted aggressively and threatening with a craft knife”. He noted that the Vice Principal had told him to be “mindful” of his conduct; he was not sacked or suspended, as reported.

5. The complainant said that he was suspended in January 2010 because of a separate allegation made by a coach driver; he was reinstated in March 2010. He said he was dismissed in May 2015 for allegedly not handing in sick notes, for refusing to complete Disclosure and Barring Service checks, and for “trust and confidence” issues; all of which had allegedly amounted to gross misconduct.

6. The complainant said that the published inaccuracy had seriously damaged his reputation. He said that the newspaper had deliberately published the allegation in the knowledge that it was untrue, which amounted to harassment. He also expressed concern that the newspaper had not contacted him for comment before the article was published.

7. The newspaper said that the allegation that the complainant had threatened a pupil with a craft-knife had been documented in witness evidence, which the tribunal judge had shown its freelance reporter at the start of the hearing. The newspaper accepted, however, that the evidence had not stated that the complainant had been sacked as a result of the allegation. It noted that the article had included the complainant’s denial of the allegation, as well as the council’s position that the complainant had failed to provide sick notes while he was absent from work. Nevertheless, the newspaper offered to amend the online article and to append the following note:

This article originally reported that Mr Herry had been sacked after allegedly threatening a pupil with a craft-knife. We would like to make clear that this was not the reason for Mr Herry’s dismissal and that he has denied the allegation.

It also offered to publish the following wording on page two of the newspaper (the original article appeared on page 17):

On October 4 2015 under the headline “Teacher fired for knife threat on pupil loses dismissal case”, we reported that Damieon Herry had been “sacked after allegedly threatening a pupil with a craft-knife”. We would like to make clear that this was not the reason for Mr Herry’s dismissal and he has denied the allegation.

8. The newspaper said that Clause 2 does not require that comment is sought before publication; rather, it requires that newspapers provide people with a fair opportunity to respond to published inaccuracies.

9. The newspaper did not consider that Clause 4 was engaged: the report had been based on information provided by the judge at the hearing.

10. The complainant said that the suggested corrections were insufficient.

Relevant Code provisions

11. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply)

A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for.

Clause 4 (Harassment)

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on their property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Findings of the Committee

12. It was accepted that the complainant had not been dismissed or suspended as a result of an allegation that he had threatened a pupil with a craft-knife. In fact, he had lost his job because of his alleged failure to hand in sick notes during a period of absence from work. The newspaper had misreported evidence presented at the tribunal, which had given the significantly misleading impression that the more serious matter concerning an allegation that he had threatened a pupil with a knife had been true, and had resulted in his dismissal. The misleading impression was compounded by the presentation of the inaccuracy in the articles’ headlines. This represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i). A correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

13. The newspaper had corrected the online article and appended a corrective note, which made clear that the complainant had not been dismissed because of an allegation that he had threatened a pupil with a craft-knife. The note also made clear that he had denied the allegation. The newspaper had also offered to publish similar wording on page two in print, 15 pages further forward than the original article had appeared. The Committee considered that the newspaper’s prompt offer to address the complaint was sufficient to meet the requirement of Clause 1 (ii). There was no further breach of the Code on this point.

14. Clause 2 does not require newspapers to seek comment before an article is published. Rather, it requires that they provide a fair opportunity for individuals to reply to published inaccuracies. The complainant had not requested an opportunity to reply. There was no breach of Clause 2.

15. Clause 4 generally relates to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. While the Committee understood the complainant’s concern that the article had damaged his reputation, the publication of the inaccuracy did not represent harassment in breach of Clause 4.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

17. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

18. The newspaper had promptly amended the online article and appended a note, which identified the inaccuracy and made the correct position clear. No further action online was required.

19. The newspaper should now also publish the wording in print, as offered. 

Date complaint received: 14/01/2016
Date decision issued: 06/04/2016