Ruling

00556-23 Thompson v hulldailymail.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      17th August 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00556-23 Thompson v hulldailymail.co.uk


Summary of Complaint

1. Natalie Thompson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that hulldailymail.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Hull family's terror after dog attacked by pitbull in front of mum carrying her nine-month-old baby”, published on 4 December 2022.

2. The online article reported that a dog – “a 12-year-old Shih Tzu-poodle cross” – was “savaged by a neighbour's English pitbull in a communal garden” which “then attacked a second dog days later”.  It reported that the owners of the poodle said their “daughter-in-law, who was carrying her nine-month-old baby”, was in the garden when “the mutt tore into the garden and set upon” the poodle. It then reported that the family, with the help “of nearby workmen”, managed to pull “the pitbull” off the poodle – which was “left with nasty gaping wounds” and taken to the “vets and the incident reported to the police”. The article reported that, according to the owner of the poodle, because the other dog was “not a banned breed, [the] police were unable to take action and instead told its owner to keep it muzzled during walks.”

3. The article then said that “[f]our days later, a neighbour reported his dog was also attacked while on a walk”. It reported that this dog – “a wire cross terrier” – was “attacked by the same pitbull”, and included the comments made by its owner to another publication: the dog ripped “into [the terrier] like a ragdoll”; “I had to use all my force to pick it off my dog. When I picked it up, [the terrier] was still in its mouth”. The article concluded by stating that “[c]ertain dangerous dog breeds are banned in England and Wales, including American Pitbulls and Japanese Tosas, but the breed in this instance is not.”

4. The article was accompanied by a number of photographs of the Shih Tzu-poodle and the wire cross terrier, and which showed the injuries sustained by the two dogs. A caption stated that these injuries were “inflicted” by the “Pitbull owned by one of their neighbours”.

5. The article was also promoted on the publication’s Facebook page under the headline “Hull family’s terror after dog attacked by pitbull in front of mum carrying baby”. It was accompanied by an image of the injuries sustained by the Shih Tzu-poodle and the wire cross terrier, alongside a status which read: “They say their little dog will ‘never be the same’ again. 😞

6. The complainant – the owner of the “pitbull” – said the article was inaccurate, in breach of Clause 1.  She denied that her dog was a “Pitbull” or a “banned” breed; it was, in fact, an English Bull Terrier.

7. The complainant also said that the article misrepresented the two incidents. While she accepted that the other dogs had been injured and she had been contacted by the police in relation to the incidents, she denied that her dog was the aggressor. With regard to the first incident, she said that the poodle had been unsupervised and in her garden; she denied that her neighbour had pulled the Bull Terrier off the poodle as she was in fact the one who restrained her dog; denied that members of the neighbour’s family had been present, including a child; and denied that the police had told her to keep the dog “muzzled”. With regard to the second incident, she claimed that the neighbour had confronted her and as she lost her footing, the neighbour’s wire cross terrier attacked her dog, adding that the only reason the other dog had been injured was because it had “pulled the muzzle” off her dog.

8. The complainant said that the publication of the article had led to harassment from members of the public, and that this breached the terms of Clause 3. She also said that a reader had posted her address in a comment underneath the Facebook post.

9. On 8 December 2022 – four days after the article’s publication – the complainant contacted the publication directly with her concerns. In response, on the same day, the publication confirmed that the Facebook post had been removed and it had disabled the reader comments section for the article. On 12 December 2022, the publication explained that it did not control the content of third-party comments on Facebook and the comment had been removed once it had been notified of her concerns.

10. The complainant’s concern regarding this Facebook comment was not investigated for jurisdictional reasons; IPSO can only consider complaints about user-generated material, included reader comments, after they have been reviewed or moderated by the publication. Because the post appeared on Facebook, the publication did not have the ability to pre-moderate the comment. Given this, and where the post was removed by the publication once it was notified by the complainant, this comment did not fall within IPSO’s remit. IPSO was however able to consider the complainant’s other concerns under the Editors’ Code.

11. While the publication did not accept breach of the Editors’ Code, it accepted that it had misreported the breed of the complainant’s dog. However, it noted that the text of the article made clear that her dog was not a "banned” breed, so it did not accept that the inaccuracy was significant.

12. It also said the article was clearly presented as the neighbours’ recollections of the two incidents. It said that the text of the article made clear the status of the allegations put forward by the two neighbours. It added that an editorial decision was taken to anonymise the complainant and therefore did not consider that approaching the complainant for comment prior to the article’s publication was appropriate or necessary.

13. Notwithstanding this, on 24 January 2023 – 51 days after the article’s publication and 11 days after it had received the complaint from IPSO – the publication offered to amend the article to make clear that the complainant’s dog was an English Bull Terrier. It also offered to publish a correction, which would appear beneath the amended headline of the article. It also offered to update the article to include a statement from the complainant, outlining her view of events.

14. On 21 March 2023 – and in its first substantive response during the course of IPSO’s investigation into this matter – the publication confirmed that article had been amended and the following correction published, beneath the amended headline:

“The previous headline of this article referred to the dog responsible for the attacks as a pitbull. In fact, the dog was a British bull terrier. We are happy to set the record straight.”

15. It also offered to publish a similar correction for the Facebook post which it deleted on 8 December 2022 – 4 days after the article’s publication.

16. The publication did not accept that the complainant’s concerns engaged the terms of Clause 3.

17. The complainant did not consider that the steps taken the newspaper were sufficient to resolve her complaint. As such, the matter was passed to the Committee for adjudication.

Relevant Clause 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.

Clause 3 (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 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

18. The headline of the article, and the accompanying Facebook post, reported that the complainant’s “pitbull” had “attacked” another dog. It was accepted by both parties that the complainant’s dog was, in fact, an English Bull Terrier. While the inaccuracy featured prominently in the headline, this did not, in itself, mean that the terms of the Editors’ Code had been breached. To establish a breach of Clause 1 the Committee had to be satisfied that the inaccuracy was significant, and/or it had arisen from a failure to take care by the publication.

19. The article reported the recollections and perspectives of the complainant’s neighbours – it was clearly presented as their own experiences of the two incidents. The claim about the breed of the dog which had been involved in the incident had been attributed to the complainant’s neighbours and presented as their comments; they had not been adopted, or presented, as fact by the publication – and the complainant did not dispute that her neighbours had told the publication that the dog was a “pitbull”. The Committee also noted that the article made clear the complainant’s dog was not a “banned” breed in England and Wales.

20. In these circumstances, the Committee found that there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the claim that the complainant’s dog was a “pitbull”; there was no dispute that the complainants’ neighbours had referred to the dog as such or that they believed it was this particular breed. The Committee recognised that in some circumstance it may be appropriate to put an allegation or claim to an individual prior to an article’s publication, particularly where the claims are serious and potentially damaging. However, the specific breed of the complainant’s dog was not a claim of this nature, and there was, therefore, no failure to take care in not contacting the complainant prior to the article’s publication to confirm the dog’s breed. Nor did the Committee consider that misreporting the breed represented a significant inaccuracy and therefore in need of correction under Clause 1 (ii), where it did not materially affect the accuracy of the article – that a dog, which was not a banned breed, had allegedly attacked two other dogs. The Committee nevertheless welcomed the publication’s offer to correct both the headline and accompanying Facebook post.

21. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concern that the article misrepresented the two incidents. In circumstances where the article was based on the experiences and observations of her two neighbours – and clearly presented as such – and where it was accepted that the incidents had occurred and resulted in her neighbours’ dogs being injured, the Committee considered that the incidents had not been misreported in a way that breached the terms of Clause 1. Regardless of which dog was the aggressor, who had been present at the time, or who separated the dogs, there had been two altercations involving the complainant’s dog which had resulted in injuries to other dogs. In addition, while the complainant disputed that she had been told to muzzle her dog, where it was accepted that the police had spoken to her following the incidents and her dog was wearing a muzzle during the second incident, the Committee did not consider that the article breached Clause 1 on this point. Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to update the online article to include the complainant’s position. 

22. The complainant was concerned that the article had led to harassment from members of the public. Clause 3 generally relates to the way journalists behave when researching a news story and is meant to protect people from being repeatedly approached by the press against their wishes. Where the complainant did not argue that the alleged approaches were made by people working for the newspaper, and where there was no evidence of this having occurred, the terms of Clause 3 were not engaged.

Conclusion

23. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

24. N/A.

 

Date complaint received:  20/12/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  31/07/2023