Ruling

02283-18 Premier Inn v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      10th August 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02283-18 Premier Inn v Mail Online

Summary of complaint

1. Premier Inn complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Premier Inn 'turns away a group of homeless people after Good Samaritan offered them 19 paid-for rooms when hotel chain wouldn't refund her booking'”, published on 05 March.

2. The article reported that a person who was unable to use rooms she had booked at one of complainant’s hotels, offered them to homeless people in Weston-Super-Mare, via local charities. The article reported that a homeless charity had said it had sent two rough sleepers to the hotel, that they went with the booking reference but were sent away because they did not have identification. The article reported that the person who had offered the rooms had said she was told that “people needed to bring two utility bills with them. But homeless people are not going to have that kind of identification and when they turned up they were turned away”.

3. The article reported that Premier Inn had told a local news website which had reported the story that for legal, safety and security reasons, it needed the names of guests; that it had explained this to the person offering the rooms, but that no names were supplied; and that “extensive checks of our CCTV footage does not appear to support anyone being turned away from our Hutton Moor hotel on Friday evening”.

4. An hour-and-a-half before the article was published, the publication contacted the complainant to say that it would be writing a version of the local newspaper article. The complainant responded 3 hours and twenty minutes later, saying reports that homeless people were turned away from one of its Weston super-Mare hotels were untrue, and that extensive checks of CCTV bore this out. The complainant’s comment re-iterated the comment it had made to the local newspaper that it needs the name of guests staying in its hotels, but it had not been supplied these by the person offering the rooms. The article was updated to include this comment.

5. Two days later, the complainant complained to the publication about the updated article. The complainant said that the original story had been lent credibility because it had been believed that the two homeless people it had allegedly turned away had been accompanied by a charity worker. It said it was submitting a complaint after it had emerged that this was not true. The complainant said that there was no record of a homeless couple being turned away from either of its Weston-super-Mare hotels. It expressed concern that the publication had relied on information about what happened to the homeless couple which had been provided by the chairperson of the charity; an individual who had not spoken to the couple himself, but had been provided the information by a charity worker, who had. The complainant expressed frustration with the speed at which the publication responded to its complaint, and the difficulty it had with trying to speak to someone over the telephone. It requested deletion of the article.

6. The publication said that it had taken care not to publish inaccurate information. In addition to relying on a local newspaper article reporting the story, its reporter had also contacted the complainant and the woman who had offered the rooms, to make their own enquiries, prior to publication. It said that when it first published the article, it had not received the complainant’s response. It therefore included the comment it had previously given to the local newspaper. It said that when it received the complainant’s comments, it had updated the article, and the complainant confirmed in writing that it was happy with the update.

7. The publication said that on receipt of the complaint two days later, it wrote to the charity that allegedly directed the homeless couple to the complainant’s hotel. The charity confirmed that the homeless couple had told a charity worker in the soup kitchen that they had arrived at the Seafront Hotel, and were not allowed to stay due to a lack of ID.   The charity then realised the rooms had been booked at the other Premier Inn hotel in Weston-super-Mare.

8. The publication said that rather than remove the article, it updated the article, and published the footnote making clear the amendments made. It said that the fact there was a dispute between the complainant and the charity, did not preclude it from reporting on the matter. The headline was changed to “Premier Inn denies turning away two homeless people after Good Samaritan offered them paid-for rooms when hotel chain wouldn’t refund her booking”. A sub-headline stated: “Two people turned up at the wrong Premier Inn and were not allowed to stay”, and the first sentence stated: “Hotel chain Premier Inn has denied turning away two homeless people”. A footnote was added which stated:

An earlier version of this article reported that staff at a Weston-super-Mare Premier Inn had turned away a group of homeless people who had been offered rooms paid for by a Good Samaritan, because they did not have any ID. In fact, the two people who attempted to take advantage of the offer had also gone to the wrong Premier Inn. We are happy to set the record straight.

Relevant Code Provisions

9. 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

10. The publication published the article having relied on an article published by a local news website the day before, emailed the complainant’s press office at 8:30am, an hour and-a-half before publication, and spoken to the woman who had booked and donated the rooms. The Committee considered that this did not represent sufficient care not to publish inaccurate information, given the seriousness of the claim that the complainant had “turned away” homeless people, to whom hotel rooms had been donated. The complainant’s press office was given inadequate time to respond to the approach for comment, prior to publication; the publication’s reporting of the issue was not time sensitive so as to justify providing a short response time, such as in a rapidly changing or breaking news story. In addition, the woman who had booked and donated the rooms would not have had direct knowledge of the attendance of homeless people at the complainant’s hotels. The Committee recognised that the complainant’s initial response to the story, as reported in the local news website’s article, was ambiguous; although it said that “extensive checks of our CCTV footage does not appear to support anyone turned away from our Hutton Moor hotel on Friday evening”, it also said that it needed the names of guests for safety and security reasons, and that it was disappointed that “vulnerable people feel let down through absolutely no fault of their own”, which lent credibility to the allegation that the homeless people had been “turned away”. The Committee considered this ambiguity reduced the seriousness of the publication’s failure, but the complaint was nevertheless upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (i).

11. On receipt of the complaint, the publication did contact the charity, and learnt the charity’s allegation was actually that two homeless people were “turned away” because they did not have the correct ID, although they had been attempting to check-in at the wrong branch of the complainant’s hotels. The initial claim that a “group” of homeless people had been “turned away” from the branch where rooms had been made available to them, was significantly misleading, and required correction under Clause 1 (ii). However, despite the changes made, the footnote to the article stated that “in fact, the two people who attempted to take advantage of the offer had also gone to the wrong Premier Inn”, a sub headline stated that “two people turned up at the wrong Premier Inn and were not allowed to stay”, and a sentence in the body of the article stated that “The two homeless people ended up going to the wrong Premier Inn in the town and a local charity has said they were turned away because they did not have ID”. The Committee recognised that this was the position of the charity, but it was disputed by the complainant, and in response to the complaint, the publication was not able to demonstrate that the charity’s claims were true. The Committee considered that the continued publication of these claims in the article, without making clear they represented the charity’s claims, represented a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusion

12. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

13. Having upheld the complaint, 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 adjudication, the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

14. In this case, taking into account its findings on the seriousness of the breach of Clause 1 (i), the Committee considered that the publication of a correction was appropriate. This correction should appear as a footnote to the online article, and as a standalone correction appearing for 24 hours on the publication’s homepage with the headline “Correction: Premier Inn”, and archived thereafter. The wording of the correction to be published should make clear that the article originally reported that the complainant had turned away a group of homeless people who had been offered rooms. It should make clear that in fact, the homeless group’s allegation was that two homeless people had been turned away because they lacked the required ID, although they had attended the wrong branch of the complainant’s hotel. It should also make clear that while this was the position of the charity, it was denied by the complainant, who said that no homeless people had attempted to check in to any of its branches on the night in question. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance, and the sub headline and sentence the Committee found were misleading should be amended.

Date complaint received: 14/03/2018

Date decision issued: 02/07/2018

Review

The publication complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.