Ruling

02471-20 Ahmed v thesun.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      2nd December 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02471-20 Ahmed v thesun.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Faisal Ahmed complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thesun.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “WRITING’S ON THE WALL Teacher sent to work at top secondary school despite being unable to READ and write” published on 7 April 2019.

2. The article reported that a teacher had been passed fit to teach by a teacher training scheme even though he had “extreme difficulty with handwriting”, reading problems, and “issues understanding written tests”. It reported that he had been sent to the school despite struggling to read and write, that “the alarm was raised days into his new job” and that the headmaster summoned him to a meeting and suspended him. It reported that the man had dyspraxia and that he told the headmaster that he could “hardly write” for “more than a couple of minutes” as it was too painful. It reported that details of this “2016 scandal” emerged after the man sued the school for constructive dismissal and disability discrimination after “quitting in fury”. The article reported that an employment tribunal “threw out” his claims, and that he lost an appeal.

3. The complainant was the teacher referred to in the article. He said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) because it was not the case that he was unable to read or write as reported in the headline, which gave the impression that he was illiterate. He said that he could read and write and that there were multiple passages in the tribunal judgments which made this clear he also noted that he had two degrees, which he would not have been able to obtain had he been “unable to read and write”.  .  The complainant explained that he had difficulties with handwriting – due to hand pain caused by dyspraxia – and reading comprehension speed and that he could write using a keyboard and by the use of other technology; these difficulties did not mean that he could not read or write. He said that the comments left underneath the article – as well as being offensive – demonstrated that readers had understood the article to be reporting that he was unable to read or write. The complainant also said that it was misleading to report in the sub headline to the article that he had “extreme difficulty with handwriting”, reading problems and “issues understanding written tests”. He complained that the first two claims, which were taken from the tribunal judgments, were misleading because, in isolation, they added to the impression that he was illiterate, rather than having specific difficulties arising from his dyspraxia.  He said that the third of these claims was inaccurate because it suggested that he had difficulties understanding words, rather than difficulties with reading comprehension speed.  He said that the article should have made explicit that these difficulties were symptoms of his dyspraxia, and he was concerned that readers may not link the article’s reference to his dyspraxia with his comprehension and handwriting difficulties. 

4. The complainant raised further points under Clause 1. He disputed that he had been employed at a “top school” – he said that it did not top any national league table and that the school was not even the top school in the local area, regardless of the fact that it had an ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted rating.. He said that he did not sue the school – rather he filed a claim against the Academy Trust that it fell under. He said that it was misleading to say that he quit “in fury” as this gave the impression that his decision was rash and he took legal action without consideration. Furthermore, the complainant said that it was misleading to say that the tribunal “threw out” his claims as he considered that this implied his case was struck out or dismissed without a full hearing, when in fact his claim had been decided on its merits following a five-day hearing. He said that by reporting in the same sentence that he then lost his appeal gave the impression that his appeal was rejected by the same tribunal, rather than it being considered by the separate appeal tribunal.

5. In addition, the complainant said the headline was misleading to say that he had been “sent to work” at the school as it gave the impression this was a unilateral decision by the teacher training scheme. Rather, the school approached the scheme; he had, as confirmed in the tribunal judgment, been “offer[ed] a Teach First contract” at the school. He also said it was misleading to report that the teacher training scheme passed him as being fit to teach – in fact, he had also been deemed medically fit to teach by several occupational doctors including by one commissioned by the school. He said that the article was inaccurate to describe dyspraxia as simply a “co-ordination condition” when it was a nuanced, diverse, and severe condition, particularly as the article did not expressly state that his difficulties with comprehension speed and with handwriting were symptoms of his dyspraxia. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to describe his original departure from the school in 2016 as a “scandal” – he said that there was no reporting by the media at the time. He also said that it was misleading to say that “the alarm was raised” days after he began teaching at the school because this implied that he had concealed his learning disability from the school which was not the case. Finally, the complainant said that reporting that he had failed in his tribunal and appeal without including criticism of the headteacher added to the misleading impression that his case was foolish and baseless.

6. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 12. He said that by inaccurately reporting that he was unable to read or write, this constituted a pejorative and prejudicial reference to his dyspraxia, and may have a negative effect on his future employment prospects. He also said that this was exacerbated by the article’s overall tone that his disability claim was foolish and without merit. He said that the article should have included a comment from someone in the field of dyspraxia, and the condition should have been better explained beyond describing it as a “co-ordination condition”. He noted again that the comments left below the article were insulting, and he was concerned about the effect the article would have on the wider dyspraxia community. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 12 by giving publicity to his tribunal and appeal, and thus making his disability more widely known. 

7. The publication did not accept that the article breached the Code. It said that the complainant acknowledged that he had difficulties reading and writing, and the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) had accepted that the complainant has dyspraxia which causes him to have “difficulties with reading, comprehension speed and handwriting”. It also said that the EAT ruling described him as being unable to write for more than a minute or two. It noted that the prominent sub-headline of the article said that the complainant “had ‘extreme difficulty with handwriting’, reading problems and ‘issues understanding written tests’” and the first sentence of the article said that he was placed at the school despite “struggling” with reading and writing. It said that these were accurate summaries of the difficulties experienced by the complainant. It then said that as such, the headline should be read in the context of the article as a whole, and those who read both the headline and sub-headline together would not be misled as to the level of the complainant’s difficulties. The publication also said that the speed with which a reader ingests and assimilates the written word is as much a part of his or her functional literacy as the ability to understand the words; it therefore maintained that the complainant's difficulty with comprehension speed could accurately be described as an “issue understanding written tests". Nevertheless, in the publication’s first response to the complaint, it offered to amend the headline to read: “WRITING’S ON THE WALL Teacher sent to work at top secondary school despite struggling with READING and writing” and to add the following footnote to the article:

“A previous headline on this article described Faisal Ahmed as being ‘unable’ to read or write. In fact, as the article made clear, he struggled with reading and writing. We are happy to clarify.”

It also offered to remove the online article from the publication’s website if this would resolve the complaint. This was declined by the complainant.

8. The publication said that it was not misleading to say that the complainant’s claims had been thrown out – it said that it did not necessarily mean that the claim had been struck out, but that the judgment had gone against him which was accurate in this case. It said that it was not inaccurate or misleading to omit the name of the legal entity against which the claim had been brought – in this case the Academy Trust. It said that it was also not inaccurate to say that the complainant quit “in fury” – it said that he was clearly angry at the school’s treatment of him as he subsequently spent two and half years pursuing legal action against the school. It said that it was not misleading to describe the school as a “top school”; it was rated as “Outstanding” by Ofsted at the time of publication. The newspaper did not accept that the rest of the points raised by the complainant represented breaches of the Code.

9. The publication said the article did not breach Clause 12 – the complainant’s disability was central to the two judgments and so it was clearly relevant to include details about his disability in order to report on the tribunal proceedings. Furthermore, it said that the article’s descriptions of the effects of the complainant’s disability were also central to the report. It said that the article did not contain any prejudicial or pejorative references to the complainant’s disability; it was a straightforward description of what was set out in the tribunal. It noted that the complainant had simultaneously tried to argue in his complaint that mentioning his disability was unnecessary, but that the article should also have included more details about his disability. When it was brought to its attention that the complainant considered the readers’ comments to be racist and Islamophobic, it removed these from the website.

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.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

10. The article was based on the judgments of the tribunals which the Committee considered in order to assess whether the reported claims about the complainant were inaccurate or misleading.  The headline of the article reported that the complainant was “unable” to read or write. However, this claim was not supported by the tribunal judgments. It was clear from the tribunal judgments that the complainant had been diagnosed with dyspraxia and that it had heard that, as a result, he experienced difficulties with his handwriting and with reading comprehension speed. The tribunals had also heard that the complainant sought to overcome these difficulties by using IT.  In its finding, the Employment Tribunal expressly noted that it was not in dispute between the parties that the complainant had been suspended from the school because he was unable to write for more than a minute or two due to hand pain, and that this difficulty arose from his disability. Given that the nature of the complainant’s difficulties were clear from the tribunal judgments, there was a failure to take care over the accuracy of the headline in breach of Clause 1(i), with the Committee noting that an accurate article cannot act as a correction for an inaccurate or misleading headline. Reporting that the complainant was unable to read or write, when this was not the position, represented a significant inaccuracy which required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

11. In the publication’s first response to the complaint it offered to amend the headline to delete the reference to the complainant being unable to read or write and to report instead that he had become a teacher at the school despite “struggling with reading and writing”, and to add a footnote to record this change. While the Committee recognised that the publication had taken prompt steps to attempt to address the complainant’s concerns, it found that the action proposed was not sufficient. The proposed correction did not acknowledge that the complainant is able to read and write and the footnote also omitted to explain that the headline was being corrected for that reason.  Therefore, the action offered by the publication was not sufficient to put the correct position on record, and there was a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

12. The sub headline and text of the article reported that the complainant had "issues understanding written tests”.  It appeared that the publication had relied on a passage of the Employment Tribunal judgment which had quoted a letter from an occupational health doctor in which he noted that the complainant had an issue with "comprehension of written tests”.  The Committee noted that this passage was open to interpretation, but in the same paragraph of the judgment it was recorded that the complainant had been certified fit to teach by the doctor.  Further, earlier in the judgment, the tribunal had made clear that dyspraxia manifests itself, amongst other things, in difficulties with comprehension speed.  The report that the complainant had issues "understanding” written tests did not reflect what had been heard at the tribunal and the findings which had been made by the tribunal as to the nature of the difficulties which are caused by dyspraxia and from which the complainant suffers. There was, therefore, a failure to take care under Clause 1(i) not to report misleading information. The distinction between ‘difficulties with comprehension speed’ and ‘issues understanding written tests’ was significant and a correction was required.  The publication had not offered a correction on this point and there was a further breach of clause 1(ii).

13. Turning to the other alleged breaches arising from the sub-headline of the article, the Committee noted that the report that the complainant had “extreme difficulty with handwriting” had been taken from the judgment of the Employment Tribunal and had been said by the complainant himself.  The tribunal judgments also acknowledged that the complainant had problems with reading.  These claims were repeated in the text of the article which also reported that the complainant suffers from dyspraxia and the Committee considered it was made sufficiently clear within the body of the article that these difficulties were linked to the complainant’s dyspraxia.     The Committee found that it was not misleading to describe the school as a “top school” when it had been rated “outstanding” by Ofsted and it was not significant in the context of the overall article whether the complainant brought legal action against the school or the Academy Trust.  There wasno  breach of Clause 1 on these points.

14. It was the newspaper’s own characterisation of the complainant’s actions to describe him as having quit “in fury” and this was not significantly misleading where it was clear that the complainant felt strongly that his former employer had acted unlawfully in its treatment of him and this led to him pursuing claims in the Employment Tribunal. Where the complainant's claims had been unsuccessful, it was not misleading to describe them as having been “thrown out” and where it was made clear that the complainant had then appealed this decision, the article was not misleading by having omitted that the appeal had been heard by an appeal tribunal. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

15. It was not inaccurate to report that the complainant had been “sent to work” at the school – the placement had been organised by the teacher training scheme, and the article did not claim that it was organised without the involvement of the school. It was not misleading for the article to omit the fact that the complainant had been certified as fit to teach by multiple occupational health doctors when it was not in dispute that he had been so certified by the teaching training scheme, as reported. It did not appear to be in dispute that dyspraxia is a condition which affects co-ordination, and where the article was a report of the legal action brought by the complainant and not a detailed examination of dyspraxia, it was not inaccurate in the context of the overall article to summarise dyspraxia as a “co-ordination condition”. That the complainant’s appointment at the school was a “scandal” in the circumstances was reported as the view of the publication.  Whilst the complainant disagreed with this description, it was a matter of opinion which the publication was entitled to express. Reporting that “the alarm was raised” was not inaccurate in circumstances where the tribunal heard that the headmaster had not previously been aware of the complainant's difficulties, despite the disclosures which he had made. Finally, the Editors’ Code does not include a requirement for balance, as long as the Code is not otherwise breached. In this case, omitting criticism of the headteacher, or implying that the complainant had acted unwisely, did not raise a breach of the Code. For all of these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

16. Although it was inaccurate for the headline to say that the complainant could not read, this was distinct from the issues raised under Clause 12. The question for the Committee was whether this reference, and the other issues raised by the complainant, constituted a pejorative reference to his disability – dyspraxia. The Committee considered that claiming that the complainant could not read was not a pejorative reference to his dyspraxia and the article did not seek to mock or ridicule his disability. With regards to the rest of the article, the complainant’s disability was at the heart of the claims which he pursued before the tribunals and on which the articles were reporting. The publication was entitled to comment on the merits of the complainant’s legal action – the fact that the complainant’s disability was a key element of this legal action did not mean that any criticism constituted a pejorative or prejudicial reference to his disability. Furthermore, newspapers are free to select which information to include in articles; the absence of a more detailed explanation of dyspraxia or a comment from an expert in the field did not constitute a pejorative or prejudicial reference to the complainant’s disability. There was no breach of Clause 12.

17. The complainant was concerned about the negative reaction to the article from readers, and the effect that the article would have on the wider dyspraxia community. However, Clause 12 seeks to protect individuals from discrimination rather than groups – as such, the complainant’s concern that the article may be discriminatory towards people with dyspraxia as a whole did not engage the terms of Clause 12. Finally, the complainant raised concerns over the article’s inclusion of details of his disability at all. However, the complainant’s disability and the associated difficulties he had faced were genuinely relevant to the story, where the article was reporting on his legal claims that his former employer had harassed and discriminated against his as a result of his disability. There was no breach of Clause 12(ii).

18. IPSO’s regulations state that specific readers’ comments can fall within IPSO’s remit as editorial content if they remain online after being reported to the newspaper. In this case, although the complainant raised concerns about the comments, he did not take steps to report them to the newspaper and did not ask the Committee to consider whether the publication of any specific comments raised a breach of the Editors’ Code. As such, the Committee did not make any finding on whether the publication of these comments breached the Editors’ Code, whilst noting that the newspaper had removed them once the complainant’s concerns had been brought to its attention.

Conclusions

19. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

20. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1(i) and Clause 1(ii), 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.

21. The article headline reported that the complainant was “unable to read or write” and the sub-headline and text of the article reported that the complainant had "issues understanding written tests” The action proposed by the publication was not sufficient to correct these significant inaccuracies as it did not address that the headline had the potential to mislead readers into believing that the complainant was illiterate, which was not supported by either the article or the tribunal judgment. In addition, the proposed correction did not address the misleading report that the complainant had issues understanding written tests. Therefore, the Committee required that the wording of the proposed correction should be amended to make clear that the complainant can read and write and that he experiences difficulty with comprehension speed and not understanding written tests. The Committee considered a correction to be the appropriate remedy to the breaches of Clause 1(i), where the crux of the article – the outcome of the tribunal and appeal – was not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted.

22. The Committee then considered the placement of the correction. It should appear as a footnote to the original online article, and should make clear that the complainant’s difficulties were linked to his dyspraxia. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording and position should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

 

 

Date complaint received: 07/04/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 26/08/2021

 

 

Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant 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.