Ruling

02472-20 Ahmed v metro.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 – 02472-20 Ahmed v metro.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Faisal Ahmed complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that metro.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Teacher who could barely read and write suspended from top school”, published on 9 April 2019.

2. The article reported on an employment tribunal, the subsequent appeal, and on the circumstances which led to a man ”su[ing] the school” where he had been employed as a teacher for a period of time. It reported that the man had been “sent to work in an ‘outstanding’ school” even though he had “’extreme difficulty with handwriting’, reading problems, and ‘issues understanding written tests’”. It went on to say that “the man was summoned to meet the headteacher and was suspended. It reported that the man suffered from dyspraxia, “a developmental disorder that affects movement and co-ordination”, and had told the headteacher he could “hardly write” for “more than a couple of minutes” as it was too painful.  The article then reported that the man had “lost his tribunal case and 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). He said that it was not the case that he “could barely read and write” as reported in the original headline and this had not been found by the tribunal. 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 “barely able 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 “barely read or write”. The complainant also said that it was misleading to say he had “issues understanding written tests” because the tribunal documents, which he provided, said that he had difficulties with ”comprehension speed”, not difficulty understanding written tests. He complained that the claim that he could “barely read or write”, which was taken from the tribunal judgments, was misleading because, in isolation, it added to the impression that he was illiterate, rather than having specific difficulties arising from his dyspraxia.  He said that the claim that “he had issues understanding written tests” 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 first said that he had not been “sent to work” at the school; rather, the school approached the scheme and he had subsequently, according to the tribunal judgment, been “offer[ed] a Teach First contract at the school.” He then disputed that he was employed at an “outstanding’ school” – he said that it did not top any national league table, regardless of the fact that it had an ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted rating. He then said that he did not sue the school – rather, he filed a claim against the Academy Trust which ran the school. Additionally, he said that the article gave the misleading impression that he had concealed his learning disability from the school, when instead he had raised it with the school directly before his start date. He said that the article was inaccurate to describe dyspraxia as simply “a developmental disorder that affects movement and co-ordination”, when it was a nuanced, diverse, and severe condition. Finally, the complainant said that reporting that he had failed in his tribunal and appeal without including criticism of the headteacher created the misleading impression that his case was foolish and baseless.

5. The complainant also said that the publication should have contacted either him, his representative, or a charity representing the interests and needs of people with Dyspraxia for comment prior to publishing the article.

6. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 12. He said that by inaccurately reporting that he was barely able to read or write, this constituted a pejorative and prejudicial reference to his dyspraxia. 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 developmental disorder that affects movement and co-ordination”. 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, and because of the effect such coverage would have on his employability.

7. The publication did not accept that the article had breached the Editors’ Code. With regards to the complainant’s concerns raised under the terms of Clause 1, it said it was satisfied that the article was an accurate report of the outcome of the complainant’s employment tribunal and subsequent appeal. While it accepted that it had not been heard verbatim at the tribunal that the complainant “could barely read or write”, it said that this did not mean that it was an inaccurate, misleading, or distorted characterisation of what was heard at the tribunal regarding the complainant’s disability. It noted that the tribunal judgments had a large amount of information, and as such it was necessary for the article to summarise the information in a concise manner. It said that the basis for the original headline’s claim that the complainant “could barely read and write” could be found in the article, which made clear that he had “’extreme difficulty with handwriting', reading problems and issues understanding 'written tests'" and “could 'hardly write' for 'more than a couple of minutes.’” It said that this was supported by summaries of the complainant’s disability contained within the tribunal judgment and supplied by both a doctor and the complainant himself, who according to the tribunal described himself as having “'a specific learning disability which manifests itself in below normal levels of comprehension (words not numbers)” as well as “extreme difficulty with handwriting.”

8. It also said that it was not inaccurate for the article to state that the complainant had “issues understanding written tests”, and did not accept that this differed in meaning from stating that the complainant had “below normal levels of comprehension”; it was simply a plain English summary of the complainant’s own description of his disability. It also noted that the article made clear that the complainant had dyspraxia, and that it is a “developmental disorder that affects movement and coordination.” It noted that this reference followed a description of the complainant’s specific difficulties and said it would be clear to readers that the two were linked.

9. The publication went on to say that it was not inaccurate or misleading to omit the fact that the complainant was able to write with the use of technology, and that the exclusion of this particular detail did not render the article inaccurate; it also noted that it was a single detail in a lengthy tribunal judgment. It also said that it was not inaccurate to describe the complainant’s previous employer as “outstanding”, where it had been rated as Outstanding by Ofsted. It noted that the reference to the complainant being “sent to” the school in question by a teacher training scheme was a brief reference, and it considered it to be an accurate summary of how the complainant had obtained the job, where the complainant had obtained a placement at the school via the teacher training scheme. It also said that it did not consider that the article was inaccurate or misleading in stating that the complainant had “sued the school”, where he had sued the Academy Trust responsible for the running of the school in response to events which took place at the school. It also said that the article did not state that the complainant had concealed his disability from the school, and said it did not consider it to be necessary to go into detail about the discussions which took place between the complainant, the school, and the teacher training organisation about the complainant’s disability, where omission of this information did not, in its view, mean that the article was inaccurate or misleading.

10. The publication did not consider that it had breached Clause 1 by not contacting the complainant for comment prior to the article’s publication, where the article reported on the findings of a tribunal and where it said the article did not include any information beyond what was heard at the tribunal. It said that the complainant did not dispute the accuracy of the “crux of the story”, which was that two tribunals had found against the complainant; this information was in the public domain and therefore there was no need to contact the complainant for comment.

11. With regards to Clause 12, the publication said that the article did not include any pejorative or prejudicial references to the complainant’s disability. It noted that Clause 12 makes clear that irrelevant references to an individual’s disability should be avoided. However, it did not consider that the article contained irrelevant references, where the complainant had taken legal action against the school for disability discrimination.

12. While the publication did not accept that the Code had been breached, it offered to amend the headline of the article to read “Teacher who struggled to read or write suspended from top school” to resolve the complaint. The complainant did not accept the proposed resolution.

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

13. 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 “could barely read and 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.  Furthermore, this headline was not supported by the article’s text, which made clear the extent of his capabilities in each area. 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). Reporting that the complainant was barely able to read or write, when this was not the position, plainly represented a significant inaccuracy which required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

14.  While the publication had offered to amend the headline, this was not sufficient to correct the inaccuracy of the original headline, as it did not set out the original inaccuracy – that the complainant “could barely read and write” – nor make clear what was being corrected. There was a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

15.  The Committee next considered the complaints about the text of the article. In reporting 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).

16. The Committee found that it was not misleading to describe the school as “outstanding” when it had been rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted as recently as 2019 (the year the story was published), 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 was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

17. 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 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 complainant and his legal action and not an examination of dyspraxia, it was not inaccurate in the context of the overall article to summarise dyspraxia as a “a developmental disorder that affects movement and co-ordination”. 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 did not raise any significant inaccuracies as to the reporting of the tribunals’ findings. For all of these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

18. Although it was inaccurate for the headline to say that the complainant could barely read or write, 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 barely read or write was not a pejorative reference to his reading difficulties caused by dyspraxia; it was a reference to the circumstances that had led to the tribunal judgment, notwithstanding that the Committee had found that it was an inaccurate reference. It did not seek to mock or ridicule his disability. With regards to the rest of the article, the references to the complainant’s disability were contained within the tribunal documents – it was not prejudicial or pejorative to repeat this information. While the complainant considered that the article was critical of his actions in suing the school, and that this critical slant rendered the article in its entirety a pejorative reference to his disability in breach of Clause 12, the publication was not required by the terms of Clause 12 to report on the complainant’s legal proceedings in a positive manner. The fact that the complainant’s disability was a key element of this legal action did not mean that any perceived criticism of the complainant’s action 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 treatment of the complainant’s disability. There was no breach of Clause 12.

19. 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 him as a result of his disability. There was no breach of Clause 12(ii).

Conclusions

20. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (ii).

Remedial Action Required

21. 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.

22. The article headline stated that the complainant “could barely read and write.” The action proposed by the publication was not sufficient to correct this significant inaccuracy 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, a correction should be published 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.

23. 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.