Ruling

02644-21 Metropolitan Police v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      5th November 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02644-21 Metropolitan Police v Mail Online

Summary of Complaint

1. The Metropolitan Police complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Sarah Everard murder suspect was tracked by plain clothes detectives for several days before they swooped in to arrest him”, published on 11 March 2021.

2. The article reported on the Metropolitan Police’s search for the suspect in the Sarah Everard murder case. It reported that “Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens ha[d] been arrested on suspicion of her kidnap and murder” after being “tracked by plain clothes detectives for several days”. It later noted that “Sources have suggested that plain clothes detectives may have been secretly monitoring the suspect's movements for days before he was arrested”. Additionally, it stated that Couzens “works in Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command and is armed as part of his job”. It added that “The case has prompted the possibility that perhaps for the first time in the Met's history, armed surveillance officers were watching one of their own firearms officers [Couzens] while he was on duty guarding one of the most important buildings in London”. It elsewhere reported that a “police insider said: 'There are two possible approaches the Met could have taken when the officer emerged as the main suspect [one being] to maintain his normal duties whilst having an armed capacity…watching him’”.

3. The complainant said that it was untrue that the suspect was either known to or tracked by police for several days before his arrest. In fact, he was located just a few hours before his arrest. In light of this, it was also inaccurate to speculate that he had returned to work after being identified as a suspect. The complainant had contacted the publication shortly after the story was published to express its concern that the article was inaccurate. It said that the publication’s failure to promptly delete and correct the article when it was first contacted by the complainant, on the day of publication, was regrettable.

4. The publication said it had relied on an anonymous police source regarding the claim that “The case has prompted the possibility that perhaps for the first time in the Met's history, armed surveillance officers were watching one of their own firearms officers [Couzens] while he was on duty…”. However, whilst it said the source was reliable, following the direct complaint from the complainant to the publication, the source had clarified that they could not guarantee the accuracy of this claim. With regard to the claim that Mr Couzens had been “tracked by plain clothes detectives for several days”, the publication said this was based on speculation from a neighbour that had appeared in the press. The neighbour had claimed that plainclothes officers had been watching the suspect’s property the day before the arrests and that there were unmarked police cars in the street. The publication also emphasised that it had sought the complainant’s comments on the claims prior to publication but was told the complainant would not comment.

5. On receipt of the direct complaint from the complainant on the day of publication, the newspaper amended the article. In its first response during IPSO’s investigation after the complainant had provided further clarification on number of points, 47 days after it had first been notified of the complaint through direct correspondence from the complainant (the day after publication), the newspaper offered to remove the article from its website and publish the following standalone correction online:

An article published on 11 March about the arrest of Wayne Couzens on suspicion of the murder of Sarah Everard included claims that Mr Couzens had been allowed to return to work as a firearms officer after having been identified as a suspect, and that he had been tracked by undercover officers for several days before being arrested. We have since been contacted by the Metropolitan Police who have advised that neither allegation is true, which we accept, and the article has been removed from the website. We are happy to set the record straight.

6. The correction was offered 19 days after IPSO began its investigation of the complaint (including a period in which the complaint was being processed by IPSO). The publication said that it had offered a correction once the complainant had confirmed its position.

7. The complainant did not accept this as a resolution to its complaint.

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.

Findings of the Committee

8. The claim that the suspect, Mr Couzens, “was tracked by plain clothes detectives for several days before they swooped in to arrest him” was based on speculation by a member of the public, which had been published by another publication. The Committee noted that the publication had contacted the complainant about this claim prior to publication and that the complainant had declined to comment. Nonetheless, the publication of this uncorroborated claim as fact, including in the headline, represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article and a breach of Clause 1(i).

9. The publication had subsequently accepted that the claim that Mr Couzens had been tracked for several days was inaccurate. This was a significant claim about the conduct of police during the investigation, which implied a potential risk to the public during the period during which Mr Couzens was said to have been observed by police but allowed free movement. It required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). The complainant had contacted the newspaper on the day of publication to notify it that the claim was inaccurate. While the newspaper had promptly amended the article, it had declined to offer a correction, instead asking for clarification on the correct position despite the complainant having confirmed that the published information was inaccurate. It had ultimately offered to correct the claim 47 days after it had been notified of the complaint by IPSO and 48 days after the article’s publication. While the Committee recognised the publication’s position that during parts of this period the complaint was being processed by IPSO , it noted that the further clarification provided by the complainant at the start of IPSO’s investigation did not materially add to the information provided by the complainant direct to the newspaper during the referral period. Furthermore, the complainant had been in a position to provide direct information about the timing of the investigation whereas the publication had relied upon speculation by a single third-party source. In such circumstances, and given the significance of the claim, the Committee concluded that the publication’s offer to publish a correction was not prompt, and there was a breach of Clause 1(ii).

10. The article had reported that there had been a “possibility that…armed surveillance officers were watching one of their own firearms officers [Couzens] while he was on duty”. The article did not claim as fact that this had happened, only that there was such a “possibility”. This point had also been based on the comments of a police source, and was presented as such. The article also went on to make clear that this “possibility” was posited by a “police insider”. The article therefore made clear that the prospect of “armed surveillance officers…watching one of their own firearms officers [Couzens] while he was on duty” was only a “possibility”, and made clear it was simply picking up on the speculation of a “police insider”. In these circumstances, where the claim was distinguished as conjecture, albeit partly based on the inaccurate claim found to be in breach above, there was no further failure to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information with regard to this claim, nor did the article contain a significantly inaccurate or misleading statement relating to this. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

11. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

12. Having partly upheld the complaint under Clause 1, 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.

13. The significantly inaccurate statement appeared in the headline, was on a topic of considerable public concern, and the newspaper was aware at the time of publication that it was based on speculation by a third party. Whilst the newspaper had taken prompt action to amend the article, there had been a very considerable delay before it offered to correct the public record as it was required to do by the Code. In light of these considerations, the Committee concluded that an adjudication was the appropriate remedy. The headline of the adjudication must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against Mail Online and must refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed with IPSO in advance.

14. The Committee considered the placement of its adjudication. The adjudication should be published in full on the publication’s website with a link to the full adjudication (including the headline) appearing on the top third of the newspaper’s homepage, for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. A link to the adjudication should also be published with the article, explaining that it was the subject of an IPSO adjudication, and explaining the amendments that have been made. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:

The Metropolitan Police complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Sarah Everard murder suspect was tracked by plain clothes detectives for several days before they swooped in to arrest him”, published on 11 March 2021.

The complaint was upheld, and IPSO required Mail Online to publish this adjudication to remedy the breach of the Code.

The article reported on the Metropolitan Police’s search for the suspect in the Sarah Everard murder case. It reported that “Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens ha[d] been arrested on suspicion of her kidnap and murder” after being “tracked by plain clothes detectives for several days”. It later noted that “Sources have suggested that plain clothes detectives may have been secretly monitoring the suspect's movements for days before he was arrested”.

The complainant said that it was untrue that the suspect was either known to or tracked by police for several days before his arrest. In fact, he was located just a few hours before his arrest. It said that the publication’s failure to promptly delete and correct the article when it was first contacted by the complainant to express its concerns, on the day of publication, was regrettable.

The publication said the alleged inaccuracy was based on speculation from a neighbour that had appeared in the press. The neighbour had claimed that plainclothes officers had been watching the suspect’s property the day before the arrests and that there were unmarked police cars in the street. The publication also emphasised that it had sought the complainant’s comments on the claims prior to publication but was told the complainant would not comment. Later, in its first response during IPSO’s investigation and 48 days after publication, the newspaper offered to remove the article from its website and publish a standalone correction online accepting that the claim was inaccurate.

IPSO found that the newspaper had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information in relation to this claim. The claim was based on speculation by a member of the public, which had been published by another publication. The newspaper had published this uncorroborated claim as fact, including in the headline. This failure to take care gave rise to a significantly inaccurate statement; the publication had subsequently accepted that the claim was incorrect and this was a significant claim about the conduct of police during the investigation. Whilst the newspaper had offered a correction on this point, IPSO found that this offer was not prompt given the significance of the inaccurate statement; where it had been based on speculation by a single third-party source; the fact that the complainant had been in a position to provide direct information about the investigation; and the time taken between the newspaper’s receipt of the IPSO complaint and its offer of a correction. The newspaper had therefore breached Clause 1.

 

Date complaint received: 12/03/2021

Date decision issued: 23/08/2021