Ruling

03091-14 Clark v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      29th December 2014

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 03091-14 Clark v Mail Online

Summary of complaint 

1. Ms Faith Clark complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation on behalf of Hearing Dogs for Deaf People that Mail Online had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The disabled make good staff - unlike baldies with beer bellies”, published on 19 October 2014. The complaint was initially considered by the Complaints Committee as part of the complaint against The Mail on Sunday. The Mail on Sunday subsequently notified IPSO that Mail Online was subject to independent editorial control, separate to The Mail on Sunday. As such, following a decision by IPSO’s Board, the articles published by The Mail on Sunday and Mail Online were considered separately. 

2. The columnist had written a piece about the value of disabled people in the work place, in which she said she had four “hearing dogs”. 

3. The article had included a photograph of a dog wearing a ‘Hearing Dogs for Deaf People’ vest, captioned “Home help: ‘I have four hearing dogs that are trained to create a commotion if my fire alarm goes off’”. 

4. The complainant was concerned that the coverage gave the inaccurate impression that the columnist has four specially trained assistance dogs. She said that Hearing Dogs for Deaf People have a programme of careful breading, selection and training. The charity focuses on matching one dog - not multiple dogs - to each deaf partner. The implication that the charity would supply four dogs to one owner was damaging as it suggested that charity was wasting resources. The complainant also made clear that the dogs are not trained to cause a commotion, but to convey information by touch. 

5. The complainant said that the newspaper and the columnist had been contacted by the charity in 2013 to request that she refrain from describing her dogs as “hearing dogs”. 

6. The complainant was also concerned that the publication had not removed the picture or provided any clarifying statement for “several days” after the story had been published. She also said that a number of readers’ comments had been deleted from the online article. 

7. The publication explained that that the columnist’s dogs had been trained by a canine behaviour expert to alert her to certain sounds. 

8. It said that the Equality Act makes it illegal to discriminate against disabled people and this is construed to mean that disabled people must not be excluded from public places because they need to be accompanied by a dog. The Act does not define any particular terminology or qualifications for hearing dogs. The term “hearing dog” can be used as a generic description of a dog that helps people with hearing difficulties; it is comparable with “sheepdog, guard dog or gun dog”. 

9. It said that any reader who was interested in the provision of assistance dogs would have known that the charity would not have provided anyone with four dogs of their highly trained dogs. The article did not state that the dogs had been provided by a charity. The photograph of the dog accompanying the online article had clearly been a generic image used for illustrational purposes. 

10. Once it had received the complaint, the publication had changed the caption of the photograph to, “A dog highly trained by the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. Liz Jones’s dogs are not ‘qualified’ in the same way.” A footnote that stated, “We are happy to make clear that when Liz Jones referred to her four dogs as ‘hearing dogs’ she did not intend to imply that the dogs had been trained and supplied by the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People”, had also been appended to the online article.  The photograph had ultimately been removed from the online article altogether. 

Relevant Code Provisions

11. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. 

iii)  The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Findings of the Committee

12. The article had been illustrated with a photograph of a dog wearing a vest which featured the charity’s logo, including its full name. The Committee found that the use of the image and accompanying caption gave the significantly misleading impression that the dogs had been provided by the charity, and by extension that they had provided four dogs to one owner. The use of the photograph represented a failure to take over the accuracy of the online article, in breach of Clause 1 (i) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. 

13. The publication had been entitled to take steps it considered appropriate to moderate use of its comment threads so long as it did not otherwise breach any of the Clauses of the Code. The concern that the publication had removed certain comments from the online article did not raise a breach of the Code. 

14. While the Committee welcomed the steps taken by the publication to address the concerns of the complainant as a positive response to the complaint, it was disappointed that the columnist’s rebuttal of the concerns raised had been published while the complaint was on-going. 

Conclusions

15. The complaint was upheld. 

Remedial Action Required

16. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1 (i), the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee has the power to require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication, the nature, extent and placement of which is to be determined by IPSO. It may also inform the publication that further remedial action is required to ensure that the requirements of the Editors’ Code are met. 

The use of the image had given the inaccurate impression that the columnist’s dogs had been provided by the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. The Committee took the view therefore that the removal of the photograph from the online article and publication of a footnote which stated, “We are happy to make clear that when Liz Jones referred to her four dogs as ‘hearing dogs’ she did not intend to imply that the dogs had been trained and supplied by the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People”, was sufficient to remedy the initial breach of the Editors’ Code. 

Date complaint received: 27/10/2014 

Date decision issued: 29/12/2014