Ruling

03211-21 Brown v The Courier

    • Date complaint received

      30th September 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 03211-21 Brown v The Courier

Summary of Complaint

1. Moira Brown complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Courier breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Pensioner accused of Covid breach at City Square protest”, published on 19 January 2021.

2. The front-page article, which continued on page 8, reported that a woman had been arrested and charged with breaking Covid regulations, and a second woman had been arrested and charged with “culpable and reckless conduct” after an “incident” in Dundee City Square. It said “police broke up a crowd of around 40 in the city centre on Saturday after receiving a report of a protest in the area” and that “around 40 people had gathered in the square but mostly dispersed after officers arrived and offered guidance on current coronavirus restrictions”. It included the comments made by a Police Scotland spokesperson who said that “most of the group [in attendance at the incident] dispersed after advice was given” by officers. It said “an eyewitness said” one of the women had been offering a suitcase library service” during the second lockdown as public libraries remained closed. It quoted the eyewitness: “I chatted for about five minutes and returned the book. Next thing I knew, three police officers came along and asked her to tidy the books away and leave. She was put under arrest. Another three police officers approached and arrested her friend. By this time a small crowd had gathered, maybe 30-40. One or two thought about intervening”. The article also included a reference to video footage of the incident which it was reported showed bystanders asking police officers if they were “embarrassed” by the actions taken.

3. A substantially similar version of the article also appeared online with the headline “Woman, 74, charged with breach of coronavirus restrictions after Dundee City Square incident”.

4. The complainant was the woman reported as having been charged with “culpable and reckless conduct”; during the course of the IPSO investigation, she confirmed that the charges against her had been dropped. She said the article was inaccurate and misleading, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). She said it had inaccurately reported that Police Scotland broke up a “crowd of around 40” when prior to the arrival of police on the scene, only six individuals were involved in the gathering. Though she acknowledged that a few more individuals gathered following the arrival of police officers, she maintained that the number of those in attendance only reached 10-12 and not the figure of “30-40” reported by the newspaper. She said that video footage of the incident on social media demonstrated this. Her account was also supported by a summary of evidence she had received from Dundee Sheriff Court stated that “About 1210 hours, said police witnesses arrived at locus and traced approximately six persons who congregating around a public bench. Present within the group were [the complainant and the other woman]”.

5. The complainant was not named in the article but said that she was identifiable to those who knew her because of her age and the reference to her operating the book-lending service. She said that the article suggested to those who knew about her involvement in the service that she had been involved in a much larger gathering than was in fact the case and that she had received abuse as a result of its publication.

6. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It expressed sympathy to the complainant if she had received abuse as a result of the article but emphasised that she had not been named in the article. It said that it had taken care over the accuracy of the article by seeking comment from the eyewitness and Police Scotland, and had quoted their comments in the article. It noted that the article had clearly reported the recollection of an eyewitness that a “small crowd” of “30-40” had been present. Police Scotland had provided the following statement:

“A Police Scotland spokeswoman said they received a report of a protest in the Dundee City Square area at around 12.30pm. She said: “Officers attended and most of the group dispersed after advice was given. “A 52-year-old woman was arrested and charged in connection with culpable and reckless conduct. “A 74-year-old woman was arrested and charged in connection with breach of coronavirus regulations,” she added.”

7. The publication said that the reference to a “protest” in the police statement and it being “dispersed” supported the idea that a larger crowd had been involved than the six described by the complainant. It had not seen the “summary of evidence” cited by the complainant in her complaint and it did not believe that this was a public document.

8. It maintained that the footage cited by the complainant was shot at a “close angle” and did not fully show the scene at the time of the arrest. It provided a further video, shot at a wider angle, in order to demonstrate that more than six people were present in the immediate areas while the complainant was being arrested. With this, the newspaper maintained that it had taken reasonable steps prior to publication to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1 and denied that the complaint had established an inaccuracy.

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

9. The Committee considered first the care that had been taken over the accuracy of the article before publication in relation to the claim about the size of the group involved in the incident. The Committee found that the article, which said that “around 40 people had gathered […] but mostly dispersed after officers arrived”, claimed that the crowd had been gathered as part of the protest (rather than in response to the presence of police).

10. It noted that the publication had relied on three sources of information: the statement by the police; the statement by the eyewitness; and the video. The police statement referred to a “protest” that had been “dispersed” but did not refer to the numbers involved. The eyewitness account referred to a crowd of “30-40” but was not clear about when the crowd had gathered; it said only that it had reached this size “by [the] time” of the arrests. The Committee acknowledged that the publication had attempted to exercise caution in reporting on the incident, but it concluded that in circumstances where the witness statement was ambiguous and the claim was not supported by either the police statement or the video, reporting as fact that the alleged protest involved a crowd of “around 40” constituted a failure to take care over the article, in breach of Clause 1 (i).

11. In the context of an article which reported charges of a breach of Covid regulations and “culpable and reckless conduct”, the size of the crowd allegedly gathered was a matter of significance. The publication had not been able to support a claim of fact that the crowd had been 40 rather than the six claimed by the complainant, and the difference was significant in the context of the Coronavirus regulations. This point required correction under Clause 1 (ii). Neither a clarification nor a correction was offered by the newspaper in regard to this. As such, there was a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusion

12. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

13. 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.

14. In coming to a view on the appropriate remedy in this case, the Committee considered the seriousness and extent of the breach of the Code. It noted the steps that had taken by the publication before publication to check the accuracy of the article and that the claim about the size of the crowd was attributed to a witness in the text of the article. In addition, the claim had been limited to the text of the article. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a clarification.

15. The Committee then considered the placement of the clarification. It should appear in the established corrections and clarifications column on page 2 of the newspaper. It should also appear as a footnote to the online article. The wording of this clarification should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

 

Date complaint received: 06/04/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 14/09/2021