Ruling

04364-18 Virgin Trains v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      7th January 2019

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of Complaints Committee 04364-18 Virgin Trains v Mail Online 

Summary of Complaint

1.    Virgin Trains complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “'Unsteady' pregnant woman slams passengers on a busy Virgin Train for not offering her a seat - and reveals a conductor REFUSED to let her sit in first class”, published on 27 June 2018. 

2.    The article reported the experience of a pregnant passenger who travelled on a Virgin Trains service, which was posted on a public forum of a popular parenting website. The poster said that she was five months pregnant and was unable to find a seat on the train, that she was “unsteady” and “nearly fell over” while standing, that train staff refused to let her sit in first class, and that she was told by a member of Virgin staff to get off the train and wait for a quieter service. The article then went on to report the responses from other online users of the website to the posting, some of whom supported the pregnant passenger, and others who criticised her choices. 

3.    The article presented these comments as screenshots from the website, and included the usernames of the users. The woman who had made the original complaint had a username which meant that she was unidentifiable, as did many of those who replied to her post. 

4.    The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), because the publication had failed to take sufficient care to establish the truth of the claims, which was particularly important as they had been made anonymously. The complainant was very concerned that failing to check the veracity of allegations could result in the repetition of falsehoods. 

5.    The complainant said that any reasonable reader would understand that there was substance to the woman’s claims because they had been published on a well-known and established news source, rather than understanding that they were unsubstantiated. The complainant accepted that there were circumstances in which it would be appropriate to publish comment or claim, but maintained that this case was not one of them. 

6.    The complainant was further concerned that it was not offered an adequate opportunity prior to publication to investigate the woman’s claims, and was thus unable to remedy the situation or offer a suitable response. The reporter asked the complainant for comment at 11.09 on the day of publication, and then published the article at 11.17 the same day, 8 minutes later. 

7.    The publication did not accept that there was any breach of the Editors’ Code. It said that it was important to point out that no inaccuracies had been alleged. The publication also said that it was not in dispute that the comments had been left by the individual on the website and that these were in the public domain, and that there was no reason to doubt the pregnant passenger’s version of events. 

8.    The publication did not accept that there was a failure to take care regarding the presentation of the woman’s claims. The publication said that it was entitled to report her experience, and clearly presented this by use of quotation marks; the claims had been distinguished as allegations, rather than facts. It also said that care was taken not to pass any judgement on the veracity of the claims. In addition, the publication said that it was under no obligation to verify the underlying claims made by the anonymous user, given that it had presented them as such. It noted that non-members of the website do not have the facility to message users. 

9.    However, as a gesture of goodwill, the publication offered to amend the headline to: “’Unsteady’ pregnant woman slams passengers on a busy Virgin Train for not offering her a seat- and claims a conductor REFUSED to let her sit in first class” in order to make it absolutely clear that the woman’s allegations were claims. 

10. The publication said it asked Virgin Trains for comment but maintained that it was not required to do so, given the way it had presented the claims. The comment it received was: “Our policy is clear that we will find pregnant women a seat, and if no seats are available in Standard, they’ll be seated in First. We're urgently looking into this case to see why this wasn’t followed”. The publication said that this comment had been added to the article at 14.44 on the same day, shortly after it was received. It noted that the response did not contradict the claims made by the woman and that the original article had quoted the complainant’s general policy on making accommodations for pregnant women. The publication offered the opportunity to the complainant to add to the statement should it wish to do so. 

11. The complainant said that its response to the allegations was after it had been given weight by their inclusion in the article and that its response was not an endorsement of the claims, only an attempt to protect their reputation in the face of the allegation. The complainant said that the statement should not be used as a retrospective justification for publishing the claims. It ultimately had no way to investigate the claims, but this did not affect the publication’s failure. 

Relevant Clause Provisions

12.  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 

13. There is no blanket requirement in the Editors’ Code to contact the subject of critical allegations prior to publication. However, doing so can serve as one means by which otherwise uncorroborated claims can be tested; it can also provide an opportunity for the subject of such claims to clarify whether the claims are accepted or denied. 

14. In this instance the article published claims that employees of the complainant had refused to assist an “unsteady” pregnant woman by finding a seat on a train, causing her to “nearly” fall over, and had suggested that her only recourse if she objected was to leave the train. These were significant allegations about the way the complainant’s employees had treated a vulnerable passenger. The article quoted comments by other posters discussing the alleged incident and in some cases criticising the alleged actions of the complainant’s employees; the comments quoted responded to the original post on the basis that the poster had provided an accurate account of a real incident. 

15. The publication sought to defend the complaint on the basis that it had made clear to readers that the claims were uncorroborated. The Committee noted that the text of the article had explained the nature and source of the claims, and both parties accepted that they had been posted and that the article had quoted them accurately. The issue however was whether the publication had taken care not to publish inaccurate information in line with Clause 1(i) and whether it had distinguished between comment conjecture and fact as required by Clause 1(iv). The Committee did not consider that the headline had made clear that the claims were unverified, particularly as it claimed the woman had “REVEALED” that the conductor had refused her a seat. 

16. In any event, given the nature of the claims, the Committee did not accept that the requirement of Clause 1(i) was met simply by presenting entirely uncorroborated claims as such, particularly when there was an obvious means of investigating them further: contacting the complainant for comment. The Committee noted that the publication had not claimed that contacting the complainant 8 minutes prior to publication constituted providing it with an adequate opportunity for comment before publication. The Committee does not have a general rule about how much time must be provided in order for an opportunity to comment to be considered adequate, as this will vary widely based on the circumstances. In this instance, however, 8 minutes was plainly insufficient to allow the complainant to respond to the claims. The Committee found that the publication had not taken adequate care over the accuracy of the article, and established a breach of Clause 1(i). 

17. The Committee next considered whether the article contained significant inaccuracies or misleading statements such that a correction or clarification was required under Clause 1(ii). It noted that ultimately the complainant said it had not been able to investigate the incident, and was therefore unable to confirm or deny whether it had occurred. However, it remained the case that the incident was uncorroborated. In these circumstances, the Committee concluded that the article’s headline, which presented the claims as fact, had failed to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, and was therefore significantly misleading. A clarification was therefore required under the terms of 1(ii). While the publication had offered to amend the headline, it had not offered to publish a clarification. There was therefore a further breach of Clause 1(ii) on this point. 

Conclusion

18.  The complaint was upheld. 

Remedial action required 

19. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee next considered whether the breach of Clause 1(i) and 1(ii) were such that an adjudication was required. 

20. The Committee considered that because the article had been amended, a footnote correction would be required, along with the proposed revision to the headline. This correction should make clear that the headline referred to claims from a user on an online forum and that their veracity had not been verified. 

21. This clarification should appear with the online article. This should state that this has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

 

Date complaint received: 10/07/2018

Date decision issued: 03/12/2018 

Independent Complaints Reviewer 

The publication 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.