Ruling

05228-18 Versi v Daily Mail

    • Date complaint received

      6th February 2019

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination

Decision of the Complaints Committee 05228-18 Versi v Daily Mail

Summary of complaint

1. Miqdaad Versi complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “POWDER KEG PARIS”, published on 28 July 2018.

2. The article was a first person account of the journalist’s experiences of staying in Seine-Saint-Denis, a department in the northern suburbs of Paris, for five days. The journalist had visited the area, prompted by a French Parliamentary report, which identified a number of social welfare issues in Seine-Saint-Denis including serious crime and its contribution to the departement’s economy; the level of education and the poor quality of housing. The article under complaint referred to the findings of the report, and detailed what the journalist had seen, and the impressions which he had been left with.

3. The complainant said that the journalist had misinterpreted what he had seen during his visit to Seine-Saint-Denis to fit a false and damaging narrative. He further said that the claims made by the journalist were not presented as his own views, but rather, were adopted as fact by the publication, in breach of Clause 1(iv).

4. The complainant disputed the journalist’s claims that “Arabic is more useful than French” in the area; that “other faiths and religious are being driven from the area”; that many of the “drug dealing by gangs” were Muslim; and that “when helicopters flew overhead in training for Bastille Day celebrations earlier this month, one man pretended to shoot at them with a machine gun. Another pushed him away and pretended to fire a shoulder-mounted missile, tracing the missile with his hand towards its targets and shouting: ‘Boom!’ Everyone laughed”. The complainant also disputed that the journalist had seen a woman “walking in full face veil”, as claimed by the journalist, and that the women that he saw shopping were “always accompanied by male relatives”. The complainant said that there were no religious courts in France and no sharia councils, therefore it was incorrect for the journalist to refer to Seine-Saint-Denis as a “a parallel state—a state within a state, with its own rules and religious courts – where allegiance to Islam comes ahead of fealty to France”.

5. The complainant disputed that the French law introduced in September 2010, which prohibits the concealment of a person’s face in public had been “introduced to promote integration”, as the journalist had claimed. He said that the law had been introduced for security purposes.

6. As he walked around the streets of Seine-Saint-Denis, the journalist described taking his mobile phone out to take a picture, but being confronted by a young man “waving his index fingers in my face and shouting: La La La (No! No! No!)”. The piece continued: “further down the street, there was a flurry of activity. A woman was surrounded as she opened a huge bag full of phones, shoes, sunglasses and handbags - clearly stolen from tourists or Parisians”. The complainant said that the journalist had misunderstood the facts: in France, it is illegal to take use and disseminate pictures without explicit consent. Further, he said that the journalist’s allegation about the goods being “clearly” stolen, was baseless.

7. In the piece, the journalist had referred to Seine-Saint-Denis as “Saint Denis”; he described it as a “sprawling district” and a “teeming suburb” and said that the legal population was estimated as £1.5million.

8. The complainant said that the article had contained a fundamental error, as it had confused “Saint Denis” - a town in France which had a recorded population of 110 733 people in 2014- and “Seine-Saint-Denis”, a large departement consisting of 40 cities over an area of 236 km2. He said that the reported claims which emanated from this error- namely the claim that “300,000 illegal migrants” and an “estimated 600,000 Muslims from North African or sub-Saharan African backgrounds” were living in the area - could never relate to the populace of the town, Saint Denis.

9. The complainant said that the figure of “300,000 illegal migrants” was, in any event, inaccurate because the French Parliamentary report which the article had attributed the figure to, did not make this finding. The complainant noted that the report had stated: “the only thing we are sure about is that the State doesn’t know how many illegal immigrants there are”. The complainant also disputed the figure reported to be the number of Muslims living in the area.

10. In the piece, the journalist had reflected on the terrorist attack which took place in Paris in 2015, which claimed the lives of 130 people. The journalist claimed that the situation had, in many ways, worsened. The article contained a quote from a police officer who had worked in Saint-Denis for more than two decades: “The radicalisers use these hidden places of worship to influence the young and impressionable. These radicalisers are the ones who motivate the young towards terrorism”. The complainant disputed the article’s claim that “there are around 350 known jihadists living in Saint- Denis, while 1,700 are believed to have returned to France after fighting for IS in Syria, with 15,000 terrorism suspects in France”.

11. The complainant disputed that there were a “record number” of mosques in the area, and said that there were approximately 12 mosques, not over 160, as the article had claimed.

12. The complainant said that the article had presented the fact that French police “will only drive through the areas armed and four to a vehicle”, as unusual. He said that this was misleading because this type of police activity was not unusual, as the article had suggested, and was actually standard procedure throughout France.  The complainant also disagreed that the area was considered a police “no-go” area, as the journalist had claimed.

13. During his visit to Seine-Saint-Denis, the journalist interviewed a Rabbi who lived in the area and whose home, the article reported, had been “firebombed” in 2009. The article reported that the Kosher restaurant next door had also been burned down. The Rabbi told the journalist: “The problem is people coming to France and wanting to change it. And its worse because they want to force people to change. I respect this country because I was born here. I respect the laws of this country. I respect Christmas even though it has nothing to do with being a Jew. Now they won’t let Christmas happen”. The article referenced the murder of an 85 Jewish woman, who it reported had vowed “never to leave Paris”; “she was stabbed to death in her apartment in March” and one of the perpetrators was a “Muslim neighbour [her family] said they had known since he was a boy”.

14. The complainant disputed the Rabbi’s comments about Christmas; he said that dozens of activities went on during the holiday period. The complainant disputed that a kosher restaurant had burnt down in the area. The complainant said that it was unclear why the article had referenced the murder of the 85 year old woman, given that the event had no relevance to Saint-Denis.

15. The journalist had claimed: “even Left-wingers belatedly acknowledge the scale of the problem” in Seine-Saint-Denis, and claimed that a named former politician had been commissioned by the President of France to write a report on “the burgeoning problem of Parisian suburbs”. The complainant said that the politician referred to in the article was centre-right.

16. The journalist reflected on his time in the area. He said, “having spent several days in Saint- Denis, it’s clear to me that the area is already lost to France – to the rule of French law, equality, religious freedom, and even access to the streets by the police themselves”. The reporter claimed that “the only person to shake my hand during my visit was the Rabbi. Everyone else offered me their wrist, not wanting to touch hands with an infidel - someone unclean”. He concluded: “as a metaphor for what is happening in the French capital, it couldn’t be more sad – or more troubling”.

17. The article was published in substantially the same form online, under the headline: “Powder Keg Paris: As a devastating report reveals 300,000 illegal migrants are living in one French suburb….[journalist] explores the tensions in a community at odds with mainstream society”.

18. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the article had been written by a reputable and careful freelance journalist with over 30 years experience, who often worked as a foreign correspondent. The newspaper said that the journalist stayed in Seine-Saint-Denis to investigate the findings of the French Parliamentary report further, and the style and tone of the article made clear it was written on the basis of his own experiences there. The newspaper said that the article’s style was a well-established genre of journalism, which allows reporters to investigate claims made about parts of the world or segments of society; this is compelling because it gives readers a descriptive account of matters of important public interest. The newspaper denied that the article had engaged the terms of Clause 12.

19. The newspaper said that without any admission of liability, it had removed the piece online following complaints. In an attempt to resolve the complaint, it offered to reinstate the article, and make amendments to it, in an attempt to address the complainant’s concerns.

20. The newspaper did not accept that the presentation of the journalist’s experiences in Seine-Saint-Denis was a breach of Clause 1(iv). 

21. The newspaper said that the journalist’s assumption that the goods had been stolen from tourists and Parisians, was not unreasonable based on what he saw. The journalist observed that the seller was not part of the flea market, and had made clear that everyone would have to hurry in case the police showed up. The newspaper said that the complainant was not in a position to dispute whether the goods were stolen or not. The newspaper said that the journalist spent a number of days within the community, and was provided with a great deal of “street information”; these sources told the reporter that many drug related gang members were Muslim. The newspaper said that the journalist’s claim that Seine-Saint-Denis was a “parallel state with its own rules and religious courts”, was based on his own experiences. It said that the journalist had interviewed many people, some of whom had outlined their deepest religious philosophy, and explained to the journalist why their religion can only allow fealty to Islam, and not France. The journalist told the newspaper that based on his discussions with the residents of Seine-Saint-Denis, it was clear that religious laws were administered by religious courts in the community.

22. The newspaper accepted that the article had misreported the name of the departement, and that Seine-Saint-Denis and Saint-Denis were two different areas. The publication noted that Seine-Saint-Denis derives its name from Saint-Denis, and it understood that the names were interchangeable. It said the journalist’s original copy had referred to Saint-Saint-Denis, but for simplicity’s sake, it had been shortened when the piece was edited. The publication did not accept that the error would have misled readers in a significant way. It said that the article reported, accurately, a total population of 1.5m people and referred to a “suburb” and “sprawling district”. It said that readers without knowledge of the distinction between Saint Denis and Seine-Saint-Denis would have understood the article to be referring to a large area. Notwithstanding this, the newspaper offered to publish a correction on this point, as set out at paragraph 31 below.

23. The newspaper said that the claim that there are “around 350 known jihadists living in Saint- Denis” had been derived from comments from an anonymous official, who had told another publication that there were an estimated 30 possible terrorists living in Seine-Saint-Denis, and about 300 extremists who would support them. 

24. The newspaper said that the article had accurately reported that there were 15,000 terrorism suspects in France; this was based on comments made by the French Prime Minister, and was the subject of widespread coverage. In relation to the 1,700 jihadists which the article had claimed had returned to France, the newspaper acknowledged that this figure related to the number of French nationals that had left France to join IS in Iraq and Syria. The newspaper did not accept this to be a significant inaccuracy, and offered to amend the online article as follows: “…while 1,700 are believed to have left France to fight for IS in Iraq and Syria…”

25. The newspaper said that as identified by the complainant, the 300,000 figure of the number of illegal immigrants in Seine-Saint-Denis was derived from analysis of the French Parliamentary report, which estimated that between 150,000 and 400,000 illegal immigrants were living in the area; this report had been the subject of widespread coverage. The newspaper said that the figure of 300,000 originally came from estimates reported in French media and the article under complaint had been clear that the reported figure was an estimate.

26. The newspaper said that the statistic that there are an estimated 600,000 Muslims living in Seine-Saint-Denis originated from a report by the Institut Montaigne from 2000. It said that this figure was checked prior to publication by a researcher in France, who referred to a French publication which had reported that according to the Prefect of the region, about 45% of the department’s population was Muslim. The publication said that at the time, this amounted to 700,000; therefore the reported figure was sensible and restrained. The newspaper did not accept the complainant’s position that relying on this report was a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, given the year the report was made. It said that the figure of 600,000 was clearly labelled as an estimate and was not a significant point in the context of the whole article. It noted that the complainant had not provided any basis to show that the reported estimate was wrong.

27. The newspaper noted that integration had played a large role in public debate regarding the veil ban, as noted by the then French Prime minister: “the burqa is not welcome in France. We cannot accept in our country women imprisoned behind bars, cut off from social life, deprived of identity”. The newspaper acknowledged that the French veil ban was introduced for a number of reasons, including security, as the complainant had highlighted in his complaint. As a gesture of goodwill, the newspaper said it would be willing to amend the online article to: “…illegal under a French law introduced in part to promote integration”.

28. The newspaper said that the reference made to the actions of the police, was in order to highlight that the authorities are reluctant to visit Seine-Saint-Denis. It noted that the Prefect of Seine-Saint-Denis had said in an interview that the “police are too frightened to enter alone most areas under [his] control”.

29. The newspaper said that it was not incorrect, as the complainant had claimed, to report that there was a “record number” of mosques in Seine-Saint-Denis. It provided an online directory which listed 160 mosques and prayer rooms in the area, and another which listed 500. The newspaper did not accept that the omission of reference to “prayer rooms” was significantly misleading; the directory claimed that it would “let you find a place of worship” – the newspaper said it was not unreasonable to assume that these prayer rooms were open to the public, or at least intended to be.

30. The newspaper said that the reference to the 85-year-old woman’s murder in Paris, was to illustrate a point which the Rabbi had made to the journalist, and reported in the article, that people from within the Jewish community were starting to leave. The newspaper said that the journalist was entitled to interview the Rabbi, who detailed his own experiences with leaving in the area; it said that care was taken to make clear that his comments about Christmas were his own opinion. The newspaper said that the claim about the kosher restaurant was based on statements made by French police, and reported in another publication, that a petrol bomb attack on a community centre and synagogue in Seine-Saint-Denis had sparked a fire in the kosher restaurant next door.

31. The newspaper said that it was a matter of subjective comment as to whether a politician is left wing or not. It referred to an article in another publication which suggested that the politician had left the then-President’s party after it had taken a “sharp swerve to the right”. It noted that the politician was the head of the Radical party in France, and one of his election promises was to build a “republican, ecologist and social alliance”: these are values some would consider to be left wing. The newspaper said that in any event, this was not a significant point in the context of the article.

32. The newspaper said it had attempted to mediate a resolution to the complaint and had suggested a number of formulations for a clarification, all of which had been rejected by the complainant. While it did not accept a breach of the Code, the newspaper offered to publish the following wording on p.2 in its established Corrections & Clarifications column, in addition to online:

A July 28 feature about a Paris suburb which was the subject of a French parliamentary report said that up to 300,000 illegal immigrants lived there and referred to it throughout as Saint Denis. In fact, the suburb is called Seine-Saint-Denis, in which the smaller commune of Saint Denis is situated, and the report referred to estimates of 150-400,000 illegal immigrants. The article also said 1,700 jihadists are believed to have returned after fighting for IS. This is in fact the number of people understood to have left France – not Seine-Saint -Denis – to join IS. The claim that the suburb is home to ‘350 known jihadis’ was based on comments of an anonymous official who told another publication that there are about ’30 possible terrorists living in this area and about 300 extremists who would support them’, and there are no official figures for the number of jihadis there. We are also happy to clarify that the reference to 160 ‘mosques’ should have been to ‘mosques and prayer rooms’; the French veil ban was introduced for reasons of security as well as integration; [Name] was murdered in a different part of Paris; [Name] no longer works at French anti-Islamophobia group CCIF; and [Name] is a teacher, not a professor. We apologise for any confusion.

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.

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

33. The article had reported that “around 350 known jihadists lived in Saint- Denis”. This was a significant claim which gave credibility to a central thrust of the article, which was that Seine-Saint-Denis posed a real risk of “home grown” radicalised terrorism.

34. The newspaper had relied upon comments given by an anonymous official to another publication, who had said that that there were an estimated 30 possible terrorists living in Seine-Saint-Denis and about 300 extremists who would support them. While the reporter was entitled to detail his experiences of staying in the area, in making this specific factual claim, which the newspaper had failed to justify, the official’s comments had been presented as established fact. In doing so, the article had failed to make clear to readers the source of the claim, nor had it made clear that it had not been based on any official figures. The newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article, in breach of Clause 1(i), and a correction was required under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

35.  The estimate of 1,700 French nationals who had not returned after joining IS in Iraq and Syria related to France as a whole, not Seine-Saint-Denis, as the article claimed. The newspaper accepted that the article was inaccurate on this point; the Committee considered that this was a significant inaccuracy as it concerned a central thrust of the piece, as set out above.

36. The headline to the online version of the article had stated that “300,000 illegal migrants are living in one French suburb”. The Parliamentary report which this figure had been based on, had contained estimates that the area was home to between 150,000 and 400,000 illegal immigrants. The Parliamentary report had not adopted any particular figure within this estimated range, nor did the report adopt the range itself as being accurate. Unlike the prominent subheadline to the print article, which had presented the figure as an estimate, the online article’s headline had stated, as fact, that there were 300,000 illegal migrants in the area. This factual assertion represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, in breach of Clause 1(i) and a failure to distinguish between comment and conjecture and fact, in breach of Clause 1(iv). The misrepresentation of the findings of the Parliamentary report was a significant inaccuracy which required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

37. The newspaper had offered to publish a correction in response to the initial complaint, and had suggested a variety of word formulations in direct correspondence with the complainant, and during IPSO’s investigation. The offer of a correction had initially been made 17 days after the complainant had complained directly; given the number of significant and detailed issues raised in the complaint the Committee considered that this offer was made promptly. A form of words – which clarified that 1,700 jihadists had not returned to France after joining ISIS, and that the Parliamentary report had referred to estimates of 150-400,000 illegal immigrants– had been proposed by the newspaper ten days later. The correction which the newspaper had offered in final settlement of the complaint, set out above, had made clear that the claim that “there are around 350 known jihadists living in Saint-Denis” was based on comments made to another publication by an anonymous official, and made clear that there were no official figures for the number of jihadists in the area. The Committee considered that the wording on these three points of complaint identified the inaccuracies and the offer of correction was made promptly for the reasons explained above; the publication of this wording on p.2 in the newspaper’s established Corrections and Clarifications column and online, represented due prominence. In order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii) this wording should now be published.

38. The Committee turned to consider the broader complaint relating to the overall presentation of the journalist’s experiences in Seine-Saint-Denis. First person accounts bring life to subjects of media interest; the journalist had travelled to Seine-Saint-Denis and stayed in the region for five days, prompted by an official Parliamentary report which had highlighted the presence of a number of social welfare issues in the area. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant disagreed with the journalist’s account of his time in the departement, and noted his explanations as to why the reporter had misunderstood what he had seen. However, the complainant was not in a position to dispute the reporter’s personal experiences of what he had seen on the streets of Seine – Saint -Denis; what he had been told by the people he had met there; or the impressions which the journalist had been left with. Care had been taken to present the piece as a first-hand account of the journalist’s personal experiences, and the Committee did not conclude that the reporting of his claims represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, or a failure to distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. This aspect of the complaint did not represent a breach of Clause 1.

39. The article had misreported the name of the departement. However, it had been clear that the region being described was an area of significant geographical size and population. The article referred to a “sprawling district”, and a “teeming suburb” and had accurately reported that the total population was estimated to be at 1.5 million. Readers would have understood that the article related to a large area, the misreporting of its name, in those circumstances, did not render the article significantly misleading. The Committee noted that the error had been acknowledged swiftly by the newspaper and while it did not represent a significant inaccuracy, the prompt offer of a correction was welcomed by the Committee.

40. The article had reported that there were an estimated 600,000 Muslims living in the area. Care had been taken to report this figure as an estimate, which had been based on report by the Institut Montaigne, and checked by a researcher in France. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point. The Committee noted that the complainant had not provided an alternative figure and the Committee did not conclude that this aspect of the article represented a significant inaccuracy which required correction.

41. There appeared to be a number of reasons why the full face veil ban in France in 2010 had been introduced, including concerns over integration, which had been referenced by the then-President of France. The omission of other reasons why the ban was introduced, did not render the article significantly inaccurate or misleading. This aspect of the complaint did not breach of Clause 1.

42. The newspaper had relied on an online directory which had set out the availability of over 160 mosques and prayer rooms in the area. There was no suggestion from this directory, nor from the complainant, that these prayer rooms were not open to the public. The omission of references to prayer rooms did not render the article misleading; the article had sought to distinguish between “official” and “unofficial” places of worship, in the context of concerns about radicalization. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

43. It was not disputed by the complainant that French police drove through Seine-Saint-Denis armed and four to a vehicle. The Committee did not find that the omission of information which made clear this was standard procedure was misleading; the article was a focused report on social welfare issues in Seine-Saint-Denis. The journalist had relied upon comments made by the Prefect of the area, in claiming that the area was considered a “no-go area”. The newspaper had taken care over this point, and no correction was required.

44. The newspaper was entitled to report the claims made by the Rabbi, who had spoken to the journalist at length about his experiences of living in Seine-Saint-Denis; the complainant was not in a position to dispute his claims, and care had been taken to clearly present them as such. The complainant was not in a position to confirm the extent of the damage which had been inflicted on the kosher restaurant as a result of fire; in any event, the complainant did not dispute that the kosher restaurant referred to in the article had been damaged as a result of a petrol bomb attack. Any inaccuracy over the extent of the fire damage was not significant in the context of the article. It was not misleading to reference the murder of the 85 year old woman, in circumstances where the article had reported on wider concerns over violence in Paris, as well as in France. The newspaper had provided a sufficient basis to support its characterisation of the politician as “left-wing”; in any event, this was not a significant point in the context of the article. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

45. The article did not identify any individuals and make any irrelevant, prejudicial or pejorative reference to their race or religion. The terms of Clause 12 were not engaged.

Conclusions

46. The complaint was upheld in part.

Remedial Action Required

47. Having upheld the complaint in part, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

48. The newspaper had promptly offered a correction which had identified the three significant inaccuracies in the article highlighted at paragraphs 33-36 above. The correction which the newspaper had offered in final settlement of the complaint referred to material which the Committee did not consider to be in breach of the Code. However, the Committee welcomed the fact that this wording provided clarification on a number of further points of the complaint. The wording set out at paragraph 32 should now be published. The print correction should be published in the newspaper’s established corrections and clarifications column. The correction should also be published online as a standalone. 

Correction:

Paragraph 48 of the Committee’s summary of the remedial action required originally stated, incorrectly, that the online correction should be published as a footnote to the online article. In fact, the online article was removed shortly after publication. Therefore, the newspaper also published the correction as an online standalone. The Committee’s decision has now been amended to make this clear. 

Date complaint received: 06/08/2018

Date complaint concluded: 23/01/2019