Ruling

06837-18 Chapman v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      31st December 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee: 06837-18 Chapman v Mail Online

Summary of complaint 

1.    Gillian Chapman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Widowed ex-Mayor, 55, hanged herself at home while struggling to cope with the menopause”, published on 29 June 2018. 

2.    The article was an inquest report which said that a former mayor had taken her own life. It described how the woman had been involved in the Dacorum Borough Council since 2007 after she had moved to the area with her husband, who it named, following his retirement from the Army. The article said that the woman’s husband had died in 1997, and that she had been Mayor of Dacorum from 2011 to 2012. The article included a photograph of the complainant, with a caption that listed the symptoms that the woman had suffered before her death. The article also mentioned the complainant’s daughter by name, saying that she had discovered the woman who had taken her own life.  

3.    The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) because it had incorrectly identified her – the former mayor of the Borough of Dacorum – as the subject of the inquest, and included her photograph, when she had no connection to the events described. The person who died was a woman of the same name. She said that by incorrectly identifying her as deceased, the article had caused considerable shock and distress to her family and friends. 

4.    The publication apologised to the complainant for the distress caused by the article, but denied any breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). In relation to the care taken over the article, the publication said that the story had been provided by an established agency; it had not undertaken further inquiries to verify the story, as it appeared to be a straightforward report of an inquest, with no obvious inconsistencies. It said that the error was highly unusual, and could not have reasonably been anticipated by its own reporter. It said that it was an impossibly high bar to expect publishers to ensure the factual accuracy of every piece of information provided by external agencies. 

5.    Nevertheless, the publication accepted that the article was inaccurate, and removed all references to the complainant in the article on 1 July 2018, as soon as it was contacted by the agency who identified the error. It published the following clarification in response to the inaccuracy appearing in a sister publication: 

“An article in Saturday’s paper about the tragic death of Gillian Chapman included incorrect information supplied by a news agency that she was the former mayor of Dacorum. We would like to clarify that the former mayor is a different Gillian Chapman who has no connection to the events described. We apologise for the error.” 

6.    The publication said that this offer was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii): the article was amended 2 days after it had been made aware of the inaccuracies. However, the publication offered to publish the following standalone apology on its news homepage after it became aware of the complaint, and offered to make a donation to a charity of the complainant’s choice: 

“On the 29th June, the MailOnline reported on the tragic death of Gillian Chapman. Incorrect information was supplied to the MailOnline by a news agency which said that the deceased was the former mayor of Dacorum. We are happy to clarify that the former mayor of Dacorum is a different Gillian Chapman who has no connection to the tragic events described. We apologise for the error and any upset caused.“ 

It also offered to append the following footnote to the article: 

“A previous version of this article identified Gillian Chapman, former mayor of Dacorum, as the Gillian Chapman who tragically took her life. We are happy to clarify that the former mayor of Dacorum is a different Gillian Chapman who has no connection to the tragic events reported. Incorrect information was supplied to the MailOnline by a news agency. We apologise for the error and any upset caused.” 

Relevant Code Provisions

7.    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.    This article was a report of an inquest, in which the deceased had been inaccurately identified. This was a fundamental and damaging error on a basic point of fact. The Committee considered that, in circumstances such as these, where the inaccuracy was potentially damaging to an individual, and the correct position was readily available, there had been a failure on the part of the agency providing the story to take care over its accuracy. The Preamble to the Code makes clear that publications are ultimately responsible for any breaches of the Code that might result from the use of external contributors. Consequently, there was a breach of Clause 1(i).

9.    The publication had removed the reference to the complainant promptly once it was made aware of the error by the agency which provided the article. It had not issued a correction or appended a footnote to the article at this time, and there were circumstances where this might give rise to a breach of Clause 1(ii); however, when it was made aware by IPSO of a complaint from a first party to the article, the publication promptly offered to issue both a standalone and footnote correction. These offered corrections made the correct position clear, made clear the inaccuracy the original article had contained, and had been offered with sufficient prominence. There was no further breach of Clause 1(ii), and these corrections should now be published. 

Conclusions 

10. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i). 

Remedial action required 

11. The publication had offered to publish corrections which addressed the inaccuracy within the article, promptly and with due prominence. These were sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii), and should now be published. 

Date complaint received: 17/10/2018

Date decision issued: 24/12/2018