Ruling

07306-16 Robertson v mirror.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      20th October 2016

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 07306-16 Robertson v mirror.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Pat Robertson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that mirror.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “US televangelist Pat Robertson says Orlando shootings are ‘God’s punishment’ for same sex marriage”, published on 12 June 2016.

2. The article reported the alleged reaction of the complainant, a US televangelist, to the Orlando shootings, which had occurred just hours earlier. It said that the complainant had spoken to reporters and made a number of homophobic comments, both in general, and about those who had died in the shootings.

3. The complainant said that the content of the article was completely fabricated.  He said that the quotes attributed to him had come from an article posted on a parody website, www.politicalo.com. He said that the stories on the website are accompanied by a button labelled “show facts” which, once clicked, highlights which elements of the story are accurate, and which are not; he said that this feature made it obvious that the website’s stories are parodies, and are not true.

4. The publication accepted that the article was inaccurate. However, it said that there was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information. It said that the item was spotted by the news desk in London, and the publication's US correspondent was asked to look into it. It said that comments quoted in the source article were consistent with the complainant's anti-homosexual rhetoric, of which it provided a number of examples, and the article was written up in an authentic manner; it said that its reporter had been fooled by the report. It said that it did try to get a comment from the TV station that the complainant works for, but the telephone was not answered.

5. The publication said that errors will be made in the fast moving world of the internet, particularly in the case of a fast-developing story like the Orlando shootings, and as long as they are addressed when discovered or reported, then every action of a journalist should not be picked apart. In this case, it said that as soon as it was contacted by the complainant's representatives, it removed the article, which had been published for a total of just over two hours. It said that following correspondence with the complainant, it published the following correction on the publication's homepage for a period of 10 hours from 9pm, and that the correction remains searchable on the website:

On 12 June 2016, we published an article about US religious broadcaster Dr Pat Robertson under the headline "Orlando shootings are 'God's punishment' for same-sex marriage, claims US TV evangelist Pat Robertson". It has since been brought to our attention that Dr Robertson never made such claims. The statement that appeared in our article originated on a parody news website in the US and the statements are untrue. We are happy to clarify this position.

It said that the corrective action it had taken was sufficient and proportionate, and was published at a “sociable time” for US viewing.

6. The complainant said that the publication refused to treat its admitted error with the seriousness it was due.  He said that while the article may have only been published for two hours, it would have been re-tweeted, shared and re-posted within minutes of being published and became the subject of global discussion. While he did not raise objections about the wording of the correction, he said that its publication at 9pm for a period of 10 hours meant it appeared when readers were least likely to observe it.  He said the publication was aimed at UK readers, and therefore related to his reputation in the UK.  He did not accept that the correction would have been published at a sociable time for US viewing.

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.

Findings of the Committee

8. The content and tone of the article the quotes had been taken from, as well as that of the other articles published on that website, gave a clear indication that the article was a parody; this was re-enforced by the “show facts” tab underneath the story, which highlighted the elements of the story that were in fact accurate. The failure to properly check the source of the quotes, and in turn note the clear indications contained in the article that it was in fact a parody, represented a breach of Clause 1(i). While the Committee noted the past comments made by the complainant on the topic of homosexuality, the comments attributed to him in this instance were particularly serious given that they were purported to have been made in the immediate aftermath of the Orlando shootings; the publication of this fabricated material was a significant inaccuracy which required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

9. The publication had removed the article as soon as it had been informed that the quotes were fabricated, and had published a correction on its homepage on 14 July, following a period of correspondence with the complainant. The correction made clear that the quotes had been fabricated, and had come from a parody website; it remained on the homepage for a period of ten hours, and is searchable on the publication's website. In circumstances where the correction addressed the inaccuracies in the article, was offered and published promptly, remained on the homepage for eight hours longer than the article had, and was published at the same time of day as the article originally appeared, the Committee considered that the actions taken by the publication in addressing the complaint was sufficient to meet the requirement of Clause 1(ii). There was no further breach of the Code on this point.

Conclusions

10. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

11. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

12. The newspaper had removed the article as soon as it was made aware that the quotes were fabricated, and promptly published a correction on its homepage. The correction identified the inaccuracies in the article, and was published on the publication's homepage for a period of 10 hours and at the same time of day as the article originally appeared. It remains searchable on the publication's website.

13. No further action was required.

Date complaint received: 27/07/2016
Date decision issued: 4/10/2016