Ruling

07363-21 A man v metro.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      24th March 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 07363-21 A man v metro.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that metro.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Headteacher ‘attacked 18 times by pupil after pleas to council for help’”, published on 29 June 2021.

2. The online article reported that the head teacher was “reportedly ‘headbutted, throttled with a scarf and threatened with a screwdriver’” by a pupil. It stated that the “series of assaults” were “said to have started” in 2018, with the police called to a number of these incidents, and which had continued until the child was “finally expelled” from the school. It stated that the head teacher, who was “5ft 2in, was even reportedly attacked in front of her husband […], who worked part-time at the school” and included the comments he had previously made to a separate publication. It said that the local authority was under pressure to explain why it did not respond to “repeated warnings and pleas for help” from school leaders and why a child with complex needs was not placed in a more suitable environment, following reports by Private Eye and then The Sunday Times. It added that the council had reportedly “dismissed the school’s governing body and appointed an interim board” and included the following statement from the council: “We … will support the return of the head teacher as appropriate. We believe that the article [in Private Eye] is misleading and inaccurate.” The article referenced a previous Ofsted report that had been critical of the area’s handling of children with complex needs.

3. The complainant, the father of the pupil, said the article was misleading in breach of Clause 1. It had reported, as fact, that the head teacher was attacked by his child. He said that the allegations put forward by the head teacher and her husband were untrue, and the article gave a misleading account of the school’s handling of his child: attributing blame to the local authority instead of the school; implying that the “attacks” were unprovoked; and sensationalising events by including the height of the head teacher. He also expressed concern that there were key omissions from the article; namely, that his child’s exclusion was investigated by an Independent Review Panel (IRP) and subsequently quashed. He also disputed the number of incidents reported in the headline, adding that this particular figure had not been referenced in any past or ongoing investigation.

4. In support of his position, the complainant provided the IRP report and the findings of a Disability Discrimination Tribunal (DDT) into the matter. He said that his child’s exclusion had been quashed by the IRP, with the DDT finding that his child had been discriminated against. He expressed concern that the article had referenced the child’s initial exclusion without reporting that this had subsequently been rescinded.

The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It said that the article was based upon the reports of two separate publications which were cited and referred to. It maintained that the article made clear the status of the allegations made about the conduct of the complainant’s child: these were claims and presented as such, by the way of the use of inverted commas in the headline and attributing these claims to the head teacher and her husband in the text of the article. It made clear that the focus of the article was criticism levelled at the local authority by the head teacher for its perceived role in failing to both properly protect staff and ensuring that the child’s complex needs were met. In this context, the newspaper had contacted the local authority for its comments prior to publication and included the response it provided to The Sunday Times. The newspaper noted that the council said it was unable to comment further due to ongoing associated investigations; it did not mention or reference the IRP or its outcome, nor was this information publicly available prior to publication. Following the article’s publication and being made aware of the complainant’s concerns, the newspaper returned to the council who confirmed that the child’s exclusion had indeed been quashed. Given these circumstances, and taking account of the context of the article, the newspaper did not accept that the omission of the outcome of the IRP rendered the article inaccurate or misleading. Furthermore, it did not accept that the omission of the further context provided by the complainant to the incidents in question rendered the article significantly inaccurate or misleading.

6. Notwithstanding this, upon receipt of the complaint and in an effort to resolve the matter, the publication offered the following actions: the disabling of the reader’s comment facility for the article; the amendment of the article to record that the child’s exclusion had been quashed; and the opportunity for the complainant to challenge the allegations put forward by the other parties involved in a follow-up article.

7. Whilst the complainant welcomed this offer, he did not consider it sufficient to resolve his complaint. Therefore, the matter was passed to the Complaints Committee.

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

8. The Committee recognised the distressing circumstances surrounding this complaint. It was clear from the material provided by both the complainant and the publication during the course of IPSO’s investigation that this was a highly contentious situation which had been the subject of a number of related investigations and proceedings. The complainant said that the article sensationalised and misrepresented incidents involving his child and gave a false picture of the school’s handing of the situation. The Committee was not in a position to make detailed findings about the causes and responsibility for the incidents; its function was to determine whether the publication had breached the Editors’ Code.

9. In this instance, the article contained serious allegations regarding the conduct of the child towards the head teacher, including a personal account of the head teacher’s husband, who had described his experience to another national publication and expressed concerns over the actions taken by the local authority. However, the Committee noted that the publication had consistently presented these allegations as claims throughout the article. It had employed quotation marks both in the headline and the body of the article to distinguish the allegations from established fact and had used language such as “reportedly” and “are said to have” to demonstrate to readers that it was reporting claims. It had not adopted the claims as fact. As such, there was no failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture, and fact in reporting these allegations, so the Committee did not find a breach of Clause 1 (iv). The Committee also noted that the publication had approached the local authority for comment prior to publication and in the absence of any further information had included its rebuttal to the details included in the Private Eye article. In such circumstances, the Committee found that the publication had taken sufficient care in reporting the claims made. Furthermore, the Committee did not conclude that the article gave rise to a misleading impression of the situation such that a correction was required under the terms of Clause 1(ii), as it would be understood that the article reported allegations which were the subject of an ongoing investigation.

10. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concerns regarding the reference to his child’s exclusion and the omission of the fact that this had subsequently been quashed by the IRP. In considering the care taken by the newspaper, the Committee noted that the IRP report and its findings had not been publicly available when the article was published, nor had the newspaper been notified of its outcome by the local authority when it made contact prior to publication. As such, the absence of reference to this development did not amount to a failure by the publication to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information. Nor was it a significant inaccuracy, where it was not in dispute that the child had been excluded. The article did not discuss the merits of the exclusion and it was framed only as a passing reference as to the reason why the incidents has stopped; the omission of the IRP’s outcome, which was not known by the newspaper at the time of publication, did not render the article inaccurate and misleading.  Nonetheless, in light of the sensitivity of the case, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to amend the online article to include this additional information.

11.  The Committee did not find that the other points identified by the complainant raised a breach of Clause 1. The Committee noted that the selection of material was a matter of editorial discretion, as long as the Code was not otherwise breached. In this instance, the inclusion of the teacher’s height did not render the article misleading; it formed part of the publication’s report of her experience. Furthermore, the omission of the context later provided by the complainant to the incidents in question did not render the article inaccurate or misleading, where the claims made were clearly presented as allegations, and where it was not in dispute that these allegations had been made. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusion(s)

12. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

13. N/A


Date complaint received: 06/07/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 18/02/2022

Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant 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.