Ruling

07512-16 Belfast City Council v The Belfast Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      22nd December 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 07512-16 Belfast City Council v The Belfast Telegraph

Summary of Complaint

1. Belfast City Council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Belfast Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “City council’s treatment of Hank is proof ‘dangerous’ dog legislation needs reform”, published on 22 July 2016.

2. The article was an opinion piece where the author compared Belfast dog wardens to the Stasi – the secret police of former East Germany – following the seizure of a dog named Hank. It said that the dog was seized from its owners’ property because it looked a “bit like a pitbull terrier”, and that there had been “no problems or complaints about Hank’s behaviour”. It said that the wardens got out “the tape measure and failed to determine whether Hank is shaped like a pitbull”, and said that if the dog was found to be a pit bull it would mean “probable execution”.

3. The complainant said that the article failed to accurately set out the circumstances that led to the dog’s seizure, and created the impression he was a “gentle giant”. It said that the dog came to its attention because of a welfare complaint about how the dog was being treated by somebody other than its owners, not because it was a pitbull. It said that the dog was seized after wardens had attended the owners’ home, and observed a dog with potential pitbull characteristics which was behaving aggressively. It said that it was inaccurate to report that it had failed to determine whether the dog was a pitbull by measuring its head, and had to call an expert from England; it said that it did not carry out an assessment of the dog other than an initial visual one, and that it was standard practice to bring in an expert. 

4. The complainant said that the article had failed to identify the correct legal test for the destruction of a banned breed of dog. It said that the identification of the dog as a pitbull, as the article asserted, did not mean that it was inevitable that the dog would be destroyed; there was also a behavioural test to determine whether the dog constituted a danger to the public. In any event, it said that it was inaccurate to report that being defined as a pitbull would mean “probable execution”, as since an exception scheme had been established, only two of the 13 dogs seized had been destroyed.

5. The newspaper denied that the article was inaccurate. It said that the article’s suggestion that aggression was not a factor in the decision to seize the dog was based on a television interview with the dog’s owner, who said that he was told by a dog warden that there were no problems or complaints about the dog’s behaviour. It said that it was not inaccurate to report that there was no proof, evidence, or complaints that the dog had behaved aggressively, as the only allegation of aggression had come from the wardens. It also said that it was not inaccurate to report that an initial visual assessment had failed to determine whether the dog was a pitbull, as the complainant had admitted that an expert from England had been called in to make a final assessment.

6. The newspaper denied that the article had failed to identify the correct legal test for the destruction of a banned breed of dog. It said that the article did refer to the correct legal test, which is why it referred to the “probable” and not “inevitable” execution of the dog.  It also said that was accurate to report that being designated as a pitbull would mean “probable execution” for the dog. It referred to the NI Direct website, which said that “in most cases the court will order a dog seized as a banned breed to be put down, even where the court decides not to prosecute the owner”. It also referred to literature from the Dogs Trust in Northern Ireland which said that the law relating to dogs in Northern Ireland clearly carries a presumption in favour of the destruction of dogs deemed to be dangerous.

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 complainant said that it was misleading for the article to suggest that the dog was a “gentle giant”. However, while the Committee noted the complainant’s explanation of why the dog was seized, in circumstances where the dog was not brought to the attention of the wardens because of his aggressive behaviour, and did not have a record of behaving aggressively, it was not significantly misleading for the article to say that there had been no complaints about the dog’s behaviour. There was no breach of Clause 1.

9. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that it was standard practice to bring in an expert to determine whether a dog was a banned breed. However, in circumstances where the article had identified the correct procedure for the assessment of the dog, namely a visual examination following by an expert assessment, there was no breach of Clause 1.

10. The article did not specifically identify that the test for the destruction of a banned breed included a behavioural element. However, in the context of an opinion piece, rather than a piece that focused on the legal elements of the case, the Committee did not consider that the failure to make clear the precise elements of the test gave a misleading impression of the overall situation that the dog, and his owners, were in. There was no breach of Clause 1.

11. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that only two out of 13 dogs had been destroyed since an exemption came into force. However, in circumstances where a government website had advised that the court will order a dog identified as a banned breed to be destroyed “in most cases”, and where literature from the Dogs Trust in Northern Ireland outlined that there is a presumption in favour of destruction unless the owner can prove that the dog is not a danger to the public safety, it was not significantly misleading to report that being identified as a banned breed would lead to “probable execution”. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

12. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

12. N/A

Date complaint received: 28/07/2016
Date decision issued: 25/11/2016