Ruling

09810-16 Hales v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      24th March 2017

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 09810-16 Hales v Mail Online 

Summary of complaint

1.    Colin Hales complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Pilot in DIY 14-foot plane he built in his shed is halted at Chinese border after being ruled a MILITARY THREAT during round-the-world trip”, published on 25 October 2016. 

2.    The article reported that on the complainant’s bid to fly solo around the world in an aircraft he had built himself, he had been halted by Chinese officials at the Russian border who said that he “posed a serious aerial threat to the nation”.  The article claimed that the complainant had been “halted by armed guards on the border with Russia”. The article contained the following quotations attributed to the complainant: “I don’t know what they think I am going to do but there you have it. It is very frustrating. I haven’t got so much as a pea shooter on board – it would add to much weight – but my pleas have fallen on deaf ears. They take aerial security very seriously”. 

3.    The article also reported on the background of the complainant’s journey. Amongst other claims, it reported that the complainant’s aircraft was the “first amateur-built aircraft to obtain permission to enter Russian airspace”, that “the only equipment he has on board are spare fuel tanks and a folding bicycle”, and that he “first flew solo to Australia in 2001 and his dream of flying around the world was born”. It was accompanied by an image of the complainant sitting in his aircraft. 

4.    The complainant said that he had not made a number of the comments attributed to him as direct quotations in the article. The Chinese military had denied him authorisation to fly in China on the grounds he would pose a threat to Chinese airspace, and he had commented on this on social media. However, the complainant said that he had never made the other comments quoted in the article, and said he had not spoken to any journalists about the incident. 

5.    The complainant also alleged a number of other inaccuracies in the article. He said it was inaccurate to report that he had been stopped by “armed guards”.  He said that his aircraft was not “DIY”, or “built in his shed”; in fact, he is a licensed aircraft mechanic who built the aircraft in his hangar. The complainant said that the article wrongly identified the Russian town where he had landed. He said that he had sent his bicycle home when he had been in Alaska, and that he had a lot of equipment on board. He said that he had not flown solo to Australia, but had flown with his girlfriend, and that his dream of flying around the world predated that journey. He said that his aircraft was the second, not the first homebuilt aircraft to transit Russian airspace. 

6.    The complainant said that the publication had breached Clause 2 (Privacy) by taking photographs and information off his website, and publishing them without his permission. The complainant said that the fabrication of his quotations represented an intrusion into his privacy. 

7.    The publication said that the article was supplied by a freelance journalist, and it had published it in good faith.  The freelance journalist had spoken to a source in the aviation industry, and this source had been in correspondence with the complainant, from which they obtained the quotations which appeared in the article. It was unable to provide further information about its source because of their position in the aviation industry, and their relationship with the complainant. 

8.    The publication said that the Chinese border is patrolled by the People’s Armed Police, and the journalist had believed that any person prevented from entering the country on the grounds they posed a military threat would have been halted by armed guards. The newspaper explained that other information in the article had been compiled from a variety of online sources, but was unable to specify where.

9.    The complainant first complained to the publication on 26 October. The publication responded offering to remove the quotations, and amending the other alleged inaccuracies. While it offered to remove reference to “armed guards” from the headline, its proposed amendments did not include amending this in the body of the article. It later explained that this was an administrative error, rather than an editorial decision. 

10. In response to his complaint to IPSO, the publication made a variety of offers of resolution, including an offer to publish the following footnote to the online article on 24 January: 

An earlier version of this article said that Colin Hales was halted at the Chinese border by armed guards. We are happy to clarify that we have since been informed that Mr Hales was not halted by armed guards at any time, and apologise for any distress caused.

The publication also offered to remove the article, and to send the complainant a letter expressing regret for any distress caused by its publication.

11. On 9 February, the publication offered to publish a standalone correction and apology in its Clarifications and Corrections column, which appears on the news home page of the website: 

An article published on 25 October 2016 said that pilot Colin Hales had been halted on the Chinese border by armed guards. The article included quotes attributed to Mr Hales in relation to this incident. Mr Hales denies that he was halted on the border by armed guards and denies that he said the words attributed to him in the story. We are happy to clarify this and apologise for any distress caused. 

The publication said that the article under complaint had not appeared on its homepage, or any other channel page at any time, such that it was effectively published straight to the website’s archive. 

Relevant Code provisions 

12. 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.

Clause 2 (Privacy)

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. 

Findings of the Committee 

13. The publication had published an article supplied to it by a freelance journalist. However, in accordance with the principle of editorial responsibility, the publication was responsible for the actions of this journalist. The publication said that the article had been based on information posted on the internet, and on a source, who had supplied quotations from the complainant, having said that they had been in contact with him. However, it did not provide further details about its sources. The publication of information obtained in this manner as a series of direct quotations from the complainant, without any steps being taken to verify them, constituted a serious failure take care over the accuracy of the article, and a breach of Clause 1 (i).  The publication accepted that the claim that the complainant was stopped by armed guards was the conjecture of the journalist. However, this was presented as a factual claim, and was not clearly distinguished from conjecture, in further breach of Clause 1 (i) and a breach of Clause 1 (iv). 

14. The publication did not provide information to demonstrate that the complainant had made the comments reported. The Committee determined that attributing disputed quotations to the complainant was significantly misleading, such as to require correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).  The principal subject of the article was the complainant’s difficulty in entering Chinese airspace; to claim that the complainant had been “halted by armed guards”, when in fact, he had simply been denied permission to enter Chinese airspace, significantly misrepresented the nature of the incident. This was a further significant inaccuracy. 

15. The publication had responded promptly to the complainant’s initial contact, offering to amend the article on the points the complainant alleged were inaccurate, although it was unfortunate that the publication had offered to remove only one of the references to “armed guards”, in its initial response.  The subsequent offer of a standalone correction and apology on the news home page followed further correspondence with the complainant, in which the publication attempted to resolve the complaint. Taking into account the nature of the negotiations between the parties, the Committee considered that the publication had offered to correct the article with sufficient promptness. The article under complaint had not been published on the homepage, or news homepage, and in these circumstances, publication of the clarification as a footnote to an amended version of the online article was sufficiently prominent under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).  Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to publish the clarification on the news homepage. 

16. The Committee considered that, in the context of aircraft construction, referring to the complainant’s aircraft as “DIY”, “amateur built”, or built in a “shed”, did not suggest that the aircraft had not been completed to a professional standard, but simply that the aircraft had not been built by an aircraft manufacturing company, in a factory.  In this regard, the Committee noted that the article made clear that the complainant was an aircraft engineer. The name of the Russian town the complainant had reached was not a significant detail in the context of the article. The complainant was near the border with China, and the article reported his dealings with the Chinese authorities in relation to entering Chinese airspace. In circumstances where the complainant was at the point from which he was seeking to enter China from Russia, it was not significantly misleading to report that he was “on the border” with China. Whether he was the first or second “amateur-built aircraft” to obtain permission to enter Russian airspace, and the level of equipment he carried on board his aircraft, were not significant details in the context of the article. 

17. It did not represent an intrusion in to the complainant’s privacy to republish the image of him sitting in his aircraft, or to republish information which he had himself published on his own website. The comments reported in the article, purportedly from the complainant, related to his dealings with the Chinese authorities. They did not contain any private information, and publication of these comments was not intrusive.  There was no breach of Clause 2. 

Conclusions 

18. The complaint was upheld. 

Remedial Action Required 

19. The publication had offered to publish a correction which met the requirements of Clause 1 (ii). In addition, the Committee recognised that the inaccuracies in this case were not seriously damaging to the complainant.  However, the Committee was concerned by the severity of the breach of Clause 1 (i) in this instance, which was a serious failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. It considered that the publication of the offered correction would not be an appropriate remedy to this failure. Given the seriousness of the breach of Clause 1 (i), the appropriate remedy was publication of the Committee’s adjudication. The Committee recognised that the article had not appeared on the publication’s homepage, and had been published straight to the newspaper’s archive. However, it considered that publication of the adjudication simply to the archive would not be an effective remedy to the breach of the Code. As a consequence, it required that a link to the adjudication be published on the publication’s homepage. 

20. The adjudication should be published on the publication’s website, with a link to it (including the headline) being published on the homepage for 24 hours. It should then be archived in the usual way. The headline of the adjudication must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, and refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed in advance. If the publication chooses to continue to publish the online article, it should publish the clarification offered on 9 February as a footnote to the article. The footnote should include words making clear that it has been published following an adjudication by IPSO, and be accompanied by a link to the adjudication as published on the publication’s website. 

21. The terms of the adjudication to be published are as follows: 

Following publication of an article on Mail Online on 25 October 2016, headlined “Pilot in DIY 14-foot plane he built in his shed is halted at Chinese border after being ruled a MILITARY THREAT during round-the-world trip”, Colin Hales complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that MailOnline breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The complaint was upheld, and IPSO required MailOnline to publish this adjudication. 

The article reported that on the complainant’s bid to fly solo around the world in an aircraft he had built himself, he had been halted by Chinese officials at the Russian border who said the he “posed a serious aerial threat to the nation”.  The article claimed that the complainant had been “halted by armed guards on the border with Russia”, and contained a number of quotations from the complainant, in which he expressed his frustration at having been stopped.  

The complainant denied making the comments expressing frustration at the decision of the Chinese authorities. In addition, he said it was inaccurate to report that he had been stopped by “armed guards”. 

The publication said that the article was supplied by a freelance journalist, and it had published it in good faith. It said that the article had been based on information posted on the internet, and on a source, who had supplied quotations from the complainant, having said that they had been in contact with him. However, it did not provide further details about its sources. The publication of information obtained in this manner as a series of direct quotations from the complainant, without any steps being taken to verify them, constituted a serious failure take care over the accuracy of the article, and a breach of Clause 1 (i). The claim that the complainant was stopped by armed guards was the conjecture of the journalist. However, this was presented as a factual claim, and was not clearly distinguished from conjecture, in further breach of Clause 1 (i) and a breach of Clause 1 (iv). 

Attributing the disputed quotations to the complainant was significantly misleading, such as to require correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).  The principal subject of the article was the complainant’s difficulty in entering Chinese airspace; to claim that the complainant had been “halted by armed guards”, when in fact, he had simply been denied permission to enter Chinese airspace, significantly misrepresented the nature of the incident. This was a further significant inaccuracy. 

In this case the publication had offered to publish a correction which met the requirements of Clause 1 (ii), and the inaccuracies in this case were not personally damaging to the complainant.  However, the Committee was concerned by the severity of the breach of Clause 1 (i) in this instance, which represented a serious failure in the editorial process prior to publication. It considered that the publication of the offered correction would not be an appropriate remedy to this failure, and that the appropriate remedy was publication of this adjudication.  

Date complaint received : 25/10/2016

Date decision issued: 24/02/2017