Ruling

10382-22 Mitchell v The Sentinel

    • Date complaint received

      29th September 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 10382-22 Mitchell v The Sentinel

Summary of Complaint

1. Sharon Mitchell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sentinel breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “‘What do you want, a few hundred quid?’”, published on 6 July 2022.

2. The headline was followed by the sub-heading: “What drink-driver said to neighbour after crashing into his car”. The article reported that the complainant “pleaded guilty to drink driving”. It said the complainant had “crashed into a parked car before going into her home and drinking more booze”. It said that “police attended and the [complainant] said she “had consumed some alcohol since driving”, it then stated that she was “taken to custody where she was breathalysed and gave a reading of 108 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath, against the legal limit of 35”. The article included comments made by the Prosecutor, relaying the neighbour’s recollection of the incident: “[the complainant] was slurring her words and struggling to walk. He formed the opinion she was definitely under the influence of alcohol.” It also included comments made in mitigation during proceedings: while the complainant accepted driving the vehicle, she maintained that she “had consumed alcohol after the incident”; “the police recovered a bottle of consumed alcohol from her house. She cannot properly recall how much alcohol she had consumed”. The article reported that taking “into account [the complainant’s] remorse and guilty plea”, the court handed the complainant a “12-month community order and a 40-month driving ban” and ordered her to “complete 135 hours’ unpaid work” and to pay “£400 costs and a £95 surcharge”.

3. The article also appeared online under the headline “Drink-driver slurs words after hitting neighbour's car”, with the text of the article stating that the complainant “was breathalysed and provided a positive roadside breath test.”

4.  The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). She said the article was inaccurate to describe her as a “drink-driver” and to report that she had crashed the vehicle before “going into her home and drinking more booze”; she had only consumed alcohol after the incident.

5. She also denied that she had given a “positive roadside breath test”; rather, she was breathalysed in police custody and three hours after refusing to provide a sample to officers at her home.

6. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It denied that it was inaccurate to describe the complainant as a “drink driver” or to report that she had consumed alcohol before driving; the complainant had pleaded guilty to drink driving offences and been handed a 40-month driving ban, which would be reduced by 40 weeks should the complainant complete a drink-drinking rehabilitation course. Further, while the complainant denied drinking before the incident, the witness said she was “slurring”, “struggling to walk” and “definitely under the influence of alcohol” before she went into her home; the text of the article made clear the respective position of both parties.

7. With regards to the online version of the article, the newspaper also provided a copy of the reporter’s contemporaneous notes to demonstrate that a “roadside test” had been referred to during court proceedings. These notes stated: “Officers requested a roadside breath sample. She refused and was arrested for failing to provide a specimen and taken to custody. She provided two specimens of breath for analysis and the reading was 108 in breath”. Though the newspaper acknowledged that “roadside test” may have been a general description of the test rather than a reference to its specific location, it did not consider that this rendered the online article inaccurate, or represented a significant inaccuracy requiring correction.

8. Notwithstanding this, upon receipt of the complaint, the publication amended the online article to report that police officers had attended her home, and “requested a roadside breath sample but [the complainant] refused”, adding that “[S]he was arrested for failing to provide a specimen and taken to custody”. It also published the following wording a footnote correction on 8 July:

Correction: A previous version of this article reported that the defendant provided a positive roadside breath sample. In fact, she refused to provide a sample of breath at the roadside and was breathalysed in custody. We are happy to clarify this.

9. The complainant said that the correction and amended article were inaccurate: she had not refused a “sample of breath at the roadside”.

10. The publication then offered, at the start of IPSO’s investigation, on 25 July, to amend the article further to address this point and to publish an updated correction:

“Correction: A previous version of this article reported that the defendant provided a positive roadside breath sample. In fact, she refused to provide a sample when first asked by police and was later breathalysed in custody. We are happy to clarify this”.

11. The complainant however did not consider that this further offer was sufficient. As such, 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

12. The newspaper’s obligation was to report court proceedings accurately. The Committee acknowledged the publication’s position that a “roadside breath test” may have been a general description of a preliminary breath alcohol test, rather than a specific reference to the location in which it was obtained, and may have been how the test itself was described in court, as shown in the reporter’s notes. However, the article reported that the complainant had “provided a positive roadside breath test”. Instead, the complainant had refused to provide a breath sample to police officers at her home address and was later breathalysed in custody. While there was no dispute that the complainant had tested over the legal limit at the police station, and the article had explained the chain of events including that the complainant had been drinking at home after the accident and prior to the breath test, the reporter’s notes did not support the statement that she had provided a “positive roadside breath test”. As such, the Committee considered that the publication had taken insufficient care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, in breach of Clause 1 (i). This was significant, where it related to the location and chronology of the incident which resulted in the complainant’s arrest, and as such required correction under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code.

13. The Committee next considered whether the remedial action taken by the publication was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii). Following direct correspondence with the complainant, the online article had been amended. These amendments had been made promptly, with a footnote correction appended to the article recording the changes made. However, the Committee did not consider that this properly corrected the original inaccuracy. Instead, it reported that the complainant had “refused to provide a sample of breath at the roadside” when she had refused to provide a sample to police officers at her home address. Notwithstanding this, at the beginning of IPSO’s investigation, the publication offered to publish a further, updated footnote correction. The wording of this second correction identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record. It was offered promptly and with due prominence, especially given the earlier amendment of the online article. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

14. The complainant had pleaded guilty to drinking driving and been handed a 40-month driving ban by the court; it was not inaccurate or misleading for the publication to characterise her as a “drink driver”. Further, while the complainant denied drinking before the incident, the witness alleged that she was “slurring”, “struggling to walk” and “definitely under the influence of alcohol”. This observation was clearly attributed to the witness, with the article also setting out the complainant’s denial of this. In these circumstances, the article was not inaccurate or misleading in the way the complainant suggested. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

Conclusion(s)

15. The complaint was upheld in part.

Remedial Action Required

16. The correction which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.


Date complaint received: 06/07/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/09/2022