Ruling

11065-21 Keenan v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      12th May 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11065-21 Keenan v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. Richard Keenan complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Black actress 'airbrushed' from Dune posters”, published on 27 October 2021.

2. The article reported that the image of a black British actress was omitted from a poster promoting a US made film in China, noting that “adverts for the science-fiction epic [...] contain scant evidence” of the actress. It said that “the removal of the actress”, who had featured prominently in the original US poster, was highlighted by the China Africa Project, an organisation dedicated to exploring China’s engagement with Africa, and quoted the organisation as saying she had been “airbrushed out”. The article noted the “absence of the actress” drew to mind previous examples where Hollywood studios had drawn criticism for appearing to censor film in order “to appease Beijing and gain access to the country’s lucrative market”.  The article reported that “Chinese state media claimed that the allegation of [the actress’s] removal was an attempted ‘smear’ by its enemies”, noting that the producers of the film and the actress herself were yet to comment on the story. The article included an image of the poster, alongside a separate image of the actress, with the caption: “[named actress] is omitted in Chinese posters”.

3. The article also appeared online under the headline “Hollywood ‘removes black actress’ from Dune poster in China”, with the text of the article stating that “according to reports, she has been removed for the promotion in the film in China.” It said the removal was “first highlighted by” the China Africa Project.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). The actress had not been removed, or “airbrushed”, from the promotional poster in China. He said that this story had been fabricated and could provoke anti-Chinese sentiment.

5. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It said readers would have understood that it was reporting a claim, rather than making a statement of fact. It noted that the use of single quotation marks in the headline of both the print and online articles indicated the status of the allegations made by the China Africa Project – a point supported by the text of both versions of the article. It added that both made clear that the Chinese state media had dismissed the allegations as a “smear”.

6. Notwithstanding this, upon receipt of the complaint, the newspaper had contacted the China Africa Project who accepted that the allegation was inaccurate and therefore withdrew it. Accordingly, the newspaper removed the online article and published the following wording in its established Corrections and Clarifications column in print and online:

“We reported an allegation from the China Africa Project that [a named] black British actress, had been removed from a poster promoting the film Dune in China (World, Oct 27). The China Africa Project has withdrawn the allegation, which was false. Multiple posters, not all of which portrayed Duncan-Brewster, were used to promote the film in both Chinese and English-language markets. We are happy to make this clear”.

7. The complainant did not consider that the steps taken by the newspaper were sufficient.

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 newspaper had relied on a claim which had been made by the China Africa Project. It acknowledged that it had subsequently proven to be untrue and that it had been withdrawn by the organisation. Nonetheless, it considered that the article had not breached the Code because it had taken care to present the claim only as an allegation which had been made by the China Africa Project. While the Committee acknowledged the publication’s position, having reviewed the article in detail, it concluded that the article, taken as a whole, had presented the claim as fact.

9. In support of its position, the publication had cited the use of quotation marks around “airbrushed” in the headline and the inclusion of the response of the Chinese state media. The Committee recognised that quotations marks may be used in headlines for a variety of reasons, including to indicate that the article is reporting a claim which has been made by a third party. In this instance, however, it did not consider that the headline – taken on its own or in conjunction with the article – made sufficiently clear that the article was reporting a claim which had been made by the China Africa Project, rather than being a factual report. The response of the Chinese state media which had been included – that it was an attempted “smear” – did not adequately indicate that the article was reporting a claim when the article was considered as a whole. The text of the article reported that there was “scant evidence” of the actress in adverts for the film in China; that the removal of the actress from the poster had been “highlighted” by the China Africa Project; that “the absence of the actress” brought to mind a previous occasion when the prominence of a black actor had been reduced in promotional material; and the caption of the image stated unequivocally that “[the actress] is omitted in Chinese posters”. By reporting the matter in this way, without taking further steps to verify the accuracy of the report, the publication had not taken care over the accuracy of the article and had breached Clause 1 (i).

10. In the context of an article about censorship and in circumstances where the claims made featured prominently and formed the central basis of the article, this inaccuracy was significant and in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii), a correction was required.

11. In contrast to the print article, the online version of the article had, in the view of the Committee, accurately presented the claims made by the China Africa Project as allegations; the headline used quotation remarks around the full phrase “removes black actress”, indicating more clearly that this was a claim, and the text of the article stated prominently that “according to reports” the actress had been removed from the poster. As such, there was no failure to take care in relation to the presentation of these claims. Nonetheless, in circumstances where it was accepted that these allegations were inaccurate, and where this was significant for the reasons outlined above, a correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). 

12. The Committee next considered whether the remedial action taken by the newspaper was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii). Upon receipt of the complaint, and receiving confirmation that the allegations had been withdrawn by the organisation, the newspaper had removed the online article and published a correction, in print and online. This correction made clear the inaccuracy and the true position. It was published promptly, once the publication was aware of the inaccuracy, and its location, the publication’s established Corrections & Clarifications column, was sufficiently prominent. This correction was therefore sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii).  There was no further breach of Clause 1 (ii). 

Conclusion(s)

13. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

14. The published correction put the correct position on record and was offered promptly and with due prominence. No further action was required.


Date complaint received: 28/10/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 22/04/2022


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.