Ruling

12118-20 Wadeson v oxfordmail.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      22nd February 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 12118-20 Wadeson v oxfordmail.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. John Wadeson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that oxfordmail.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in a reader comment published in response to an article headlined “Hundreds of the 'most dangerous' guns owned in Thames Valley”, published on 26 July 2020.

2. The comment, which was posted by an anonymous website user in response to the article, stated that knives should be banned in the UK, “[e]specially 'dangerous knives', like the one used by the refugee BLM [Black Lives Matter] supporter, who murdered three and injured three more members of the LGBT community, in a Reading park last month following a BLM rally.” The commenter was referring to the stabbings which occurred in Forbury Gardens in Reading on 20 June 2020.

3. The regulation of reader comments on a publication’s website falls within IPSO’s remit when there is a possible breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice, and where it can be shown that the comment has been subject to some level of editorial control either through pre- or post-moderation. The complainant said that the comment fell within IPSO’s remit as he had reported the comment to the publication three times, first by using the website’s comment reporting function, and then via a Facebook message and an email to the editor. The complainant made these three reports within one day of the comment being published, but had received no response from the publication.

4. On 17 August 2020 IPSO referred the complaint to the newspaper as a potential breach of the Editors’ Code. The newspaper did not respond to the complainant during the referral period and IPSO notified the publication of its intention to open an investigation on 29 September 2020. That day the publication removed the comment and banned the commenter, and wrote to IPSO to inform it of this.

5. The newspaper said that the comment did not fall within IPSO’s remit, as it had not been aware of the comment under complaint until 29 September, at which time it removed the comment and banned the commenter. It said that it did not pre-moderate comments, as it did not have the staff capacity to do so and that, on this occasion, the comment had slipped through the net and had not been dealt with as promptly as it usually would have, due to staffing pressures brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. As such, it did not post-moderate the comment until 29 September.

6. The complainant said that the comment was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1: the Police had released a statement making clear that the stabbing was not related to the BLM rally which had occurred in the same park earlier that day, and there was no indication that either the attacker or the incident was linked to the BLM movement or organisation.

7. The publication denied a breach of Clause 1 in relation to the comment. It said that the comment was clearly identified as being the view of a reader; there was no suggestion that it had been posted by the publication, or that the publication endorsed the views expressed in the comment. In addition, the website’s terms and conditions made clear that commenters, and not the publication, were responsible for the content they posted. Website users would, therefore, be aware that the comment was the opinion of the commenter, and not necessarily a verified statement of fact. The publication also expressed concern about the effect that printing a correction may have on the right to freedom of expression, both for the newspaper and the commenter. It said that, should an individual disagree with the comment, they could choose to exercise their own right to freedom of expression and reply to the comment, setting out their own views. The publication also said that it did not consider the comment under complaint to be inaccurate; while it noted that Police had released a statement which said that the stabbings were not linked to BLM, it did not agree that the police were in a position to make a statement of fact regarding the attacker’s motivations and political affiliations, and that neither the original commenter, the complainant, nor the Police could say for certain whether the attacker was a “BLM supporter” until the matter was discussed and adjudicated by the courts.

8. The publication said that it had not been aware of the comment due to staffing issues brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, and said that once it became aware of the comment on 29 September 2020, it had removed it and banned the user, and considered that this action was sufficient to resolve any concerns the complainant may have had regarding the comment’s accuracy.

9. The complainant said that the publication had been made aware of the comment through numerous channels from his first contact on 27 July but had not taken any action until 29 September. The complainant noted that the publication had the ability to disable comments should it wish and had previously done so. He considered that, if it was unable to effectively post-moderate comments it should remove the comment function from its website. The complainant said that he had been left unable to respond directly to the disputed comment, as sometime after making his complaint to IPSO he had been blocked from commenting on the website. He also expressed concern that the publication would discount a statement made by the Police, in which they stated that there was no link between the stabbings and the BLM movement.

10. The complainant said that only a full retraction of the comment would be sufficient to address his concerns, given that it had remained online for two months after he made his initial complaint to the newspaper.

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.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

11. The Committee first considered whether the comment under complaint fell within IPSO’s remit. IPSO’s regulations make clear that content on websites operated by regulated publications falls within IPSO’s remit if it has been subject to editorial control. In the case of user-generated content (such as comments), this generally means that there has been some form of review or moderation on the part of the publication, which includes a decision to continue to publish material that is the subject of a complaint under the Editors’ Code.

12. The complainant had attempted to make the publication aware of his concerns regarding the comment under complaint in three different ways: he used the comment reporting system on the website to flag the comment; sent the publication a direct message via its social media page; and emailed the editor. The complainant’s concerns clearly related to the Editors’ Code: the accuracy of the claim made by the commenter. IPSO had also made the publication aware of the complainant’s concerns via an email sent on 17 August, which included a copy of the complainant’s complaint identifying an alleged breach of the Editors’ Code. The publication acknowledged receipt of this email on 20 August. Nevertheless, the comment remained online until 29 September, over two months after its initial publication on 26 July, and over a month after IPSO had made the publication aware of the complainant’s concerns. As such, the Committee found that, by late August at the latest, the publication had received adequate notice the comment under complaint raised a potential breach of the Editors’ Code, and it was given the opportunity to post-moderate the comment. As such, from this point the Committee considered the comment to be subject to editorial control and therefore the complaint fell within IPSO’s remit.

13. As the Committee was satisfied that the comment fell within IPSO’s remit, it turned next to the alleged breach of Clause 1. The complainant had supplied a copy of a police press release stating that the stabbing had no connection to the protest, which the publication had not disputed. While the comment itself was clearly distinguished as a reader comment – it appeared underneath the article in the reader comments section, and was attributed to a commenter – the alleged inaccuracy, that the Forbury Park stabbing was committed by a “refugee BLM supporter”, was a statement of fact and not presented as the opinion of the commenter. This meant that the protection afforded by Clause 1 (iv) – which makes clear that publications may publish comment and conjecture, provided it is clearly distinguished from fact – did not apply.

14. This complaint raised the issue of how the Committee applies the terms of Clause 1(i) - which requires that the Press take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information - to user-generated content. Given that the comment was not pre-moderated, the requirement for the publication to take care did not begin from the date of first publication. Rather, the Committee found that the requirement to take care over the accuracy of a reader comment began from when the publication was made aware of the alleged breach and was given the opportunity to post-moderate the comment. As noted above, the complainant had contacted the publication within a day of the publication of the article and the publication had acknowledged receipt of the email from IPSO making it aware of the alleged breach of Clause 1 on 20 August. The requirement to take care over the continued publication of the comment therefore arose, at the latest, from 20 August. As the comment remained online for a month after this point without the publication reviewing the comment, the Committee found that the publication had not taken care over the accuracy of the published information. As such, the Committee found that publication of the comment breached Clause 1 (i).

15. Having found a breach of Clause 1 (i), the Committee then considered whether the statement represented a significant inaccuracy in need of correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii), and whether the steps the publication had already taken were sufficient to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). The inaccuracy related to a serious crime which led to the death of 3 individuals, and the attribution of a motive to the perpetrator of the crime. It was an event which had an impact not only locally, but nationwide. By linking the crime to BLM when police had made an explicit statement to the contrary, the Committee found that the breach represented a significant inaccuracy, and as such was in need of correction as required by the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

16. Clause 1 (ii) requires that a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement, or distorted information must be corrected promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published.  The Committee noted that the requirement to correct can be satisfied in different ways, depending on the nature of the material under complaint; in a case where the inaccuracy has appeared in user-generated content, it may not be appropriate or proportionate to publish, for example, a correction in a traditional corrections column.

17. The publication had, over two months after the publication of the comment, removed it and banned the user. The publication also removed all comments on the article.  The Committee agreed that user comments which are found to be inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 may be corrected other than by the publication of a traditional correction.  However, the Committee found that the action taken by the publication did not satisfy the requirements of Clause 1 (ii); the inaccuracy had not been corrected as readers were not informed of the reasons why the comment had been removed. Clause 1 (ii) also requires that any inaccuracy is corrected promptly, and the Committee did not find that the removal of the comment, over a month after the publication had been made aware of the potential breach of the Editors’ Code, represented prompt action. As such, the Committee ruled that Clause 1 (ii) had been breached.

Conclusions

18. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

19. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication, the nature, extent ,and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

20. On receipt of the complaint the publication had not taken steps to fulfil its obligation under Clause 1 (i) to take care not to publish inaccurate information; nor had it corrected the significant inaccuracy. The Committee also expressed concern that the publication did not appear to be aware of the role IPSO plays in ruling and adjudicating on potential breaches of the Editors’ Code of Practice arising from user-generated content such as reader comments. Given the circumstances, the Committee concluded that the publication of an adjudication would be an appropriate remedy to the breaches it had identified.

21. The Committee considered the placement of this adjudication. The original comment was posted in response to the online article headlined “Hundreds of the 'most dangerous' guns owned in Thames Valley.” The Committee therefore required that the adjudication and adjudication headline should be posted underneath the original article. The adjudication should appear as its own separate article. This would be required to appear on the top half of publication website’s home page for at least 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. The headline of the adjudication should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, give the title of the publication and refer to the complaint’s subject matter. The headline must be agreed with IPSO in advance. A link to the adjudication, along with the headline of the adjudication, should also be posted beneath the original article.

22. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:

Following a comment posted in response to an article headlined “Hundreds of the 'most dangerous' guns owned in Thames Valley”, published on 26 July 2020, John Wadeson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the publication had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO upheld this complaint and has required oxfordmail.co.uk to publish this decision as a remedy to the breach.

The comment, which was posted by an anonymous website user in response to the article, stated that knives should be banned in the UK, “[e]specially 'dangerous knives', like the one used by the refugee BLM [Black Lives Matter] supporter, who murdered three and injured three more members of the LGBT community, in a Reading park last month following a BLM rally.” The commenter was referring to the stabbings which occurred in Forbury Gardens in Reading on 20 June 2020.

The complainant said that the comment was inaccurate as the police had released a statement making clear that the stabbing was not related to the BLM rally which had occurred in the same park earlier that day, and there was no indication that either the attacker or the incident was linked to the BLM movement or organisation.

The publication said that the comment was clearly distinguished as a reader comment; there was no suggestion that it had been posted by the publication, or that the publication endorsed the views expressed in the comment. Website users would, therefore, be aware that the comment was the opinion of the commenter, and not necessarily a verified statement of fact. The publication also said that it did not consider the comment under complaint to be inaccurate; while it noted that Police had released a statement which said that the stabbings were not linked to BLM, it did not agree that the police were in a position to make a statement of fact regarding the attacker’s motivations and political affiliations, and that neither the original commenter, the complainant, nor the Police could say for certain whether the attacker was a “BLM supporter” until the matter was discussed and adjudicated by the courts.

While the publication did not accept that the Code had been breached, it removed the comment under complaint, banned the user, and turned off the comments function on the article. It took these actions two months after the comment’s publication, and one month after IPSO made the publication aware that the complainant had complained about the comment.

IPSO found that the publication had not taken care over the accuracy of the comment, although it had been given sufficient notice that the comment may raise a possible breach of Clause 1. The police had released a statement which made clear that the stabbing had no connection to the BLM movement or organisation, and the publication had supplied no evidence which refuted the police’s statement. As the comment remained online for a month after the latest point where the publication should have been aware of its existence – after IPSO contacted it to inform it that the comment may breach Clause 1 - the Committee found that the publication had not taken care over the accuracy of the published information. The inaccuracy related to a serious crime which led to the death of 3 individuals, and the attribution of a motive to the perpetrator of the crime. It was an event which had an impact not only locally, but nationwide. By linking the crime to BLM when police had had made an explicit statement to the contrary, the Committee found that the breach represented a significant inaccuracy. In addition, the removal of the comment under complaint and the banning of the user did not represent a correction of the significantly inaccurate information.

IPSO found that the publication failed to take care of the accuracy of a reader comment after it was brought to its attention that the comment may be inaccurate. For this reason, the publication breached Clause 1.

 

Date complaint received: 27/07/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 05/02/2021