Ruling

12132-20 Agius v Hull Daily Mail

    • Date complaint received

      8th April 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 9 Reporting of crime

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 12132-20 Agius v Hull Daily Mail

Summary of Complaint

1. Alix Agius complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Hull Daily Mail breached Clause 1 and Clause 9 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Thug bit an inch of man's finger 'clean off' in brawl at pub”, published on 7 January 2020.

2. The article reported on the sentencing of a man who had been convicted of grievous bodily harm and had subsequently been “jailed for 12 months.” The article reported that, on the day on which the crime was committed, the defendant “had drunk nine pints prior to the attack”; was “out with friends after drinking at Beverley Races”; and had also “been to visit his grandfather.” It also reported that, in court on the day the man was convicted, his mother “shouted out from the public gallery: “It wasn’t him, it was the big fat gypsy. It was the big fat gypsy.”” The article also said that the defendant’s barrister had said in court that the defendant was “on bail for another violent attack in June” at the time the crime was committed, and reported the presiding judge’s statement that the defendant was “on remand for these offences at the time of this offence.” The article described the incident, saying that the defendant had “launched a flying headbutt” at another man “who refused to buy him another pint of lager” before he “punch[ed] him to the floor.” The article also contained details of the defendant’s previous criminal record, which it said was “lengthy.” Both the headline and the article referred to the defendant as a “thug.”

3. The article was also published online in substantially the same form, under the headline “Inch of man's finger bitten 'clean off' in brawl found behind bar of Beverley pub.” The online version of the article was amended 5 hours after its initial publication to state that it was the convicted man’s grandmother, not his mother, who had shouted out from the gallery as the man was sentenced.

4. The complainant, the defendant who had been convicted of grievous bodily harm, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. The complainant was also complaining on behalf of his mother and grandmother.  He said that, while he had been sentenced to 12 months in prison, he had only served 11 days, and as such it was inaccurate to report that he had been “jailed for 12 months.” He went on to say that, on the day of the incident, he had been visiting his grandfather in hospital before visiting the pub where the incident took place. He had not drunk 9 pints prior to the incident, nor had he been to Beverly Races, and neither of these things had been heard in court in relation to him. The complainant said that it was actually the victim of the incident who had been to Beverly Races and drank 9 pints prior to the incident, and provided a witness statement from the victim which said this. He said that neither his mother nor his grandmother had shouted out from the public gallery as he was sentenced; his mother was not in the country on the day of his sentencing, and while his grandmother was present she had not shouted from the gallery. He also disputed that his barrister had said in court that he was on bail for a similar offence at the time of the incident, and that the judge had stated that he was on remand at the time of the offence. He said that he had not “launched a flying headbutt” at the victim; while he accepted he had headbutted him, he did not agree with the publication’s characterisation that it was a “flying headbutt”. He also said that he had not “punch[ed]” the other man “to the floor” after the man “refused to buy him another pint” and said that CCTV showed that the victim’s friend had actually overpowered him and that is why the pair fell to the floor, and that the other man had initiated the fight. While the complainant accepted that he had a prior criminal record, he did not agree that it was a lengthy one, as reported by the article. He also said that the article was inaccurate to describe him as a “thug”, and said that the term had not been used in court in relation to him.

5. The complainant also said that Clause 9 (Reporting of crime) had been breached, as he considered it identified his grandmother and his mother, both of whom had no connection to the crime for which he was convicted.

6. The publication said it did not accept that the Code had been breached. It said that it was satisfied that all information contained in the article was an accurate report of the court proceedings at which the complainant had been sentenced. The reporter had confirmed that everything in the article had been heard in court, although the newspaper was unable to provide any notes or documentary evidence to support the article’s claims, as the newspaper’s offices were closed and inaccessible due to Covid-19 restrictions. It went on to say that it did not believe that editorial staff would be able to return to the office until Spring 2021, and that it could not say with absolute certainty that the notes would still be in the office once staff returned.

7. The publication also said that, where the complainant accepted that he had been sentenced to 12 months in prison, it was not inaccurate for the article to report that he was “jailed for 12 months”, regardless of how much time he spent actually incarcerated. While the publication accepted that it had been heard in court that the complainant had been visiting his grandfather in hospital on the day of the incident, it said that it had been heard in court from the complainant’s defence barrister that the complainant “has a problem with drink”, and that the prosecutor had said that he had “spent the day at the races.” The publication did not accept that it had been inaccurate in stating that the complainant had consumed 9 pints on the day of the incident; it also did not consider that the alleged inaccuracy represented a significant inaccuracy in need of correction. It accepted that the complainant’s mother had in fact been out of the country at the time of the hearing, and it had subsequently amended the article to state that it was in fact the complainant’s grandmother who had shouted from the public gallery, after the complainant’s mother contacted the newspaper to make it aware that she had not been on the country on the day of the alleged incident. It said that the complainant’s grandmother had posted on social media that she had referred to the crime’s victim as a “gypsy” as she left the court; as such it was satisfied with the accuracy of the claim that she had shouted “It wasn’t him, it was the big fat gypsy. It was the big fat gypsy” from the public gallery. The publication said that the reporter had returned to the court the following day to confirm that this was indeed the case, and that a court clerk and court usher had both confirmed the accuracy of the claim, although it was unable to offer any documentation of this conversation.

8. The publication did not accept that either the complainant’s grandmother or mother were identified for the purposes of Clause 9 as they were not named or pictured. Nevertheless, it considered that the grandmother was relevant to the story, as she had attended court and had, according to the publication, shouted from the public gallery during the proceedings.

9. While the publication did not accept that the Code had been breached, it offered to remove any reference to the complainant having drunk 9 pints and having attended Beverly Races from the online version of the article, as a goodwill gesture, should that resolve his complaint.

10. The complainant said that the removal of two points of alleged inaccuracy would not be sufficient to address his concerns regarding the article, and expressed further concerns that the publication was unable to provide IPSO with journalist notes to support the article. While the complainant accepted that his grandmother had said to his partner, as she was leaving the court, that the victim was a “gypsy”, he said that she had not shouted from the gallery while sobbing, and had not said “It wasn’t him, it was the big fat gypsy. It was the big fat gypsy” at any point during the proceedings. The complainant agreed that a letter from his grandmother regarding his court case had been posted on social media, and did refer to his grandmother referring to the defendant as a “gypsy” to the complainant’s partner as they both left the courtroom – however the letter did not say that the grandmother shouted from the public gallery.

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.

Clause 9 (Reporting of crime)

i) Relatives or friends of persons convicted or accused of crime should not generally be identified without their consent, unless they are genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

11.  The complainant contested the accuracy of a number of statements reported in relation to the court proceedings. The first was that the complainant “drank nine pints” before the attack and had visited Beverley Races on the same day. This claim had, according to the complainant, been heard in court in relation to the victim and not the complainant, and the complainant was able to provide a witness statement which showed this. The newspaper was unable to provide any documentary evidence – such as journalist notes or court documents – to support this claim. The Committee also noted that the article appeared contradictory, where it reported both that the complainant had been at the races and visited his sick grandfather in hospital on the same day, and that it did not consider that a quote from the complainant’s barrister referring to “a problem with drink” was sufficient to support the article’s claim on this point. While the Committee noted the difficulties caused by changing work arrangements due to the Covid-19 pandemic, where the publication could not provide any evidence that care was taken over the accuracy of the claim that the complainant “drank nine pints” before the attack and had visited Beverley Races on the same day, the Committee found that Clause 1 (i) had been breached.

12. The article also included the claim that the complainant’s mother (amended in the online article 5 hours after publication to read grandmother) had shouted “It wasn’t him, it was the big fat gypsy. It was the big fat gypsy” from the court gallery while sobbing. While the publication had amended the online version of the article after being contacted by the complainant’s mother to make clear that she had not shouted from the public gallery during the proceedings, the publication had not been able to demonstrate its basis for stating that it was the complainant’s mother who had shouted from the public gallery. The Committee found that Clause 1 (i) had been breached on this point.

13. The claims that the that the complainant was on bail for another alleged offence at the time of the attack, and that the complainant was on remand for another offence at the time of the attack, had not been verified by the publication, by way of notes or previous reports referencing the crimes for which the complainant was allegedly on remand. The Committee also noted that the two claims were, on the face of it, contradictory – it is not possible to simultaneously be on bail and be on remand. The publication was unable to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of these claims, and there was breach of Clause 1 (i).

14. The article reported on a serious crime and the following court proceedings. The publication was not able to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of a report of court proceedings, and the Committee expressed concern that the publication had been unable to provide IPSO with any documentary evidence to support the claims made within the article. The alleged inaccuracies were significant, where the article reported on a serious crime, and so required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

15. The Committee turned to whether the actions of the publication had been sufficient to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). The publication had amended the online version of the article, 5 hours after publication and after being contacted by the complainant’s mother, to change the reference to the complainant’s mother shouting from the public gallery during court proceedings to the complainant’s grandmother. It had also offered, during the investigation, to remove all references in the online article to the complainant having drunk “9 pints” and visited Beverley Races prior to the incident. The Committee found that these actions did not represent corrective action as required by the terms of Clause 1 (ii), as neither course of action made clear what pieces of information had been removed or altered, or that the publication had taken action to correct them. Taking these points into account, the Committee found that there was a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

16. The Committee did not find that the amended article’s claim that the grandmother had “shouted out from the public gallery: “It wasn’t him, it was the big fat gypsy. It was the big fat gypsy”” raised a breach of Clause 1. While the Committee noted that the publication had been unable to provide evidence to support the amended article’s assertion that the grandmother had shouted from the public gallery, where it was not in dispute that she had referred to a “gypsy” during the proceedings and the publication said it had verified this with court staff, it was satisfied on balance that there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. Regarding the alleged inaccuracy that the complainant had been “jailed for 12 months”, the Committee found that the complainant’s concern on this point did not raise a breach of Clause, as it was not in dispute that the complainant had been sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, regardless of how much time the complainant actually spent incarcerated.

18. The Committee also did not find that any breach of Clause 1 arose from the article’s statement that the complainant had “launched a flying headbutt” during the incident. Neither party disputed that the complainant had headbutted another man during the incident, and the Committee did not find that describing the headbutt as a “flying headbutt” rendered the article significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted in breach of Clause 1.

19. The Committee also did not find that it was inaccurate to report the prosecution’s claim that the complainant had attempted to “punch [another man] to the floor”, where it was attributed to the prosecution barrister and therefore clearly distinguished from established fact. It also found that it was not inaccurate to report that the attack had been prompted after the other man “refused to buy him another pint”, where the complainant did not dispute that this had been heard in court. The Committee understood that the complainant disputed with the prosecution’s characterisation of what occurred during the incident, but the newspaper could not be held responsible for the accuracy of what was said in court; its responsibility was to ensure that it correctly reported what was said in court, and the complainant did not dispute that the prosecution barrister had made the statement reported in the article.

20. Turning to the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had inaccurately reported that he had a “lengthy record”, the Committee found that Clause 1 had not been breached by this alleged inaccuracy. It noted that the use of the term “lengthy” was to an extent subjective, and that the newspaper had made clear exactly how many previous convictions the complainant had and what it was basing its characterisation on, and as such the article was not inaccurate on this point.

21. The Committee also found that the article’s characterisation of the complainant as a “thug” did not breach Clause 1; while the Committee noted the complainant’s upset with the use of the term, it noted again that the term was subjective, and that the publication was not prohibited under the terms of Clause 1 from making such a characterisation, where its basis was clearly set out in the article.

22. Clause 9 protects family and friends of those convicted of or accused of crime from undue association with the crime being reported.  While the Committee noted that the article had caused the complainant’s mother and grandmother substantial embarrassment, it did not consider that the article identified either individual, as neither were named nor pictured.

Conclusions

23. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (ii).

Remedial Action Required

24. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, 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 an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

25. The Committee found that the publication was unable to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of the article, as required by Clause 1(i). This article included a number of alleged inaccuracies, several of which were significant given that the article reported on court proceedings. The Committee noted the importance of accurately reporting on court proceedings, particularly when the proceedings in question are the outcome of a serious and indictable offence, as was the case with the article under complaint. However, the Committee also noted the undoubted impact the Covid-19 pandemic and work-from-home government directives had had on the newspaper’s normal processes. In addition, the alleged inaccuracies, while significant enough to warrant correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii), did not render the substance of the article inaccurate nor misleading; the article accurately reported what offence the complainant had been found guilty of, and the sentence received. Taking all factors into consideration, the Committee concluded that a correction was an appropriate remedy to the breach of Clause 1. The correction should make clear that the complainant disputed the accuracy of the alleged significant inaccuracies, and that the publication was unable to prove that the statements were accurate.

26. This correction should be added to the online article and should also appear in the print version of the newspaper. As the original print article appeared on page 22 of the newspaper, the correction should appear on page 22 or further forward. The wording should also be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. If the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without further amendment, the correction on the article should be published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, the correction should be published as a footnote which explains the amendments that have been made.

 

Date complaint received:  28/07/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 16/03/2021