Ruling

14506-23 Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School v lancashiretelegraph.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      20th July 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 14506-23 Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School v lancashiretelegraph.co.uk


Summary of Complaint

1. Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that lancashiretelegraph.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “QEGS Blackburn pupil 'in hospital after classmate attack'”, published on 26 January 2023.

2. The article – which appeared online only – reported on an incident which took place at a primary school. The article reported that “according to a parent of a child at the school, [a] pupil was ‘beaten around the head’ by a classmate with a metal water bottle, and as a result was taken to hospital for treatment”. It said that “it is believed the incident happened yesterday - Wednesday, January 25 - with pupils in the class reportedly being told to stay at home today.”

3. It went on to report that “’children who were around at the time saw blood everywhere and lots of screaming,’ said the parent, who asked not to be named” and “students in the class where the attack took place have been sent home ‘for their own safety’, she added.” The article further reported “a spokesperson for QEGS said: ‘All school matters are dealt with as appropriate in accordance with the established, clear and robust procedures and policies.’”

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 – it said that it had given a misleading, distorted, and sensationalised account of the incident described in the article. Firstly, it said that describing a pupil as having been “beaten around the head” was inaccurate. The correct position was that, following a verbal altercation, a child had punched another in the mouth while holding a drinking bottle in the same hand.

5. It further said it was inaccurate to say students in the class had been sent home for their safety. It explained that the only children who had left the school premises after the incident were the two children involved.

6. The complainant speculated that the article had been based on a Facebook post. It said the post in question was a second-hand account of events told from the perspective of a parent of a 10-year-old. The complainant further believed that the headline of the article was ‘clickbait’, and that the article was causing hostility and anxiety amongst parents.

7. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It said that the article was not based on a Facebook post; rather, the publication had been contacted anonymously via its website regarding the incident. It said a reporter had contacted the person who got in touch to find out more details, however the contact did not respond to their email. The publication further provided a copy of the journalist’s email which was sent on 26 January – the date of the article’s publication.

8. During IPSO’s investigation the publication supplied a screenshot of the original anonymous submission which it had been sent on 26 January. The submission said:

“A primary school pupil at QEGS Primary was beaten around the head by another pupil with a metal water bottle resulting in the child being admitted to hospital. […] Children who were around at the time saw blood everywhere and lots screaming. Children in the class have been kept off today for their own safety.”

9. Following this submission, the publication said it had attempted to verify this information with the school. The publication provided the email it had sent to the school on 26 January at 10:47am, which had asked for a response by 3pm the same day. The email put the following allegations to the school:

“Someone has sent in information about a primary school pupil at QEGS who was beaten around the head by another pupil with a metal water bottle and as a result, admitted to hospital, today.

[…]

Please can someone provide a statement on this for a story I am writing today? How badly injured was the pupil? What action is being taken to prevent further incidents like this from happening and how are staff going to ensure their students are protected from harm? What is your policy for dealing with assault?”

10. The publication said it had given the school an opportunity to provide a comprehensive statement and to set the record straight on the incident, which could have addressed any alleged inaccuracies in what was reported to the publication. However, it said the school had sent back one line, which was: “All school matters are dealt with as appropriate in accordance with the established, clear and robust procedures and policies.” The publication said the school had not challenged any element of the incident or offered an alternative version of events, despite having ample opportunity to do so.

11. The publication argued that all claims and descriptions of the incident within the article under complaint were in speech marks or reported as speech. Therefore, it said that the article clearly distinguished between comment and fact. It said that the school’s failure to provide any explanation of what actually happened in the incident meant there was nothing to suggest that the anonymous tip was inaccurate.

12. The publication said it was fair to characterise the incident as a child being “beaten around the head”. It said that if someone is hit on the head with a bottle by another person, it was accurate to state they had been beaten around the head.

13. Further, the publication said it had been told that students had been instructed to stay at home and therefore this was not inaccurate.

14. The publication disagreed that the reporting was irresponsible and sensationalist. In regards to the headline, the publication said it was simply a description of what the publication was told had happened.

15. The complainant said that in any incident of such a nature, the school would always respond in the way that it did. It said it had clear and robust procedures that it follows with all similar incidents, and that it had a responsibility to all its pupils and their parents and carers, and would never engage in a public debate on such matters given the age of the children.

16. The complainant requested the publication write it an apology acknowledging that the article was inaccurate and accepting the school’s position.

17. The publication did not consider this to be an appropriate course of action.

Relevant Clause 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

18. The Committee noted that the article was based on a single source. There is no stand-alone requirement for a story to come from multiple sources – provided care is taken over the accuracy of published information, and comment is distinguished from fact.  The Committee then turned to the specific alleged inaccuracies within the article.

19. In regards to the claim that “students in the class where the attack took place have been sent home ‘for their own safety’” and “it is believed the incident happened yesterday - Wednesday, January 25 - with pupils in the class reportedly being told to stay at home today”, the Committee noted that this claim had also been attributed to “a parent” - whose account the publication had received via a submission to its website. However, this specific claim had not been presented to the complainant for its comments in the email the reporter had initially sent the complainant. Notwithstanding the fact that the claim was attributed to “a parent” in the article, this claim contained a statement of fact regarding the school’s response to an incident of pupil safety which the complainant said was inaccurate. Given that this allegation had not been put to the school prior to publication and was based on an anonymous website submission from a single, unverified source – which had not responded to requests for further information the Committee considered that there was a failure to take care over the accuracy of this claim, and as such, there was a breach of Clause 1(i) on this point.

20. The allegation concerned the school’s response to a matter of its pupils’ safety and wellbeing, and the publication had not been able to provide any information to support its veracity. The inaccuracy was therefore significant and required correction under Clause 1(ii).  Therefore, in line with Clause 1 (ii) a correction was required to promptly and prominently put the correct position on record. As no correction had been offered, this represented a further breach of Clause 1(ii).

21. The article had stated that “according to a parent of a child at the school, [a] pupil was ‘beaten around the head’ by a classmate with a metal water bottle, and as a result was taken to hospital for treatment”. The publication had contacted the school and had given it the opportunity to set the record straight. In this instance, while the Committee could not be certain that this claim was made by a “parent”, where both the publication and complainant appeared to accept that a water bottle had made contact with a child’s head during a physical argument between two children, and where the article had attributed this comment to a member of the public, the Committee did not consider this characterisation of the incident to be significantly inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

22. The complainant believed the article was clickbait, sensationalist and had led to anxiety amongst parents at the school. Clause 1 requires publications to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, and to correct significantly inaccurate, misleading or distorted information; it does not relate to other concerns about the presentation of material, such as that it is sensationalist or clickbait. For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

23. The Committee considered the headline and noted that it was not in dispute that the child who was attacked attended hospital. The article further set out the basis for this by making clear the claims were based on the account of an anonymous parent. For this reason, the headline was not misleading, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

24. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

25. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1(i) and Clause 1 (ii), 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 terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

26. The article had published an unsubstantiated claim about pupils being told to stay at home for their own safety following an incident which had not been put to the complainant for its comment prior to publication. However, the Committee was mindful that the breach of Clause 1 arose from a single line which appeared in the body of the article. Taking these factors into account, the Committee considered a correction to be the appropriate remedy to this breach, making clear the school disputed this version of events.

27. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. If the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without 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.

28. The wording should 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.

 

Date complaint received:  01/02/2023 

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  28/06/2023