Ruling

17284-23 MacMillan v spectator.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      27th July 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 17284-23 MacMillan v spectator.co.uk


Summary of complaint

1. Alasdair MacMillan complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that spectator.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Cyclists have been given a licence to ride on the pavement”, published on spectator.co.uk on 6 March 2023.

2. The article was an opinion piece which set out the writer’s concerns that a precedent would be set by the manslaughter conviction of a woman whose actions had caused a cyclist to come off the pavement into a fatal collision with a car. The writer said that the police had “refuse[d] to release the whole CCTV of the incident [which] does little to dispel speculation” about what had happened, before going on to state that “because English law proceeds by precedent, […] the verdict in this case risks giving carte blanche to pavement cyclists”.

3. The writer then said that "there seems to have been some dispute in this case about whether the pavement [where the incident occurred] was a ‘shared space’” and that "any right of pedestrians to walk unhindered in the only space still reserved for them goes by the board.” The article said that, because of the ruling, “cyclists will doubtless be even more convinced that the law is on their side”. In the final paragraph, the article stated, “the certainty of the police, and the decisiveness of the jury verdict – though their deliberations will have been at the judge’s direction – point to this having been a straightforward case of right against wrong”.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 due to the way the legal judgment had been portrayed in the article. This included the headline, which stated that “cyclists have been given a licence to ride on the pavement”; the complainant said this was not hinted at in the Judge’s sentencing remarks, which he provided to IPSO. He also disputed that “the verdict in this case risks giving carte blanche to pavement cyclists” and said no such precedent had been established. He also disputed the author’s comment that "any right of pedestrians to walk unhindered in the only space still reserved for them goes by the board,” as he said the rules for pedestrians were unchanged by the ruling.

5. The complainant also said it was not accurate to report “there seems to have been some dispute in this case about whether the pavement was a ‘shared space’”. He said there had been a clear statement from the judge in his sentencing remarks on this matter: “this was, I think, a shared path for cyclists and pedestrians that allowed them to go around the busy ring road. The vital point is this: I am sure you knew cyclists used that path and you were not taken by surprise or in fear for your safety.”

6. The complainant also disputed two more of the author’s claims, saying they were not supported with evidence: that “cyclists will doubtless be even more convinced that the law is on their side”; and “nor is it hard to deduce that the reason the police made their plea against ‘ill-informed comment’ was that the manslaughter verdict, and especially the prison sentence, have drawn a great deal of attention, much of it in the social media and much of it highly critical.”

7. The complainant also said the article was in breach of Clause 1 because he said it was not accurate to report the police “refused to release the whole CCTV of the incident” and that report the jury’s “deliberations will have been at the judge’s direction”. He said the CCTV footage had been released but did not show the death of the victim, and that the latter statement inaccurately implied the jury had been coerced.

8. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code, and first noted that the article was a comment piece based on the writer’s personal experiences and fears as a driver and pedestrian, and that any alleged breach of the Code must be considered with this context in mind. It also said that the complainant’s concerns that the article’s claims were not supported by evidence did not engage the terms of the Code.

9. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1 on the question of whether the pavement was a “shared space”. It firstly noted the article had not categorically stated as fact that there was a dispute, but rather couched this in qualifying language, noting “there seems to have been” “some” dispute. In any case, it pointed out that the judge himself, in his sentencing remarks, said that he thought it was a shared space when outlining his judgement. The publication also provided some contemporaneous news sources to support its position that there was some dispute over this: one news source had stated, “the trial was told that police could not ‘categorically’ state whether the pavement was a shared cycleway but in his sentencing remarks [the judge] said it was”. It also stated the relevant local authority had said it cannot categorically state if it was a shared-use path and will review the site to determine whether this pavement is shared use.

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

10. The Committee appreciated the complainant felt strongly about the issues at hand. However, publications are entitled to publish what they see fit, provided the Editors’ Code is not otherwise breached. While a polemic comment piece about a controversial issue might cause offence or disagreement, this does not, in itself, demonstrate that the Code has been breached.

11. The Committee first considered the complainant’s concern that the article breached Clause 1 by speculating on potential consequences of the ruling. It considered that the complainant’s concerns on this point were essentially that he disagreed with the predictions made by the writer as to what the ruling would mean for cycling in the future. It noted that English law does operate on precedent - where previous cases set the basis on which new cases with similar issues are decided - so it was not significantly inaccurate, distorted, nor misleading for the author to theorise that the verdict might have an impact in the future. The Committee found that where the claims were clearly predictions rather than claims of fact, such as: “cyclists have been given a licence to ride on the pavement”; "any right of pedestrians to walk unhindered in the only space still reserved for them goes by the board” and “the verdict in this case risks giving carte blanche to pavement cyclists”. The article correctly distinguished between fact (the outcome of the case), comment (the writer’s view on the case) and conjecture (the writer’s speculation as to how the case might be interpreted in the future) in line with the terms of Clause 1 (iv). There was therefore no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

12. The Committee then considered whether the article had inaccurately reported that: ““there seems to have been some dispute in this case about whether the pavement was a ‘shared space’”. Where the publication was able to demonstrate the issue had been discussed in court, the judge’s sentencing remarks had been qualified by “I think”, and the relevant local authority was also equivocal about the designation of the space, the Committee did not consider it inaccurate for the writer to state there had been “some dispute” around the issue. There was no breach of the Clause on this point.

13. Where it was not in dispute that the police had not released the part of the CCTV that showed the death of the victim, the Committee did not consider it inaccurate to report that the police had not released the “full footage” of the incident. It also noted that directing the deliberations of a jury is a part of a judge’s role; reporting this did not represent inaccurate, distorted, or misleading information, or imply that the jury had been coerced. There was therefore no possible breach of the Code.

14. The Committee then turned to the complainant’s concerns about the lack of evidence for some of the claims made by the author. It noted there is no standalone requirement for publications to provide evidence for claims, where there are no inaccuracies identified. For the reasons identified above, there were no significant inaccuracies in the article under complaint, and there was therefore no obligation for the publication to provide evidence in the manner suggested by the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

15. The complaint was not upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

16. N/A

 

Date complaint received:  06/03/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  07/07/2023