Ruling

19593-23 Jordan-Gill v bournemouthecho.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      25th October 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 19593-23 Jordan-Gill v bournemouthecho.co.uk


Summary of Complaint  

1. Mark Jordan-Gill complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that bournemouthecho.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Dorset Police officer sacked for sharing racist WhatsApp messages”, published on 14 June 2023.

2. The article reported on a tribunal, held by Dorset Police, which examined inappropriate messages posted on WhatsApp by police officers. The headline reported that the complainant had been sacked for “sharing racist WhatsApp messages”. It also reported that another officer would have been dismissed for “sharing racist, sexist, homophobic or inappropriate WhatsApp messages” – had he not already resigned. The article went on to report that the tribunal heard that officers “posted or failed to challenge items”, some of which the article said could “be described as sexist, pornographic, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, bullying, offensive and otherwise inappropriate.”

3. The complainant believed that the article’s headline was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as it reported that he had shared “racist WhatsApp messages”. He said the article was based on a press release issued by Dorset Police, which said he was “dismissed for sending inappropriate messages and pictures”. However, he said that there was no reference to him having actually shared racist images or messages, as he had not done so and the tribunal had not found that this was the case.

4. The complainant provided a copy of the press release in question to support his position. The press release said: “A serving Dorset Police officer [the complainant] who was found guilty of gross misconduct after posting inappropriate and offensive messages on a WhatsApp group has been dismissed without notice.”

5. The publication did not accept that the article breached Clause 1. It acknowledged that the article had inaccurately reported that the complainant shared racist messages – and accepted that the headline and the article had inadvertently caused a misleading impression. The publication said this was due to the article having been typed in “excessive haste” for online publication.

6. However, the publication did not accept that the headline was significantly inaccurate, given that available information at the time stated that the complainant was in a WhatsApp group of officers in which sexual, pornographic, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, bullying, abusive, offensive and inappropriate messages had been shared – and the complainant had been found to have posted “inappropriate and offensive” messages.

7. The publication also said that the complainant’s behaviour had been treated with equal severity as another police officer – who had been found to be a "major contributor" of racist, misogynistic, homophobic and offensive messages – and that both officers were dismissed for “appalling misconduct of the same general nature”. It also said that the outcome of the disciplinary hearing was accurately reported in the article - namely that the complainant had been dismissed - and that the complainant was likely to be aware of the content in the group but did not leave or report the behaviour.

8. The publication argued that one kind of discriminatory behaviour cannot be said to have a greater weight than another and – as both officers were dismissed of misconduct of the same general nature – the article was not significantly inaccurate. The publication also asserted that, at the time of publication, the full judgment for the complainant’s hearing had not been released, and the complainant had been reluctant to reveal what material he had shared on the group chat.

9. On 23 June - the day the publication was told by IPSO that it had received a complaint into the article - the publication contacted the complainant via telephone and offered to amend the article to correct the headline. The complainant did not accept this as a satisfactory resolution to his complaint. Nevertheless, between this date and 10 August, the article was amended to remove the reference to the complainant sharing racist messages, and the headline changed to “Dorset Police officer sacked for sharing offensive WhatsApp messages”.

10. On 10 August, during IPSO’s investigation, the publication offered to publish the following correction, either as a footnote or at the top of the article:

NOTE: This article has been edited from its original version to clarify that Mr Jordan-Gill was found to have breached the standards of professional behaviour by sending inappropriate messages, but there is no suggestion that he sent racist messages."

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

11. The complainant said it was inaccurate to report that he had been sacked for “sharing racist WhatsApp messages”. The Committee recognised that the press release supported the complainant’s position – as it stated: “A serving Dorset Police officer who was found guilty of gross misconduct after posting inappropriate and offensive messages on a WhatsApp group has been dismissed without notice” – and that the publication accepted that the headline was inaccurate, albeit that it did not consider it to be significantly inaccurate.

12. In such circumstances, where the information available to the publication at the time of writing did not support the position that the complainant had shared racist messages, the Committee considered that the article’s headline was inaccurate. The Committee also considered the publication’s reasoning for why the article was inaccurate – excessive haste when preparing the story for publication– demonstrated a lack of care taken to ensure the article was not inaccurate. This was a breach of Clause 1 (i).

13. The Committee next considered whether the inaccuracy was so significant as to warrant correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The Committee had regard for the serious nature of an allegation that the complainant had shared racist messages, and the fact that this statement had been reported in the headline of the article – increasing its prominence and visibility. The article was therefore significantly inaccurate in a manner that required correction in accordance with Clause 1 (ii).

14. The Committee noted that, upon receiving notification that IPSO had received a complaint about the article, the publication had called the complainant on the same day and offered to amend the headline. On 10 August, during IPSO’s investigation, the publication also offered to publish a correction which would appear as a footnote or above the text of the article. The Committee considered that this correction put the correct position on record, given that it clearly stated that the complainant had not been found to have shared racist messages.

15. While the Committee recognised that the publication’s response was sufficiently prompt, where the inaccuracy had appeared in the headline – therefore increasing its visibility – the Committee did not consider a single correction under the headline to be sufficiently prominent. The Committee therefore considered that the publication’s offer of a correction was not duly prominent, as required by Clause 1(ii). There was, therefore, also a breach of Clause 1(ii).

Conclusion

16. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1. 

Remedial action required

17. 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 an adjudication; the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

18. The Committee found that the article’s headline inaccurately reported that the complainant had shared racist messages. However, the Committee also recognised that the publication had amended the article once it had been made aware of the complaint and had promptly offered a correction. The Committee also recognised that the complainant had been found to have participated in a group chat in which racist messages were shared, and had been dismissed for “gross misconduct” owing to his behaviour in relation to this group chat.

19. On balance, the Committee considered that a correction was the appropriate remedy. The correction should acknowledge that the complainant had not been found, by the tribunal, to have shared racist messages – and that he had not been dismissed on these grounds. It should also put the correct position on record, namely that the complainant had been found to have shared “inappropriate and offensive” messages.

20. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. As the inaccuracy appeared in the headline to the article, the correction should appear as a standalone correction and a link should be published on the homepage for 24 hours before being archived in the usual way. In addition a correction should be added to the article as a footnote. This was considered to be an appropriate location where the original article no longer included the inaccurate information.

21. 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:  22/06/2023

Date decision issued:  03/10/2023