Ruling

20416-17 Burns v The Scottish Sun

    • Date complaint received

      17th May 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 20416-17 Burns v The Scottish Sun

Summary of Complaint 

1.  Brian Burns complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Scottish Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) in an article headlined “Thug’s shop attack: Kicked and stamped 47 times”, published on 11 November 2017. 

2. The article was a court report relating to an incident involving the complainant’s brother, John Burns, with whose authorisation he was acting. It said that John Burns had “initially acted in self defence” in confronting a man who had entered a shop and racially abused the shopkeeper while drunk and armed with a piece of wood, but that Burns had repeatedly hit the man “as he drifted in and out of consciousness”, and that “his reaction was ‘cruel and excessive’”. It said that the “’sustained attack’” had only ended when the police arrived, and that the man had suffered “a fractured cheekbone, a broken tooth and a damaged eye socket”. The article included the Sheriff’s remark that “’There’s no doubt Mr Burns was the victim of an assault but there is also no doubt what happened 47 kicks later’”, and said that John Burns had admitted the attack. 

3. The article was published online in substantially the same format on 10 November. Originally, it was headlined “Boozed-up Hamilton thug John Burns kicked and stamped on shop attack victim 47 times”. This headline was then amended on 13 November to read “’CRUEL AND EXCESSIVE’ Hamilton thug John Burns kicked and stamped on shop attack victim 47 TIMES”. 

4.  The complainant said that it was incorrect for the original online headline to say that John Burns was drunk at the time of the attack. He said that it was not true to say that the man had drifted in and out of consciousness during the attack, although he noted that this had been alleged in court. He said it was inaccurate to say that John Burns “kicked and stamped” on the man 47 times: many of these blows were not kicks or stamps. He said it was wrong to say that it was a “sustained attack”, when John Burns had left to go and speak to the shopkeeper at one point. 

5.  The publication said the article text was an accurate account of what was heard in court, and in the Sheriff’s summary; it provided the original court copy in support of its position. The prosecution had stated that “this was a sustained attack by the accused and there were numerous kicks and stamps to the head of the complainer”, and that “when the police got there, he was standing over the body of the complainer who was drifting in and out of consciousness by the assault by the accused”. The Sheriff had referred to “47 kicks” in his summary, and the prosecution had stated that the man “had a fractured right cheek bone, a broken tooth and damage to his eye socket”. 

6. The publication said that, while the article was accurate, the headline reference to “boozed-up” was an error; however, it was removed within 36 hours of publication, as soon as the publication was contacted. The publication denied that this represented a significant inaccuracy: reporting that John Burns was sober during the attack might have given a more sinister impression of his actions. Nevertheless, the publication offered to add a footnote to the article as follows: 

An earlier headline to this story described Mr Burns as being “boozed-up” during his attack on [the victim]. We would like to clarify that Mr Burns was in fact entirely sober when he launched his “sustained attack”, which left his victim with a fractured cheekbone, broken tooth and damaged eye socket. He has also asked us to clarify that his 47 blows to the victim were not all kicks and stamps, but that he punched him too. We are very happy to set the record straight. 

The publication also offered to publish a standalone correction with similar wording. 

Relevant Code Provisions 

6. 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 

7.  Publications are not responsible for the accuracy of information heard in court; their responsibility is to report accurately on what is heard. The article text was based on the prosecution’s account as heard in court, and on the Sheriff’s summary of events. Where John Burns was convicted in relation to the information heard, the publication was entitled to adopt aspects of the prosecution’s case in its article, and it took appropriate steps to indicate that the information had been heard in court. Where the Sheriff had referred to “47 kicks”, and the prosecution had referred to “kicks and stamps”, to say that John Burns had kicked and stamped the man 47 times was not an inaccurate account of court proceedings. The account of the man’s injuries given in the article, including of his consciousness, was in line with the information heard in court, and, as the article reported, the court had heard the prosecution describe the incident as a “sustained attack”; there was no inaccuracy on these points. There was no breach of Clause 1 in respect of the points made in relation to the article text. 

8. The original article headline was inaccurate: John Burns was not intoxicated at the time of the attack, and this had not been heard in court. The inaccuracy had arisen from a human error, and this represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the headline, in breach of Clause 1 (i). This inaccuracy was significant where it might have bearing on readers’ interpretations of John Burns’ actions, motives and character. This required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The publication had quickly amended the headline, and offered a correction promptly in both footnote and standalone form. 

9.  The proposed correction and footnote made clear that John Burns was not “boozed-up” at the time of the incident. However, it also contained information that had not been confirmed by the complainant: he had not confirmed that John Burns “punched [the victim] too”. In these circumstances, the Committee suggested that the following wording be published, which drew on the wording of the publication’s offered correction: 

An earlier headline to this story described Mr Burns as being “boozed-up” during his attack on [the victim]. We would like to clarify that Mr Burns was in fact sober when he launched his “sustained attack”. We are very happy to set the record straight. 

As the inaccuracy had only been present in the online version of the article, there was no requirement for a correction in the print edition. Where this correction had been offered, there was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusions 

10. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required 

11. The correction proposed by the publication addressed the inaccuracy; however, where it included additional information, the Committee suggested a modified wording based on the publication’s proposal. This should now be published as a footnote and, in adapted form, as a standalone online correction, archived in the usual way. 

Date complaint received: 27/11/2017

Date decision issued: 27/04/2018