Ruling

20762-23 Dale v Telegraph.co.uk

  • Complaint Summary

    Simon Dale complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Telegraph.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “‘It’s only a matter of time before a drone brings down a jet’”, published on 1 September 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      22nd February 2024

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 20762-23 Dale v Telegraph.co.uk


Summary of Complaint

1. Simon Dale complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Telegraph.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “‘It’s only a matter of time before a drone brings down a jet’”, published on 1 September 2023.

2. The article – which appeared online only – was accompanied by the sub-heading: “Air safety experts believe the devices are a ticking time-bomb, with ownership at record levels and nearmisses with aircrafts on the rise”. The article then reported that “[e]arlier this month, the right wing of an Emirates flight was seriously damaged after a suspected mid-air collision with a drone as it was landing at Nice Cote D’Azur airport”, adding that the “latest incident [was] particularly worrying because it seems to have involved actual contact”.

3. The article then stated that the “Aviation Safety Network database lists 23 reported collisions [between drones and aircrafts], although experts suspect the number of near-misses is much more substantial”. It also reported that “[i]n 2016, a drone reportedly collided with a British Airways flight at Heathrow Airport, although the pilot managed to land safely”.

4. The article went on to state that, two years after the Heathrow incident, “physicists at University of Dayton Research Institute modelled the impact of a high-speed collision. Though it’s yet to happen to a commercial aircraft it allowed them to conclude that such an event could cause an aircraft’s wing to disintegrate, and it is ‘only a matter of time ’ before it happens in real life”. It then stated that, “[e]arlier this year, a Russian jet collided with an American drone above the Black Sea, causing damage to both.”

5. The article included comments from two academics. The first academic reportedly said that “Gatwick was a crucial turning point” , and that “it exposed the safety risks, because obviously a drone can interfere with an aircraft that is landing or taking off.” The academic reportedly added: “’Now, there are dozens and dozens of incidents per month at each airport […] I don’t think it’s impossible that a big accident will happen’”.

6. It then reported that the second academic – who, according to the article, had “written extensively about the security risk from drones, both in domestic settings and in international conflict” – “believe[d] the risk to airports from hostile actor, in particular, is under-researched”. It reported his comments that “’[r]esearch shows that a drone collision at speed in the air, through the walls of the aircraft, is enough to down an aircraft. If a drone was to go through the windscreen of an aircraft, it would certainly incapacitate the crew’”. The article also reported that the second academic had said that “[a]ccess to drones is much easier than access to firearms in the UK”; the article said that this made “it an attractive, if not risk-free, means for an attack. The machines are already used, to great effect, in warfare, with the Ukrainian war effort in particular making great use of quick, cheap-to-acquire drones”.

7. The article also included comments made by the complainant, who was described as a “drone enthusiast who founded Airprox Reality Check, a sighting review website which cross-checks reports by Airprox, an organisation that records pilot testimony of incidents in UK airspace.”. It stated that the complainant “believes that it is impossible to spot a drone from an aircraft, and that all reported sightings are, therefore, misidentified full-size aircraft”. It further reported that the complainant “concede[d] that a drone could be used to disrupt an airport: ‘I could get some boffins together and we would come up with something that would fly a predefined route, and then come back or then just ditch itself. You could definitely do it, but that’s not to say that anyone actually would.’” It then reported that the complainant “supports changes to UK regulations […] mandating ‘geofencing’ in the drone systems which would prevent flying int protected airspace”.

8. The complainant was one of a number of individuals who raised concerns about the article; in line with IPSO’s usual procedures, he was selected as IPSO’s lead complainant for the purpose of investigating the complaint.

9. The complainant said that the article contained several inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. First, he said that the article inaccurately reported that “the right wing of an Emirates flight was seriously damaged after a suspected mid-air collision with a drone as it was landing at Nice Cote D’Azur airport”. He disputed that a drone had been involved in this incident. He noted that the summary published by the Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA) on the incident made no mention of such a device; the website stated, at the time of the complaint, that the BEA investigation was “still in progress”. He also disputed that this was “one of many recent incidents that involve drones interfering with aviation” and expressed concern that the article had not evidenced this claim.

10. The complainant also said the article inaccurately reported that “[i]n 2016, a drone reportedly collided with a British Airways flight at Heathrow Airport, although the pilot managed to land safely”. He said that there no evidence of a drone or damage to the aircraft, and that the incident had been misrepresented by the publication.

11. He then said the article reported, in an inaccurate and misleading manner, that the “Aviation Safety Network database lists 23 reported collisions”. He said that the Network lists 124 reported ‘drone accidents’ since 1993 and, except for one, all related to military target drones, rather drones owned by members of the public interacting with commercial aircrafts in the UK.

12. Further to the above, the complainant said that the reference to research undertaken by physicists at University of Dayton Research Institute on the “impact of a high-speed collision” was misleading as the airplane used to conduct the research was a small two-seater craft, and not representative of modern commercial airplanes.

13. The complainant also said that the article was misleading to report that a “Russian jet collided with an American drone above the Black Sea”. He said that this was a reference to a Russian war plane attack on a military drone, but this reference in the context of the article gave the misleading impression that a Russian Airliner collided with a civilian/consumer drone. He also said that the article incorrectly referred to the Russian “war plane” as a “jet”. He further said that the article inaccurately compared and conflated drones used in the Ukrainian war with civilian drones flown in the UK.

14. In addition, the complainant said the article was inaccurate to report the claims made by the quoted academics. He disputed that there were “dozens and dozens of incidents per month at each airport”. He also said there was no “credible” evidence to suggest that an aircraft would be incapacitated if it collided with a civilian drone or that such a drone could penetrate the windscreen of an airliner – as suggested by one of the academics.

15. The complainant also said that the article misrepresented comments he had made to the publication, and that it had taken his comments out of context: he had explained how the risk posed by drones to aviation was extremely low and well mitigated for, and detailed how he believed most alleged drone reports at airports actually do not actually involve any drones.

16. He also expressed concern that the article described him as a “drone enthusiast” while the others quoted had been described as “experts”, and which, he argued, demonstrated bias on the part of the publication. He said that this was further supported by the publication’s use of “believes” when summarising his position, which he said presented him in a negative light.

17. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code, and denied that the article inaccurately reported or misrepresented the incident at Nice Cote D'Azur airport. It said that the text of the article made sufficiently clear that the involvement of a drone was “suspected”; it did not state as fact that a drone had been involved or that a collision had occurred. It also said the article as a whole made sufficiently clear the status of the involvement of drones in this particular incident. Notwithstanding this, on 23 October 2023, during IPSO’s investigation – in a gesture of goodwill and in effort to resolve the matter – it offered to amend this portion of the article to read: “'It's one of many recent incidents in which drones have been suspected of interfering with aviation”.

18. Similarly, the publication denied that the article misrepresented the incident at Heathrow Airport in 2016: the text of the article made sufficiently clear that a drone had “reportedly” been involved, noting that coverage at the time cited the involvement of such a device. Nevertheless, on 7 September – and 6 days after the article was published – the publication added the following line to the article: “Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin later, however, debunked this suggestion of a drone collision”. It said that this was done in order to provide a contemporary verdict and to clarify the matter to its readers.

19. The publication also did not accept that the article was inaccurate or misleading to report that the “Aviation Safety Network database lists 23 reported collisions, although experts suspect the number of near misses is much more substantial”. It noted that the text of the article clearly distinguished these collisions as “reported”. It also noted that the publicly available database listed the number of cases where there were “suspected and confirmed drone collisions with aircraft” i.e., cases which had been reported to them; some of which were confirmed, and some of which weren’t.

20. The publication also denied that the article misrepresented the University of Dayton Research Institute study; it accurately reported that the research had modelled a drone flying into an aircraft. Further, the publication said the article did not suggest that this study was representative of a modern commercial aircraft, adding that the article did not solely concern these types of aircrafts.

21. Further, the publication did not accept that the reference to the collision of a “Russian jet” with “an American drone above the Black Sea” rendered the article inaccurate or misleading. The publication argued that the reference demonstrated the many uses of, and risks posed by, drones – a point the publication said was highlighted by one of the academics specifically in relation to the war in Ukraine and made clear within the article. The publication also denied that the term “jet” was inaccurate: it was commonly used to describe an aircraft propelled by jet engines and described as such in multiple other publications at the time of the incident.

22. The publication made clear that it was not obliged to cite every point of view on a particular issue, acknowledging that this article focused upon the risks posed by drones to aviation. The publication said it reported the concerns raised by some experts on the matter and had approached two academics in relevant fields. It added that the article clearly identified the academics quoted, with their comments clearly distinguished as comment, and which largely concerned with potential danger from bad actors – not hobbyists – and the likelihood of a future threat.

23. The publication denied any suggestion of bias. In addition to approaching the academics for comment prior to the article’s publication, it had approached the complainant. In doing so, he had presented a different argument to the academics quoted on the risks posed by drones. This had then been included to allow readers the opportunity to form their own conclusions on the matter. It denied that the description of the complainant as a “drone enthusiast” was intended as a disparagement or was inaccurate. It maintained that the article provided a fair and brief assessment of the complainant’s role and relationship to the issue: he was enthusiastic about drones and had founded a company which monitored incidents in UK airspace.

24. Notwithstanding this, during IPSO’s investigation, the publication offered, in a gesture of goodwill and in an attempt to resolve the complaint, to amend the online article to describe the complainant in the following terms: “Simon Dale founded Airprox Reality Check, a drone sighting review website which cross-checks reports by Airprox, an organisation that records pilot testimony of incidents in UK airspace”.

25. Further, the publication denied that it had misrepresented the complainant’s comments. It noted that quotes were not generally reported verbatim; amendments were a necessary and practical part of the editing process for publications, notably for style, brevity, and other considerations. In any event, it considered that the article provided a fair and accurate summary of the complainant’s position. To support its position, it provided IPSO with a transcript of the interview with the complainant. This showed that the complainant had expressed doubt that pilots could “spot a tiny little drone” while travelling at speed, which would go “past [the] window in a fraction of a second”, adding: “a lot of [reported sightings of drones] are sort of impossible and often actually misidentified full size aircraft or distanced away”.

26. The publication also highlighted the following section of the transcript to further support its position:

Reporter: Do you think that it's made people much more cautious, and they need to think about potential drones at airports or do you think that there is a legitimate risk from either hobbyists not knowing that they're supposed to fly there, or more malicious people?

Complainant: Yes, it's really concerning. I'm not sure. I suppose there is, if you were dead set on disrupting an airport. You could build a drone that has no GPS, or no, no radio link. And you could set it off. If you said to me […] here's 20 grand, build me a drone that can disrupt Gatwick. I could get some boffins together and we could come up with something that would take off fly a predefined route, either using GPS or using something else like an inertial measurement system. […] You could definitely do it. But that's quite a different question. I mean, actually, the easiest way to disrupt an airport I would suggest is [if] I went and stood at the boundary of Gatwick Airport and just keep the mic on my handheld radio. They wouldn't be able to transmit or receive on their frequency not they won't be able to take off over land.”

Reporter: “So there's sort of easier and cheaper ways to disrupt an airport.”

Complainant: “Yeah. And in fact, I'm sure I could come up with some way that I could leave that somewhere in a backpack and then go away so I wasn't because that's the danger if I was to guess the police would descend on me fairly rapidly. Presumably you could in some way hide it and then leave it but yeah, in real terms, I think it's vastly diminished. Maybe the one advantage of the Gatwick 2018 thing was that it's made people are much more aware. In terms of drone pilots and members of the public we have much more, sort of, on community forums saying I see much more people being either worried about or actually encountering members of the public telling them off or saying that's illegal.”

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

27. The Committee first considered the article’s coverage of the incident at Nice Cote D’Azur Airport. The Committee noted that the article stated an aircraft had been damaged after “a suspected mid-air collision with a drone”, adding that this incident was “particularly worrying because it seems to have involved actual contact”. Further, the Committee noted that – according to the material provided by the complainant – the investigation by BEA into the incident was still “in progress” and no definitive findings by the relevant authorities had yet been published. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that the text of the article made sufficiently clear that, at the time of publication, the involvement of a drone in the incident had not been confirmed. As such, the Committee did not consider that the article was inaccurate or misleading on this point. Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the amendments proposed by the publication to further clarity that Nice was one of many recent incidents “in which drones have been suspected of interfering with aviation”. There was no breach of Clause 1.

28. The Committee next considered the article’s coverage of the incident at Heathrow Airport in 2016. The Committee noted that the article made clear that a drone “reportedly collided” with an aircraft; it did not state as fact that there had been a collision. Nor did the Committee consider that the omission of the contemporary verdict on the incident rendered the article significantly inaccurate where it did not materially affect the accuracy of the article: air safety experts were concerned by the real and perceived threat posed by drones to aviation. Notwithstanding this, the Committee welcomed the amendments made by the publication to clarify this point. There was no breach of Clause 1.

29. The complainant said the article inaccurately reported that the “Aviation Safety Network database lists 23 reported collisions” – he noted that all, except for one, related to military and not civilian drones. To support its position, the publication provided IPSO with a copy of a database which showed 23 cases where there were “suspected and confirmed drone collisions with aircraft”. In the view of the Committee, the text of the article made sufficiently clear that these were “reported” collisions involving a drone; it did not say that civilian drones were involved in the reported collisions. Further, the Committee noted that the database did not record, as suggested by the complainant, that only a single reported case related to a civilian operated drone. In any event, the omission of the exact nature and type of drone did not render the article inaccurate or misleading: the article focused on the use of drones – and the risk posed by these vehicles to aviation – as a whole. In these circumstances, the Committee was satisfied that the article was not inaccurate on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1.

30. The Committee noted that the selection of material was a matter of editorial discretion, as long as the Code is not otherwise breached. In this instance, the Committee did not consider that the reference to the study conducted by the University of Dayton Research Institute rendered the article inaccurate or misleading. It was clear that the complainant disputed the relevance of this study arguing that it was not representative of a modern commercial aircraft. However, it was not in dispute that the research had modelled the impact of a collision between a drone and an aircraft. The Committee was therefore satisfied that the article was not inaccurate or misleading in the manner suggested by the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 1.

31. The Committee noted the article reported that “Russian jet collided with an American drone above the Black Sea”; it did not suggest that a commercial or recreational drone had been involved, nor was it in dispute that such a collision had occurred. The newspaper had been entitled to focus on this incident and the multiple possible uses of drones including by the military, particularly where one of the academics quoted within the article had discussed how such vehicles were being used in the war in Ukraine. Further, the Committee did not consider that the description of the Russian military aircraft as a “jet” rendered the article inaccurate or misleading: such terms are commonly used to describe aircrafts. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

32. While the complainant evidently disagreed with the views expressed by the two academics on the risks posed by drones, this disagreement did not in itself raise a breach of Clause 1. Under the Editors’ Code, newspapers are entitled to report the views and claims of individuals, so long as they take care to accurately distinguish them as such. In this instance, the opinions reported were clearly presented as comment and attributed to the individuals responsible for them, via the use of quotation marks. The article detailed the credentials of the academics in their relevant fields as well as their respective assessments of the risks posed by drones. While the complainant disagreed with these assessments, this did not in itself mean that the article was inaccurate or misleading to report them, particularly where the claims made were clearly presented as comment, rather than established fact. The Committee did not therefore consider that the article breached Clause 1 on this point.

33. The Committee next considered whether the article misrepresented the comments made by the complainant to the publication. In considering this, the Committee noted that the article stated the complainant “believes that it is impossible to spot a drone from an aircraft, and that all reported sightings are, therefore, misidentified full-size aircraft”; this was not presented as a direct quote but rather as the publication’s summary of the complainant’s position. The Committee also had regard to the transcript of the conversation between the complainant and the reporter. This showed that the complainant had expressed doubt that pilots of aircrafts could “spot a tiny little drone” while travelling at speed and “a lot of [reported sightings of drones] are sort of impossible and often actually misidentified full size aircraft or distanced away”. The Committee also noted that the complainant had conceded to the reporter that a drone could be used to disrupt an airport and detailed how he could potentially achieve this. The Committee also did not consider that the use of the term “believes” rendered the article inaccurate or misleading: the complainant had communicated to the reporter his considered view regarding the likelihood of reported sightings of drones and this had been reported. The article was not inaccurate or misleading on this point, and there was no breach of Clause 1.

34. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concern that the article had described him as a “drone enthusiast”. The Code does not address matters of impartiality, balance or bias. Publications have the editorial freedom to publish what they consider to be appropriate provided that this does not breach the Code. The Committee noted that the term “enthusiast” was, to a certain degree, subjective. In such circumstances, and where the publication was able to provide evidence to demonstrate the complainant’s involvement with drones, the Committee was satisfied that this particular characterisation was not significantly inaccurate or misleading in this context. Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to amend the online article on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusion

35. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

36. N/A


Date received by IPSO: 11/09/2023

Date concluded by IPSO: 07/02/2024