Ruling

21746-23 Austin v The Metro

  • Complaint Summary

    Thomas Austin complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Metro breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “'40 BABIES MURDERED BY HAMAS'”, published on 11 October 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      22nd May 2024

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee - 21746-23 Austin v The Metro

Summary of Complaint

1.   Thomas Austin complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Metro breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “'40 BABIES MURDERED BY HAMAS'”, published on 11 October 2023.

2.   The complainant was one of a number of individuals who raised concerns about the article; he was selected as IPSO’s lead complainant.

3.   The article, which appeared on the front page and continued on page four, reported on the Hamas attack on Isarel on 7 October 2023. Below the headline, a bullet pointed list appeared which said: “Children beheaded as families slaughtered, says Israel” and “‘Isis-level savagery’ says US as Americans held hostage”. The article went on to report that “HAMAS militants butchered 40 babies in a massacre at a kibbutz during their savage assault on Israel, it is claimed. Some of the children were found beheaded by their cots – and their families gunned down in bed or burned alive in their homes at Kfar Aza near the border with Gaza, soldiers said”. It stated “’[s]oldiers here say what they witnessed walking through these communities is bodies of babies with their heads cut off,’ i24 TV station reported.” The article also quoted a senior US defence official who said: “I want to differentiate this from other times we have seen conflicts between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. This is Isis-level savagery we have seen committed against Israeli civilians – houses burned to the ground, young people massacred at music festivals.”

4.   The article also appeared online in substantially the same form under the headline “Hamas ‘beheaded’ babies in village near Gaza, Israel claims”, published on 10 October 2023. The subheading stated, “Hamas militants have allegedly killed babies in a barbaric attack on an Israeli kibbutz, according to reports.” It reported that “Israeli soldiers told reporters on the ground that they had found the decapitated bodies of young children at Kfar Aza kibbutz near the Gaza border. They were discovered after the area came under heavy attack on Saturday morning”. It also reported “Israeli Major General [Named individual] said: ‘You see the babies, the mothers, the fathers, in their bedrooms, in their protection rooms and how the terrorist kills them.” The article further stated “Militants killed anyone in their way – including men, women and children – and destroyed anything in their way, such as homes and businesses.”

5.   The online article included images of the aftermath of the attack. One image caption read: “Much of the settlement has been razed to the ground during brutal fighting between Hamas militants and Israeli soldiers”. The article also included a screenshot of a government spokesperson’s tweet which said “Hamas beheaded babies. We will eradicate them.”

6.   The complainant said that the article had published “unfounded” claims, particularly noting the wording of the headline which stated 40 babies had been murdered by Hamas. He said that it had further published claims such as “Children beheaded as families slaughtered, says Israel” and “ISIS level savagery says US as Americans held hostage”. He said that these claims had been presented as fact and were sensationalist, baseless, inflammatory and could incite hatred, and that there was no proof or credible sources to support such claims. The complainant also said that the claims in the article contradicted the Israeli Army's admission that such claims could not be confirmed, as reported by Anadolu, which he considered to be a reputable Turkish news outlet. He said that small qualifying statements, such as “claimed” or “said” did not suffice to express the unfounded nature of these statements.

7.   The publication acknowledged that the war between Israel and Hamas evoked strong feelings in its readers. It said the publication was dedicated to accurate and precise reporting of world events. It did not accept a breach of the Code and wished to highlight the concept of “fog of war”, which it said affected journalists endeavouring to accurately chronicle events. It said events such as military conflict were incredibly fast-paced and evidence is gathered rapidly and at scale by journalists on the ground. It said reporters risk their lives by embedding themselves in war zones once conflict is confirmed to have broken out, but often, in light of the speed at which events unfold at the outset, reporting is focused primarily on interviewing survivors who have witnessed or seen the aftermath of violence. It said it was entirely legitimate to focus on such testimony, providing that, where it could not be verified, it was made clear.

8.   The publication also stated that there was a natural propensity for people not to believe horrifying accounts of behaviour, as to consider them accurate would provoke severe psychological distress or trauma. It said that initial reports of extreme violence involving families; men, women and children have been compounded by confirmation in the form of video evidence which supported initially unverified testimony. It said that such secondary evidence was presented by the Israeli government to international journalists and world leaders and politicians. It said the nature and necessity of maintaining the dignity and privacy of the victims and their families meant that this had not been made public; however, this did not de-legitimise it as a source. The publication said the presentation showed: a small child being shot as she sheltered beneath a table; a newborn baby’s body, charred beyond recognition; a Hamas terrorist throwing a grenade at a father and his son; a terrorist beheading a man with a shovel; beheaded IDF soldiers; a Hamas gunman shooting the apparently dead bodies of civilians; and an attempt to decapitate someone who appeared to be alive.

9.   The publication said that reports which were initially disseminated by the Israeli Defence Force, or the Israeli government, via local media and picked up on by international press, were followed up with the testimony of volunteer workers clearing the aftermath of atrocities such as the Kfar Aza kibbutz. It said that the BBC spoke to Zaka volunteers who were helping to recover bodies from the kibbutz. The report said: “a father of five, had seen bodies of children brought in with terrible injuries and burns, he said. Some had been decapitated, although it was not clear how. Some of the dead children had their hands and feet tied with phone cables.”

10. The publication accepted that a Turkish news agency had tweeted that the IDF spokesperson could not verify the initial reports. The publication said that the claim was not disputed but rather it could not be verified, and therefore did not render the article inaccurate. It said that the print and online article made clear the allegation that 40 babies were ‘murdered’ was a claim. It said that the print version had distinguished these comments as claim by stating “Children beheaded as families slaughtered, says Israel”; “‘Isis-level savagery’ says US as Americans held hostage”; “HAMAS militants butchered 40 babies in a massacre at a kibbutz during their savage assault on Israel, it is claimed.”; “Some of the children were found beheaded by their cots – and their families gunned down in bed or burned alive in their homes at Kfar Aza near the border with Gaza, soldiers said”; and “’Soldiers here say what they witnessed walking through these communities is bodies of babies with their heads cut off,’ i24 TV station reported”.

11. Similarly, the publication said that the online version had also made clear the article’s claims were not statements of fact but reported comments. It listed examples such as the headline which said “Hamas ‘beheaded’ babies in village near Gaza, Israel claims” and the text of the article which said: “Hamas militants have allegedly killed babies in a barbaric attack on an Israeli kibbutz, according to reports.”; “Israeli soldiers told reporters on the ground that they had found the decapitated bodies of young children at Kfar Aza”; and “Israeli Major General […] said: ‘You see the babies, the mothers, the fathers, in their bedrooms, in their protection rooms and how the terrorist kills them.” The publication said that the articles did not state as fact a specific number of children had been killed, or in which manner. It said the article made expressly clear throughout that the reports were claims made by Israeli soldiers who said they had witnessed the aftermath of the attacks.

12. The publication said that the print headline '40 BABIES MURDERED BY HAMAS' was presented in inverted commas which it said was a commonly recognised journalistic convention to show that the phrase contained within was a quotation, claim, or assertion. It said that this made clear to readers that the article was not reporting matters of proven fact, but rather unverified claims. It said this was reaffirmed throughout the text of the article.

13. The publication explained that the Israeli government had posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, “40 babies murdered” and provided the link. The X post also contained a video of a reporter from i24 describing scenes at Kfar Aza. It said that this claim was made by a nation state on one of its official communication channels. It said that first and second-hand sources, such as a soldier and a television crew on the ground who reported live on events as they were unfolding, were included as the basis for the headline. The publication said it was entirely reasonable to report accurately on claims emanating from such quarters, and to imply that eye-witnesses and governments should not be acceptable for this purpose would be egregiously constraining on the freedom of the press.

14. The publication said the complainant had neither established whether the claims reported were entirely inaccurate, nor what the correct corresponding position was. The publication said there had been no suggestion of an alternative death toll figure and therefore it would not be possible to 'correct' the claims which were reported.

15. In response, the complainant highlighted the terms of Clause 1 and the preamble to the Code which states the Code should “be honoured not only to the letter, but in the full spirit”. He said the truth was at hand, but was ignored in favour of bias and sensationalism. He said that the article’s claim “Militants killed anyone in their way - including men, women and children - and destroyed anything in their way, such as home and businesses” revealed how far the publication was willing to go to give a false and misleading impression of events. He said the following quote portrayed events more accurately: “Much of the settlement has been razed to the ground during brutal fighting between Hamas militants and Israeli soldiers." The complainant said these two quotes contradicted each other and that the first quote had not clearly distinguished between comment, conjecture and fact.

Relevant Clause Provisions

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

16. The Committee appreciated the difficulties of reporting a fast-moving conflict and that publications may wish to rely on eyewitness accounts and the experiences of those who had witnessed the incident. However, publications are still required to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. The Committee also had regard for the serious nature of the claims contained in the article.

17. The Committee considered the complainant’s concern that the article had published “unfounded” claims regarding Hamas beheading children. In this instance, the print article had made clear this was attributed to reported eyewitness at the scene or the Israeli government: “Children beheaded as families slaughtered, says Israel”; “Some of the children were found beheaded by their cots – and their families gunned down in bed or burned alive in their homes at Kfar Aza near the border with Gaza, soldiers said” and “Soldiers here say what they witnessed walking through these communities is bodies of babies with their heads cut off,’ i24 TV station reported.” The online article had also distinguished these statements as claims as opposed to statements of fact: “Israeli soldiers told reporters on the ground that they had found the decapitated bodies of young children at Kfar Aza kibbutz near the Gaza border. The headline said “Hamas ‘beheaded’ babies in village near Gaza, Israel claims” which made clear this was the claim of Israel and had also placed the word “beheaded” in inverted commas which further suggested this method was a claim. The article had therefore distinguished the claims clearly as comment, and had not presented them as statements of fact. For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. Regarding the allegations concerning the 40 murdered babies, the Committee also noted that this figure was distinguished as comment: “HAMAS militants butchered 40 babies in a massacre at a kibbutz during their savage assault on Israel, it is claimed”. The print headline had also presented the claim within inverted commas to suggest that this was a claim and not a statement of fact, which was subsequently supported by the article which made clear it was a claim by Israel and IDF soldiers. The publication had been able to provide further sources such as the Israeli government’s X account which had referred to this figure. In this instance the Committee was satisfied the claim had been sufficiently distinguished as comment in accordance with Clause 1. There was no breach of the Code on this point.

19. The Committee also considered the sentence: “ISIS level savagery says US as Americans held hostage”, which appeared in the print version of the article. The Committee noted that the basis for this statement was set out in the article. It had quoted a senior US defence official who said: “This is Isis-level savagery we have seen committed against Israeli civilians – houses burned to the ground, young people massacred at music festivals.” The Committee further noted that this comment had clearly been attributed to the individual and distinguished as comment. For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concern that the statement “Militants killed anyone in their way – including men, women and children – and destroyed anything in their way, such as home and businesses” in the online article contradicted what he considered to be the more accurate image caption which said: “Much of the settlement has been razed to the ground during brutal fighting between Hamas militants and Israeli soldiers." The Committee firstly noted that the two statements were not mutually exclusive. It appreciated that the language was hyperbolic in the first statement, however where the attack was widely accepted and confirmed to have resulted in many casualties including men, women and children; where the article had provided several images which showed the casualties; and where the article included eye-witness accounts which supported both statements, the Committee were of the view that the first statement was not significantly inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

21. Finally, the Code makes clear the press has the right to be partisan, to give its own opinion and to campaign, as long as it takes care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. Concerns that the article was sensationalist or biased did not engage the Code where the Committee did not identify any significant inaccuracies.

Conclusions

22. The complaint was not upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 15/10/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 02/05/2024