Ruling

22285-23 Robinson v Mail Online

  • Complaint Summary

    Candy Robinson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The brave poppy seller 'punched and attacked' by pro-Palestine mob: How British veteran, 78, who says he served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles was 'attacked by pro-Gaza activists' while fundraising at Edinburgh Waverley”, published on 7 November 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      14th March 2024

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 22285-23 Robinson v Mail Online


Summary of Complaint

1. Candy Robinson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The brave poppy seller 'punched and attacked' by pro-Palestine mob: How British veteran, 78, who says he served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles was 'attacked by pro-Gaza activists' while fundraising at Edinburgh Waverley”, published on 7 November 2023.

2. The article reported on an alleged attack on a poppy seller at Edinburgh Waverley Station during a pro-Palestine protest. It opened by reporting that “[v]eterans and Britons today rallied around a poppy seller who said he was punched and kicked by a mob at a pro-Palestine rally as he raised money for charity”, and that the “[m]otorcycle enthusiast […] who says he served with the Army in Northern Ireland, was set upon while manning a Poppyscotland stall at Edinburgh's Waverley Station”. The article went on to report that “Social media footage shows the 78-year-old – in his distinctive red beret – trying to escape. But the attack ended only when railway staff shoved the demonstrators away”.

3. Further, the article also included numerous quotes from the poppy seller regarding the alleged attack. It reported that: “Following Saturday's ordeal, [the poppy seller] said: 'I was getting shoved backwards, in danger of falling, and one of them stood on my foot and split my toe. 'So I thought I had got to get the money out of here. So I went down, and as I bent down someone punched me in the back. And then I got another punch in my side'”. The article added that the poppy seller “said that he managed to get up and was rescued by three ladies in red railway uniforms”. It also described the poppy seller as having “told” his account to another newspaper.

4. The article also included photographs of the poppy seller, and the incident. One, a portrait photo showing his likeness, was captioned: “Poppy-seller […] said he was kicked and punched at Edinburgh Waverley on Saturday”. A second image, which showed the poppy seller visible within a crowd of protestors, was captioned: “Social media footage shows the 78-year-old trying to escape”.

5. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) as the police had found no evidence that the alleged attack on the poppy seller had occurred. She added that the article was reported in a misleadingly emotive manner, and was designed to “incite a violent response” against the pro-Palestine protestors.

6. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It stated that the Editors’ Code is clear that the claims of individuals can be reported, and that it was made clear, throughout the article, that it was reporting the claims of the poppy seller in question. It said, for example, parts of the headline were reported in quote marks, and the poppy seller’s claims were prefaced by terms such as: “He said that” and “he insisted” throughout. In addition, the publication stated that the poppy seller’s story was first reported in another publication, also on 7 November, which was referenced in the article, and that the article under complaint was an accurate report of the story from said article, without any additional information or claims. The publication supplied IPSO with the original article in question.

7. Further to this, the publication stated that, to its knowledge, there had been no official statements contradicting the poppy seller’s account. In support of this, it provided a statement, issued by the British Transport Police on 8 November 2023, after the publication of the article, regarding the alleged attack. The publication said that the statement did not contradict the poppy seller’s account; rather, it simply stated there was insufficient evidence to investigate his claims further. The statement read as follows:

“Two separate offences were reported to British Transport Police in relation to an incident at Edinburgh Waverley Station on Saturday 4 November.

[…]

The second is a reported assault on a poppy stall seller whilst a demonstration was taking place at the station. Detectives have extensively monitored CCTV and spoken with key identified witnesses. There is insufficient evidence to take the investigation further at this time”.

8. In response, the complainant stated that the article did not, entirely, distinguish the poppy seller’s claims as such. She noted that the headline used single quotation marks – and considered that it was misleading to not use double quotation marks, as single quotation marks did not distinguish whether the headline statements were direct quotes, or the publication’s interpretation of events. Furthermore, the complainant stated that the following extracts from the article – “Social media footage shows the 78-year-old – in his distinctive red beret – trying to escape. But the attack ended only when railway staff shoved the demonstrators away” and “Social media footage shows the 78-year-old trying to escape” – did not make clear that the attack had only alleged happened.

9. The complainant also stated that accurately reporting a different article – which she also considered to be inaccurate – was an insufficient defence for publishing misleading information.

10. The complainant also put forward a second statement from the British Transport Police, issued the day after the statement provided by the publication, to support her contention that the attack had not happened:

“We are aware that misleading information has been circulating in the mainstream media which has understandably led to those who sell poppies being fearful for their safety at train stations.

“We want to reiterate that we have no reason to believe that those who sell poppies are at any risk or being intentionally targeted.

“After extensive enquiries detectives have found no evidence of any deliberate act of assault at Edinburgh Waverley Railway Station. A man was arrested by BTP for a hate crime which occurred at the station. This offence is unconnected with the current crisis.

11. The publication stated, in response, that there was no difference between the use of single and double quotation marks, as the complainant contended – it also maintained that the article was “overwhelmingly clear” that it was reporting the poppy seller’s claims. Finally, the publication stated that the British Transport Police statement supplied by the complainant was “generic” and “unparticularised”, and did not identify the article under complaint, or any specific reporting, as inaccurate.

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

12. The Committee emphasised, firstly, that it was not making a finding as to whether the alleged attack had occurred. Its role was to decide whether there had been a breach of the Editors’ Code. The Code is clear that comment and conjecture, and indeed the claims and statements of individuals, can be reported, provided they are distinguished as such. However, the Committee was also clear that this does not absolve publications of their obligations under Clause 1 that significantly inaccurate, misleading or distorted information must be corrected.

13. The headline of the article, using single quote marks, referred to “[t]he brave poppy seller 'punched and attacked' by pro-Palestine mob” – the Committee recognised that the use of quotation marks in a headline generally indicates that a statement is a claim, which will then be expanded upon in the article. The Committee also recognised that, throughout the article, the poppy seller’s story was further distinguished as his own claims – for example, the opening sentence stated: “[v]eterans and Britons today rallied around a poppy seller who said he was punched and kicked”, and where the article included extensive quotes from the poppy seller regarding the incident, this was prefaced by the words “Following Saturday’s ordeal, [the poppy seller] said:”

14. The Committee recognised that parts of the article were not presented as claims - such as where the article reported: “Social media footage shows the 78-year-old trying to escape” – and noted that the publication could have taken greater care over these points. However, it was clear that articles should be read as a whole and, when doing so, it was satisfied that the article made clear it was reporting the poppy seller’s account of the alleged attack. The Committee also considered the newspaper’s use of single quotation marks in the headline to be a matter of editorial discretion – it did not consider the use of single quote marks was insufficient to distinguish the headline as the claims of an individual, where the article went on to make clear the basis of the poppy seller’s account. The Committee was satisfied that the publication had presented the claims as such, in line with the requirements of Clause 1(iv).

15. In addition, the Committee noted that the article was, largely, a report of a separate article by a different publication. The Committee also recognised that neither statement from the British Transport Police definitively stated that the attack alleged by the poppy seller had not happened – rather, they referred to a lack of evidence of an attack. Where the article under complaint accurately reported the information published in the separate article, where the complainant did not dispute that the poppy seller had made the claims published and, in the Committee’s view, where the article made clear that it was reporting on the claims of an individual, the Committee was satisfied that the publication had taken care over the accuracy of this article, and the article was not significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. There was no breach of Clause 1.

16. The Committee also noted the complainant’s concerns that the article was deliberately emotive. It made clear that Clause 1 does not relate to other concerns about the presentation of material, such as that it is overly emotive or sensationalist. Where the Committee did not consider the article to be inaccurate or misleading, there was no breach of Clause 1 in relation to the complainant’s concerns on this point.

Conclusions

17. The complaint was not upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

18. N/A


Date complaint received: 09/11/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 27/02/2024