Ruling

22289-23 Laughlan v Daily Mail

  • Complaint Summary

    William Laughlan complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “POPPY SELLER, 78, 'PUNCHED BY PROTESTERS’”, published on 7 November 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      3rd April 2024

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 22289-23 Laughlan v Daily Mail


Summary of Complaint

1. William Laughlan complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “POPPY SELLER, 78, 'PUNCHED BY PROTESTERS’”, published on 7 November 2023.

2. The article, which appeared on the front page and continued on page 6, reported on an alleged attack of a poppy seller at Edinburgh Waverley Station during a pro-Palestine protest. Its sub-headline reported: “Veteran tells Mail of station attack — as leaders of Gaza march on Armistice Day refuse police plea to cancel”. The article then opened by reporting: “[a] POPPY seller caught up in a pro-Palestine rally said he was punched and kicked by a mob of protesters.”, and that “[the poppy seller], who served with the Army in Northern Ireland, was set upon while manning a stall at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station”.

3. The article went on to report on the alleged attack in question. It reported 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”. The article also included numerous quotes from the poppy seller. 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.’ He said that he managed to get up and was rescued by three ladies in red railway uniforms. ‘I’ve never known anything like it,’ he said”. The article also reported that “[the poppy seller], who told the Mail he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, 32 Signal Regiment during the Troubles, insisted that he was attacked on purpose”.

4. The article also reported that the Poppyscotland had commented on the alleged attack; “[the poppy seller] was a volunteer for Poppyscotland, which said: ‘While we respect the rights of people to protest within the law, the safety and welfare of our volunteers is of paramount importance. ‘Our volunteer is safe and well, and we thank those that took the time to escort him out of the station.’”.

5. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format as the Daily Mail version – albeit without the subheading. This version was published on 6 November, under the headline “Poppy seller veteran, 78, tells how he was punched by pro-Palestine protesters as he fundraised at Scottish station that was besieged by demonstrators... as leaders of the Gaza march set for Armistice Day REFUSE a police appeal to cancel”.

6. The online version of the article also included a video of the scene inside Edinburgh Waverley station, which was taken by member of the public and posted on social media. The video showed the poppy seller visible within a group of protestors.

7. A similar version of the article also appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail. This version was also published on 7 November, under the same headline, and appeared on the front page and continued on page 4.

8. The sub-heading of this version of the article reported: “Veteran tells Mail of ugly attack as angry mob waving Palestinian flags stormed Edinburgh railway station”. It opened by reporting: “A VETERAN poppy seller who was caught up in a pro-Palestine rally has told how he was ‘punched’ and ‘kicked’ by protesters. [The poppy seller], 78, said the attack happened as he was manning a Poppyscotland stall in Edinburgh Waverley Station on Saturday”. It went on to report that “Footage on social media appeared to show [the poppy seller] – wearing his red beret and distinctive leather jacket – ducking down behind a banner to escape. He said the ordeal only ended when three railway employees shoved the demonstrators away”.

9. This version also reported a similar account from the poppy seller of the alleged attack: “[The poppy seller] told the Scottish Daily Mail: ‘What was happening to me was I was getting shoved back. ‘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, then I got another punch in my side. ‘I managed to get up, and as I stood up the driver – who comes in to collect the money – all he could see is my beret, and knew I was in trouble. ‘Three ladies with red uniforms on came out and they shoved them away. I’ve never known anything like it.” The article also added: “[the poppy seller], who told the Mail that he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, 32 Signals Regiment during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is convinced it was a deliberate attack”.

10. This version of the article also reported that: “A Poppyscotland spokesman said: ‘While we respect the rights of people to protest within the law, the safety and welfare of our volunteers is of paramount importance. ‘One of our volunteers was infringed upon when trying to clear his stall to depart at the usual time of 3.30pm at Waverley Station on Saturday, November 4. Our volunteer is safe and well, and we thank those that took the time to escort him out of the station.’

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

12. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) because the alleged attack had not occurred – he stated that the British Transport Police had investigated the matter and published a report saying that “the poppy seller was not punched or intimidated”. The complainant supplied IPSO with this statement, which was issued on 8 November 2023. It 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”.  

“We have no reason to believe that poppy sellers are at any risk or being intentionally targeted”.

13. The complainant also contended that the poppy seller was not a veteran, and had made this up – he therefore said the article was inaccurate to report that he was a veteran, and that the publication had reported this without due diligence.

14. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It stated that the article was based off an interview with the poppy seller – it supplied IPSO a recording of this interview – and that the Editors’ Code is clear that the claims of individuals can be reported. Further, it said that the article was careful throughout to refer to the poppy seller’s claims as allegations; parts of the headlines were reported in quote marks, and the poppy seller’s claims were prefaced by terms such as: “[the poppy seller] said” and “[the poppy seller] told” throughout. The publication did note that there were “minor stylistic differences” between the versions of the article and how they distinguished the poppy seller’s claims; however, it stated that readers of any version would be left in no doubt that the article reported the claims of an individual.

15. In addition, the publication stated that it had taken care over the accuracy of the article by contacting numerous relevant parties prior to its publication – it had contacted Poppyscotland, the British Transport Police and Police Scotland for a comment on the alleged attack. It supplied IPSO with this correspondence. The publication also contacted the Ministry of Defence to confirm the poppy seller’s veteran status prior to publication, and supplied IPSO with this correspondence. The Ministry of Defence responded after seeing the article, and did not explicitly confirm or deny whether the poppy seller was a veteran, but stated:

“Can see this has been featured as a front page splash – assuming you don’t need anything further from us?“

16. Further to this, the publication said that the statement issued by the British Transport Police did not state that the allegations were false. Instead, the British Transport Police statement said there was: “insufficient evidence to take the investigation further at this time” and that “[w]e have no reason to believe that poppy sellers are at any risk or being intentionally targeted”. The publication also noted that the complainant was not at the protest, nor did he have any first-hand knowledge of the alleged incident involving the poppy seller.

17. In response, the complainant stated that the article omitted to include the word “claimed” – and therefore did not distinguish the poppy seller’s account as claims. He also reiterated that the British Transport Police had investigated the claims, and found “no evidence of an assault” on the poppy seller.

18. Further, the complainant maintained that the poppy seller was not a veteran – he said that his veteran status had not been confirmed by the Ministry of Defence in correspondence prior to the article’s publication. Finally, he stated that, although he did not have first-hand knowledge of what occurred at the protest, neither did the publication’s reporters.

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

19. 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.

20. Firstly, the Committee noted that the headlines of the print versions of the article referred to the “poppy seller, 78, ‘punched by protesters’” – 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. Similarly, the headline of the online version clearly distinguished the alleged attack as the poppy seller’s claims – “Poppy seller veteran, 78, tells how he was punched by pro-Palestine protesters”.

21. Subsequently, the Committee recognised that, throughout the article, the poppy seller’s story was further distinguished as his own account of what happened, rather than a statement of fact. For example, the Committee noted that the sub-heading of both versions of the print article made clear that the poppy seller had told his story to the publication. Further, the text of the different versions of the article consistently reported, for example, that the poppy seller “said he was”, or “has told how”, he was allegedly assaulted. The article also included a detailed account from the poppy seller, which was prefaced by the words “[the poppy seller] said […]” and “[the poppy seller] told”, respectively.

22. The Committee recognised that parts of the Daily Mail version of the article described what was “show[n]” in the video of the alleged incident: “[the poppy seller], who served with the Army in Northern Ireland, was set upon while manning a stall at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. 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”. However, it noted both that the video was embedded in the online version of the article and that this factual description of the poppy seller’s claims was consistent with parts of his account; as reported in the article: “’So I thought I had got to get the money out of here’”; “He said that he managed to get up and was rescued by three ladies in red railway uniforms”.

23. Indeed, the Committee was also clear that articles should be read as a whole. When doing so, it was satisfied that the different versions of article each made clear they were reporting the poppy seller’s account of the alleged attack. The Committee was satisfied that the publication had presented the claims as such, in line with the requirements of Clause 1(iv).

24. In addition, the Committee also recognised that the statement from the British Transport Police provided by the complainant did not state that the alleged attack had not happened – rather, it referred to “insufficient evidence” to take forward an investigation at the time. 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 the article, and they were not significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. There was no breach of Clause 1.

25. The Committee also noted the complainant’s concerns that the article inaccurately reported that the poppy seller was a veteran. However, it recognised that the complainant’s position on this point was based on speculation – he was not in a position to know or question the poppy seller’s military history. In any event, the article also distinguished this point as the poppy seller’s personal account – “who told the Mail he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, 32 Signal Regiment” - and the Ministry of Defence had not disputed the poppy seller’s veteran status after seeing the article. The Committee was satisfied the publication had taken care over the accuracy of the article on this point; and the article was not significantly inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

26. The complaint was not upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

27. N/A


Date complaint received: 09/11/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 15/03/2024