Ruling

27813-20 Steinhardt v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      13th May 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 27813-20 Steinhardt v Mail Online

Summary of Complaint

1. Joe Steinhardt complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Pubs, shops and homes in Notting Hill are boarded up after boss of cancelled carnival urged revellers to stay off the streets – as 3,000 police are on alert for million-strong BLM march in London on Sunday” published on 28 August 2020.

2. The article reported plans for the Notting Hill Carnival to go ahead virtually, but that the streets of Notting Hill were still being boarded up “amid fears of large-scale protests”. It reported that Extinction Rebellion (XR) were planning a “civilly disobedient long weekend” and had urged supporters to join a Black Lives Matter (BLM) march – “dubbed ‘Million People March’” - from Notting Hill to Hyde Park. It said that, despite the Notting Hill Carnival moving online, it had “not stopped authorities preparing for public disorder”. It reported that shops, restaurants, and homes had been boarded up. A photo caption said that “Despite plans to move the west London street party online for the first time in its 54-year history, authorities have still been busy boarding up streets amid fears of public disorder and parties taking place over the long weekend”.

3. The article also included several photographs. One showed a pub with painted wooden boards up over its window and beer garden which was captioned “The boss of Notting Hill Carnival has urged revellers to stay off the streets this weekend amid plans for huge protests by Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion supporters”. A further photograph showed a clothes shop, which was also boarded up with a caption that said “Despite plans to move the west London street party online for the first time in its 54-year history, authorities have still been busy boarding up streets amid fears of public disorder and parties taking place over the long weekend”. Another photograph showed a branch of a café chain with painted boards over its window but was not captioned.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate. He said that it was not the case that a million people were expected to participate in a BLM march and so it was inaccurate to report that people were on alert for a “million-strong” march as claimed in the headline. In fact, he said that he only saw approximately 300 people in attendance at the subsequent march. He said that instead, the protest had been organised by a small group called the Million People Movement and named the “Million People March” as a reference to the historic “Million-Man March” in 1995. The protest was not endorsed or organised by the Black Lives Matter organisation – which at that time was not a formally registered entity in the UK – but rather associated itself more loosely with the wider Black Lives Matter movement.  The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to report that “authorities” had been busy boarding up the streets as although some businesses had been boarded, he said that there was no evidence that any public authorities were involved. Furthermore, the complainant said that the photographs used by the newspaper were old and did not show current events – he provided current photographs showing that this year, the pub had only been boarded on one side and the café had not been boarded at all. He said that the clothes shop had already been boarded up for months, so it was misleading to imply it had been boarded in fear of protests. Finally, he said that he had spoken to the owners of the pub and a bank which had been boarded and said that they had told him they had done so because they had been warned by police about “unauthorised carnival celebrations”, not because of the planned protest.

5. The newspaper said that the headline reference to “million-strong” referred to the organisers’ description of the joint XR and BLM protest as the “Million People March”. It said that it was reasonable to rely on this description. It also noted the protest followed similar high-profile and well-attended protests as well as coinciding with the previously well-attended Notting Hill Carnival. It also noted that it had been estimated that a similar number of attendees had attended the carnival in previous years.  It said that regardless of the actual attendance, this description was not significantly inaccurate – it said that the article was clearly published in advance of the protest and was reporting on the speculated turnout. It said that it was clear that the protest was expected to be a significant public event with a large number of attendees – as reported in the article, police were on standby to deploy 3000 officers, eight armed-response teams and 46 officers dedicated to “firearm intervention tactics”. However, on receipt of the complaint, it offered to amend the headline to say “Million People March” to reflect the organisers’ own description. 

6. The newspaper said that in relation to the claim that “authorities” had been boarding up streets, it noted that the clothes shop pictured in the article had issued a statement in 2018 in advance of the Carnival which said, “The council board off all their garden spaces, everything is closed off”. For this reason, it said that even if the boarding had been outsourced to private companies or carried out by businesses themselves, it did not give rise to any significant inaccuracy. However, in its first response to IPSO’s investigation, it offered to amend the article to say that “property and shop owners” have still been busy boarding up streets.

7. The newspaper said that the photographs were provided by a press association. It accepted that the photographs of the pub and café chain were from previous years, and the reason they were published was because the date and accompanying explanation that they were for comparing the preparations with previous years was not visible when previewed. On receipt of the complaint, it replaced the photograph of the pub with an image taken in August 2020, which showed the boards being put up, and replaced the image of the café with a different one taken in 2020. It said that the photograph of the clothes shop has been taken in August 2020 and although it could not say how long the boarding had been in place, it provided a slightly wider picture taken at the same time which showed work being carried out on the boards. It also noted that a statement released in 2018 by the clothes shop said that it “always surrounds the building with wooden boards…We have always boarded up the shop in that time [of the Notting Hill Carnival], everybody does now”. For all of the images, it said that regardless of whether the photographs were from 2018 or 2020, they were an accurate representation of the steps businesses had taken to prepare for the protest and their publication in the article did not give rise to any significant inaccuracy on this point.  Nevertheless, during direct correspondence with the complainant, the newspaper offered in principle to publish a standalone correction in its online corrections and clarification column noting that images had been used were taken in previous years. During IPSO’s investigation, it instead proposed the following wording as a footnote correction after the complainant had refused its initial offer:

In an earlier version of this article we mistakenly included images in a preview of buildings boarded up for previous Notting Hill carnivals. These have since been removed and we are happy to set the record straight.

8. In response, the complainant noted that although the newspaper offered to replace the photographs on receipt of the complaint, it did not do so until IPSO began its investigation. He did not accept the newspaper’s proposed correction.

Relevant Code Provisions

9. 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

10. It was accepted that the article had used photographs of the pub and café from previous years because of an error in selecting the photographs from the press agency, and these photographs had been presented as being contemporaneous. The presentation of historical images as contemporaneous ones constituted a failure to take care not to publish misleading and distorted information which could have been avoided upon closer inspection of the photos’ explanations. There was a breach of Clause 1(i).

11. The Committee then considered whether this failure to take care gave rise to a significantly misleading statement or distortion requiring correction. The photos from 2020 supplied by the complainant clearly showed minimal boarding on the pub and no boarding on the café. This was in contrast to the photographs from previous years published in the article, which showed both premises completely boarded up. The published images were also used to illustrate the article’s broader points about the preparations made by businesses in advance of possible disorder. In the Committee’s view, the selection and presentation of the two photographs was significantly misleading as to the level of preparation undertaken by two businesses and the perceived threat posed by the protest. The footnote correction offered by the publication identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record. It was offered promptly in circumstances where a previous in-principle correction had been offered on this point and the photographs removed. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii) on this point.

12. The Committee was mindful that publications have the freedom to speculate on future events and to make predictions. Their obligation under Clause 1, however, is to ensure that care is taken over the accuracy of the article in setting out the basis for the speculation and in distinguishing speculation from fact.  In this case, the article was reporting on a planned protest and its predicted turnout. It described the police being “on alert” for a “million-strong BLM march” that coming Sunday. The organisers had named the event the Million People March, and this was made clear in the article, which stated that the protest was “dubbed ‘Million People March’”. There was no evidence that the organisers had used this description for anything other than indicating the level of support expected or desired, and as such it was reasonable to report this where the article made clear it was the organisers’ own claim. In any event, it would be clear to readers that claims about protest attendance are inherently speculative. As such, the claim that police were on alert for a “million-strong” march did not constitute a failure to take care not to publish misleading or inaccurate information nor did it constitute a significantly misleading or distorted statement requiring correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

13. The Committee accepted that the protest was loosely associated with Black Lives Matter – however, it did not appear to be disputed that it was protesting on the issues synonymous with the BLM movement. As such, the Committee did not consider it to be significantly misleading to describe the protest as ”a BLM march”. There was no breach of Clause 1.

14. The article stated that “authorities” had been boarding up streets. The Committee noted that it was not in dispute that public authorities were preparing for possible disorder by, for example, putting 3,000 police on high alert. Nor was it in dispute that some business owners had engaged in boarding up. In this context, the Committee considered that who exactly had instructed the boards to be erected did not constitute a significantly inaccurate or misleading statement; especially where public authorities were preparing in other ways. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

15. The photograph of the clothes shop was contemporaneous; however, the complainant argued that the boarding put on the shop pre-dated the preparation for the protests, and therefore rendered the use of this image in this article inaccurate. It was not clear that the boarding was unconnected to the protests and the complainant did not know when or why the boarding was put up, or whether the events of the summer bank holiday were a factor in this. In the absence of the involvement of the establishment, the Committee was unable to establish the reasons for the presence of the boards and could not make a finding on this point.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial Action Required

17. The correction was offered with sufficient promptness and prominence to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii) and should now be published.

 

Date complaint received: 03/09/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 31/03/2021