Independent Press Standards Organisation ruling: Laker v Daily Mail

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 28947-20 Laker v Daily Mail

Summary of Complaint

1. Laura Laker complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “You can’t say Lycra louts”, published on 30 September 2020.

2. The article reported on the draft guidelines, produced by the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy, on the media’s reporting of road collisions. The headline was followed by a sub-heading that stated campaigners had called for the abuse of cyclists “to be made a hate crime”, with the text of the article stating that under the proposed media cyclists would get the “same protection as domestic violence victims and refugees”. The article went on to report that under the Road Collision Reporting Guidelines (RCPG), which were “backed” by the press regulator IMPRESS, cyclists who claimed they had been “insulted” would be able to make formal complaints on the grounds that it “provoked hared”. The article then suggested that under the RCPG newspapers would be “gagged” from reporting if an injured cyclist “was not wearing a helmet or high-vis clothing” and would instead be “urged to shame ‘criminal’ motorist” for road collisions involving bicycles with media coverage at present dehumanised cyclists and favouring “speeding motorists”. The article also included the comments made by a prominent motorist campaigner, who suggested the RCPG were attempt by “the Lycra-clad liberal elite” to “muzzle the Press”.

3. The complainant, one of the authors of the RCPG, said the article misrepresented the proposed guidance, including its second clause related to discrimination. The complainant said this clause recommended publications to avoid using “negative generalisations” and “dehumanising language” which may “incite violence or hatred” against road users; the guidance was trying to raise industry standards, not advocate a change to the legal interpretation and application of hate crimes. She said the article inaccurately and misleadingly conflated this, suggesting that under the RCPG “abuse of cyclists would be treated a ‘hate crime’ and they would get the same protection as domestic violence victims and refugees”. She added cyclist would not be able to make a formal complaint about being insulted, as suggested by the article, unless the language used “amounted to dehumanisation” and thereby “risked their safety”. The complainant also expressed concern that the article inaccurately presented the RCPG as a “campaign” to “gag” or “ban” the media from using certain language or reporting certain details of a collision such as whether an injured cyclist was “not wearing a helmet or high-vis clothing.” The guidelines sought to offer guidance on best practice; they were clearly not seeking some form of legally enforceable censorship. In addition, she said the article was inaccurate to state that the RCPG was “backed” by IMPRESS when the press regulator had, in fact, only provided advice on the compilation of guidelines.

4. The publication did not accept that the article breached the Editors’ Code. It said the article was a reasonable characterisation of the RCPG which recommended “publishers must avoid using negative generalisations of road users and must not use dehumanising language or that which may incite violence or hatred against a road user in comment and news coverage”, with “Lycra lout” given as a specific example of dehumanising language. This term was included in the supplementary section of the draft guidelines and also on the RCRG website, with the latter suggesting the term “demonis[ed] the most vulnerable on the roads”. The publication also noted that the language of the RCPG, specifically the clause related to discrimination, mirrored that found in hate crime legislation. It noted that the RCRG proposed that “disputed words […] must be more than provocative, offensive, hurtful or objectionable” and must include “speech that is likely to cause others to commit acts of violence against members of the group or discriminate against them”. In this context, the publication said it was not significantly inaccurate or misleading to report that the abuse of cyclists would be “treated as a ‘hate crime”. In any event, the publication said readers would not have concluded that the article, when read as a whole, was about proposals to change hate crime legislation in any way.

5. The publication did not accept that the complainant’s further concerns raised a breach of the Code either. It did not consider that the article was inaccurate or misleading to refer to “bans” or “gagging” where the RCPG sought to provide guidance on what the media could say about a particular subject, with the draft guidelines “full of references” to language such as publishers “must not use” or “must avoid”. Furthermore, it noted that the third clause of the RCPG made clear publishers should “avoid reference to personal protective equipment, such as hi-vis and helmets, except when demonstrably relevant”. It also suggested that the distinction between IMPRESS providing advice on the guidelines and the regulator backing them was immaterial. In any event, it noted that the press release shared made clear that the draft guidelines were produced “in collaboration with national roads policing, academics and experts in the field, road safety charities, and the National Union of Journalists’ ethics council, and advised by IMPRESS.”

6. Notwithstanding its position that there was no breach of the Code, on receipt of the complaint from the IPSO, the publication offered to publish the clarification below in its established Correction and Clarifications Column on page 2 as well as online where it would appear for 24 hours on the News page before being archived in the usual way. The publication noted that it had removed the online version of this article for reasons unrelated to this complaint.

“A sub-headline to an article on September 30 about road collision reporting guidelines said that campaigners had called for abuse of cyclists ‘to be made a hate crime’. While campaigners have called for publishers to avoid using language that is likely to cause others to commit acts of violence against cyclists, we are happy to clarify that they had not called for the use of such language to be made a criminal offence.”

7. The complainant rejected this offer of resolution and requested that the newspaper provide her with the right to reply in an article of “equal length and prominence” to the original article (which appeared on page 13) as well as a written apology from the Editor. Following this, the newspaper offered to publish a letter from the complainant setting out her position and to share with her a private letter of regret from the Managing Editor. This proposal by the publication was rejected, with the complainant concerned about the subsequent coverage the RCPG received which “mimicked” the newspaper’s inaccurate and misleading report.

8. During IPSOs investigation, on 19 January, the publication offered to publish an article by the complainant and the following slightly amended wording on the same terms to further clarify matters:

“A sub-headline to an article on September 30 about road collision reporting guidelines said that campaigners had called for abuse of cyclists ‘to be made a hate crime’. While campaigners have called for publishers to avoid using language that is likely to cause others to commit acts of violence against cyclists, we are happy to clarify that they had not in fact called for the use of such language to be made a criminal offence.”

9. The complainant did not consider the proposals put forward by the publication during IPSOs investigation sufficient to resolve her complaint.

Relevant Code 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

10. The Committee considered first the sub-headline of the article, which stated “Campaigners call for the abuse of cyclists to be made a hate crime”. The claim was repeated in the body of the article: “Under proposed media guidelines, abuse of cyclists would be treated as a ‘hate crime’ and they would get the same protection as domestic violence victims and refugees”. In the view of the Committee, these assertions carried the clear implication that the guidelines were calling for such abuse to be treated as criminal behaviour. This implication was inaccurate – while the guidelines called on publishers to avoid using language which may  “incite violence or hatred towards road users”, there was no suggestion within the document that the authors were advocating for new, or a change to existing, legislation on hate crime. The Committee was concerned that the publication had inaccurately reported information featured clearly within a publicly accessible proposal that was, at the time of publication, out for consultation. This inaccuracy had featured prominently in the article and as such represented a clear failure by the newspaper not to publish misleading and inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1 (i).

11. The newspaper had published significantly inaccurate information on this point and under the terms of Clause 1 (ii) it was required to correct this. The newspaper had offered to publish a clarification in both its established Corrections and Clarifications column and online, where readers would be familiar with it as the place to find updates on articles or points of correction. This was offered promptly at the start of IPSO’s investigation and satisfied the Code’s requirement for due prominence. In addition, the final wording proposed by the publication acknowledged the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record. As such, the Committee considered that this clarification, offered on 19 January by the newspaper, was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

12. The Committee noted that the RCPG sought to advise media organisations on how they should report on road traffic collisions, with its second clause explicitly recommending that “publishers must avoid using negative generalisations of road users and must not use dehumanising language”. “Lycra lout” was given as a specific example of dehumanising language in a supplementary section of the guidelines. It was not, therefore, misleading to characterise the guidance as a “ban” on the term “lycra lout” – the language used in the guidelines was emphatic as to what publishers “must” or “must not” do, and the article reflected this, albeit using equivalent rather than verbatim terms. Similarly, the Committee did not agree that the assertion that publications would be “gagged” from reporting if an injured cyclist was not wearing safety equipment was misleading, given that the guidelines stated: “avoid reference to personal protective equipment, such as hi-vis and helmets, except when demonstrably relevant”. As such, the Committee found the article did not raise a breach of Clause 1 on these points.

13. In addition, the Committee did not consider the article significantly misleading in regard to the proposed complaints process for “insulted” cyclists, where the article made clear the grounds by which a formal complaint could be made (“on the grounds that it ‘provoked hatred’”) and where the guidelines themselves defined language that “dehumanises is that which is intended to, or is likely to, provoke hatred or to put a person or group in fear”. Finally, the Committee did not consider the article significantly misleading to report that IMPRESS “backed” the RCPG, where the complainant acknowledged that this press regulator had provided advice on the proposed guidelines on the media’s reporting of traffic collisions and where the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy had publicised the fact it had been advised by IMPRESS in the press release which accompanied the publication of the draft guidelines.  As such, there was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

Conclusion

14. The complaint was upheld in part under Clause 1 (i).

Remedial Action Required

15. The clarification already offered by the publication clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Date complaint received: 9/11/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 31/03/2021 (Source: IPSO)

Further reading on the NEWS FROM CRYSTAL PALACE website:

OPINION (because we have yet to be banned by cyclists from voicing it): These crackpot proposals are not only a danger to the freedom of the press. They are also a grave danger to freedom of speech in this country. Published on Oct 1, 2020 at 4:53 PM

‘Consultation’ calls for news media to call road traffic accidents ‘incidents’ – and to call cyclists ‘persons’. Published on Oct 1, 2020 at 4:53 PM

One thought on “Independent Press Standards Organisation ruling: Laker v Daily Mail

  1. We are heading towards a society where everybody is banned from criticising anyone else or even expressing a viewpoint which differs from anyone else’s.

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