The media’s careful balance of general view crime scenes

02 February 2021

Author: Olivia O'Kane
Practice Area: Media and Entertainment

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When reporting crime the print and broadcast media must undertake a careful balance between informing the public with an interesting image to support the text and ensuring the image and report does not libel or present an inaccurate or misleading depiction of the crime scene. A careful legal, regulatory and editorial balancing of contempt law, libel law, privacy and data protection laws are all engaged when this careful balancing of rights is undertaken by the media.

In Singh v Birmingham Mail (27701-20), the Complaints Committee (the “Committee”) of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (“IPSO”) found that there had been no breach by the Birmingham Mail of Clause 1 of IPSO’s Editors’ Code of Practice, which requires the press to refrain from publishing inaccurate, misleading or otherwise distorted information.

A key factor in the complaint not being upheld centred on the care taken by the newspaper in ensuring that the image depicted was accurate. The important takeaway from this regulatory decision is that when relying on general view camera shots, when undertaking the delicate balance of reporting crime and not infringing others rights, the media should make it clear in the report that it is a general shot by signposting facts such as the actual address of the scene, not giving undue prominence to one location or landmark, and other key facts to accurately inform the reader’s understanding of the report.

Background

The complainant, Gurjit Singh, complained to IPSO that the Birmingham Mail breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in articles headlined ‘Cannabis Farm worth £1m busted at Wolverhampton home’, published on 21 August 2020, and ‘Owners of £1 million cannabis farm on run after major drugs bust’, published a week later.

The first article, which appeared online only, reported a police raid at a “Cannabis Farm” at a Wolverhampton home. The article reported that the ‘illicit factory’ was located on Hazel Road. The article was illustrated with a photograph showing two police vehicles parked on a residential road, with several houses shown. The photograph was captioned ‘the illicit factory in Hazel Road, Wolverhampton, was shut down’.

The second article appeared in print, and was a follow-up to the first online article, reporting that the owners of the ‘illicit factory’ had not yet been apprehended by the police. It was illustrated with the same picture as the first article; the caption of the photo was ‘police at the scene.’ The second article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline ‘Owners of £1million cannabis farm on run after major bust in Wolverhampton’. It also included the same picture showing the police vehicles on a residential street, which was again captioned ‘the illicit factory in Hazel Road, Wolverhampton, was shut down’.

The Arguments

Mr Singh, as the owner of one of the residential houses featured prominently in the photographs published in these articles, complained that the publication of these photographs was misleading contrary to Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice. He considered that, as his house appeared so prominently in the photograph chosen to illustrate the articles, readers may be misled into believing that the raid had occurred at his house. He further said that his house was located on another road across the street from Hazel Road, and that by associating his home with the drugs raid reported by the articles, the articles caused substantial upset to his family. The complainant also noted that he had been contacted by people he knew asking him if he was involved with the alleged criminal activity, which caused further upset to his family.

The newspaper said it did not accept that Clause 1 had been breached. The photograph showed police vehicles attending the scene of the raid. A number of properties were shown in the background of the picture, including the complainant’s, and there was no indication that the complainant’s home was the subject of the reported raid. Furthermore, the publication said that there were repeated references to Hazel Road, the actual location of the “factory”, throughout the article and in the caption of the photographs as they appeared online; as such, it did not believe that the articles could potentially mislead readers into believing the complainant’s home, which was located on a different road, housed the cannabis farm.

Relevant Code Provisions

Clause 1 of the Code of Practice reads as follows:

  1. The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
  2. 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.

The Decision

The Complaints Committee found that there was evidence that the Birmingham Mail had taken care not to mislead readers over the location of the raided property, this evidence consisting primarily of the details of the raided property found within the article, read in conjunction with the photographs and captions. It accepted the publication’s position that the photographs were chosen to illustrate the police presence in the area, and that the articles under complaint made clear the location of the “illicit factory” with repeated references to Hazel Road (the location of the raided property and a different road from where the complainant’s property is located) appearing throughout the articles and in the photo captions. While the Committee noted that the complainant’s home appeared prominently in the photograph, the photograph showed several properties, and there was no indication, either in the articles or in the photograph captions, that the complainant’s property was the site of the raid. The police cars in the image were parked on the other side of the road to the complainant’s house and there was no police activity at the property itself. For these reasons, the Committee found that the articles were not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted; and as such, there was no breach of Clause 1. Mr Singh’s complaint was not upheld.

Conclusion

This decision demonstrates the important legal and regulatory burden to ensure that information published is not inaccurate, misleading or otherwise distorted, particularly when the publication is in possession of all the facts. The Birmingham Mail had here done so, but this regulatory decision underpins the careful policing of this requirement by IPSO as does other recent decisions such as Bride v Milton Keynes Citizen (15682-20).

*This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute, nor should be regarded, as a substitute for taking legal advice that is tailored to your circumstances.

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