Clauses Noted: 1
Publication: Daily Mail
Following complaints from members of the public, the Press Complaints Commission investigated whether an article headlined "Guilty: Amanda Knox looks stunned as appeal against murder conviction is rejected", published on Mail Online on 3 October 2011, was inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice.
The complaint was upheld.
The online article reported that Amanda Knox had lost her appeal against her murder conviction in Italy. In fact, the appeal had been successful. The article had appeared online for under two minutes, before it was removed and replaced with an article reporting the correct verdict.
In addition to the overarching complaint that the article had reported the wrong verdict, the complainants also drew the Commission's attention to: the inclusion of quotes attributed to prosecutors, apparently reacting to the guilty verdict ("justice has been done" although "it was sad two young people would be spending time in jail"); a description of the reaction in the court room to the supposed verdict ("Knox...sank into her chair sobbing uncontrollably while her family and friends hugged each other in tears"; Meredith Kercher's family "remained expressionless, staring straight ahead, glancing over just once at the distraught Knox family"); and the claims that Ms Knox was "taken out of court escorted by prison guards and into a waiting van which took her back to her cell" and would be "put on a suicide watch".
The newspaper apologised that the wrong verdict had been published on its website for around 90 seconds. It explained that - in high-profile cases such as this - it was standard practice for newspapers to prepare two stories in advance. There had been confusion in the court as the judge had initially found Ms Knox guilty of slander; he had then found her not guilty of murder. As a result, several news sources had initially published the wrong verdict. The quotations had been obtained from the prosecution in advance of the trial, to be published in the event that the appeal was rejected. In addition, the Italian authorities had advised the reporter that all those found guilty of murder were placed on suicide watch as a matter of course.
The newspaper said that the individual responsible for the error had been disciplined. Moreover, it had published an explanation online apologising to its readers for the error. The correct verdict had been reported in its print edition the following day. The newspaper also made clear that it had launched an immediate internal inquiry to examine its procedures in the light of the complaint. As a result, ‘set and hold' stories would now be commissioned to include only the basic verdict and factual background material: there would be no colour and no quotes based on possible outcomes.
Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code states that newspapers must take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information. In this case, the newspaper (and other media outlets) had published the wrong verdict in a major trial owing, it appeared, to considerable confusion in the courtroom. This error raised an immediate breach of the Code; however, the Commission considered that the rapid publication of the correct verdict - together with an explanation and apology to readers - was a proportionate and appropriate response under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
Nonetheless, the Commission was particularly concerned about other aspects of the report, especially the account of the reaction by those in the courtroom to the apparent verdict, and to the subsequent actions of Ms Knox. In the Commission's view, the article had sought to present contemporaneous reporting of events (describing, in colourful terms, how individuals had physically behaved) which simply had not taken place. This was clearly not acceptable.
The Commission did not see any difficulty in newspapers writing ‘set and hold' articles. It understood that there were, at times, pressures to ensure that readers were informed of current affairs at the earliest opportunity. However, it is also vitally important that descriptions of events, especially trials, are published in a manner which complies with the Editors' Code. Describing reactions and behaviour that have not taken place, in a factual manner as if they had, must always raise a breach of Clause 1 of the Code.
The Commission acknowledged that the article which reported the verdict incorrectly had only been published for a short period. It also welcomed the swiftness of the newspaper's response and its decision to examine its procedures in light of the events, which had led to changes in the manner in which it would approach similar stories. Nonetheless, given the other information in the report, the Commission decided to uphold the complaint. It trusted that the preparation of future articles would not involve inaccurate descriptions in this way.
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