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Complainant Name:
Northumbria Police

Clauses Noted: 1

Publication: The Independent on Sunday


Northumbria Police complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined "Police under fire for handling of Moat manhunt", published by The Independent on Sunday on 5 January 2014, was misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice.

The newspaper had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information in breach of Clause 1 (i), but had offered sufficient action to remedy the initial breach.

The article reported an allegation by the family of PC David Rathband that Northumbria Police had "failed" to protect his welfare after he was shot by Raoul Moat whilst on duty, and cited in support of this claim a nine-month delay before PC Rathband received counselling he had been promised by the police force, during which time he had tried to take his own life. It also quoted the ghost writer of PC Rathband's autobiography, who commented, "David [told] me how he had to buy his own cane - I think that says it all". The article stated that Northumbria Police had previously rejected allegations that it failed in its duty of care to PC Rathband but had declined to comment on the day before publication.

The complainant said that the report included inaccuracies - including the claim that it had declined to comment - and failed to take proper account of its response to the claims. In March 2012 it had issued a statement to the newspaper setting out its position that the delay in providing support had arisen because of PC Rathband's difficulty in accepting that he needed psychological support; his "lifestyle commitments"; the need to obtain his consent for access to his medical records; and the channelling of correspondence through his lawyers. Before the publication of the article under complaint, the complainant had provided brief further comment and had confirmed to the newspaper that the 2012 statement "still stood". In addition, a representative of the force had informed the reporter in a voicemail in March 2012 that it had purchased two canes for PC Rathband; again, this had been omitted. Merely noting the force's broad denial was insufficient in this context.

The newspaper said that, while preparing the article, the reporter had sent a number of questions regarding PC Rathband's welfare to the force. The force had replied that it could not comment due to the upcoming inquest and on-going civil claims. It was reasonable to say that the force had declined to comment, and the fact that the reporter had been told that the previous statement still stood did not alter the position. In any case, the newspaper had not itself ascribed blame for the delays in PC Rathband's care, and the article had made clear that the police force denied any failures. Two years had passed since the alleged telephone message, and the reporter had no recollection of it. Nonetheless, the newspaper offered to publish a wording making clear that "the force maintains that responsibility for the delay lay largely with PC Rathband himself" and that "Northumbria says it purchased canes for [PC Rathband]".

Sufficient remedial action offered


Clause 1 (i) states that: "the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information". This does not necessarily amount to an obligation to contact those who are the subject of allegations for their comments, but where those allegations are significant, publications will often need to do so in order to test their veracity or to obtain alternative versions of events. Once in possession of those comments, the newspaper must consider carefully what to include in the published material. While the Code does not impose any obligation on publications to be "balanced", care must be taken to ensure that readers would not be misled by omission.

When in 2014 the newspaper contacted Northumbria Police for its comments on a number of questions regarding the welfare of PC David Rathband, it had not raised the issue of the delay in his receiving counselling or the allegation that he had been obliged to purchase his cane himself. The newspaper was, however, aware of the 2012 statement, which outlined the force's response on the delay in detail, and had received confirmation, in response to an inquiry, that the force had not changed its position in this regard.

In its report, the newspaper had outlined the delay which had occurred before PC Rathband received the treatment, along with comments by a family member implying that the delay had arisen because of the force's failings. This was a serious charge against the force, particularly in the context of PC Rathband's subsequent suicide. While the newspaper had not been obliged to include the force's statement in response verbatim, the omission of even minimal outlines of its response on this specific issue - of which the newspaper was aware - in favour of a mere denial of any failings, represented, in the Commission's view, a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, because it tended to suggest that the force could not or had not disputed the family's characterisation of the delay. This raised a breach of Clause 1 (i) of the Editors' Code.

The Commission turned to the further allegation that PC Rathband had been obliged to purchase his own cane. In the context of the presentation of the allegation, which portrayed this alleged neglect as demonstrating the force's overall treatment of PC Rathband, the Commission considered it significant, and the newspaper's failure to afford the complainant the opportunity to comment on it raised a further breach of Clause 1 (i) of the Code. The newspaper was therefore required under the terms of Clause 1 (ii) to publish a clarification on these points. The Commission concluded that the proposed clarification was sufficient to remedy the breaches of Clause 1 (i), and that the newspaper should now publish it in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii) of the Code.

The final matter for the Commission to consider was the complaint about the claim that "the force declined to comment yesterday, citing the forthcoming inquest as well as a civil claim". While the complainant considered that this incorrectly suggested the force had declined to comment on the welfare issues discussed in the article, the Commission noted that it had in fact declined to comment on the questions put to it by the journalist about PC Rathband's welfare in the days prior to publication, for the reasons cited. There was no further breach of the Code on this point.

Date Published:

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