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Law Column: Reporting terrorist attacks – lessons from C4 News Ofcom breach

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In September this year, Ofcom found Channel 4 News to have seriously breached the broadcasting code in its reporting of the Westminster terror attack.  The programme had committed the cardinal sin of naming the wrong man, a breach of rule 5.1 of the Broadcast Code (accuracy).  The decision sets out hard reminders for all news organisations.

The report

On 22 March 2017, Channel 4 News reported on the terror attack that had taken place in London earlier that day.  The first half of the programme focused on one man, Abu Izzadeen, who the programme wrongly identified as the person responsible for the attack and who had been shot dead by police.  In fact, Abu Izzadeen was in prison and Khalid Masood was later confirmed as the attacker.

It is worth setting out the sequence of events.

  • At approximately 17:30 a journalist monitoring social media informed the programme editor of speculation that the suspect may be Abu Izzadeen.
  • At 18:30 the programme editor and managing editor asked the Senior Home Affairs Correspondent (SHAC) (an experienced and award winning journalist) to check the accuracy of the rumours.
  • Between 18:30 and 18:35 the SHAC communicated with two sources, one of whom was unable to identify the suspect and one who believed it to be Abu Izzadeen. The second was a trusted and previously reliable source believed to be in a position to know the identity of the attacker.
  • At 18:45 the decision to name the suspect was referred to the Editor of Channel 4 News.
  • At 18:56, minutes before the programme went on air, the decision was made to run with the story.
  • The story ran as the second headline, using definitive language.
  • Also shortly before transmission, the newsroom became aware that conflicting information had begun to circulate on social media, suggesting that Abu Izzadeen was in fact in prison. Crucially, this was not immediately communicated to the SHAC, who was presenting live on air.
  • At 19:35 the SHAC clarified the situation on air and at 19:45 a journalist spoke to Abu Izzadeen’s brother, who confirmed that he was still in prison.
  • This was reported at the end of the programme and the Editor, Channel 4 News Head of Communications and the SHAC all tweeted clarifications. A correction and apology was made the following night.

The regulators decision

Aby Izzadeen was a convicted terrorist, reducing the defamation risk. However the naming attracted six complaints, resulting in an Ofcom investigation into a breach of rule 5, akin to Rule 1 of the Editors’ Code.

Ofcom acknowledged that the broadcast came in the immediate aftermath of a major terror attack and was therefore of significant public interest. However, the high level of public interest only served to heighten the need for due accuracy.

Significantly, Channel 4’s own internal (mandatory) procedures required allegations based on a single source to be referred not only to the Editor of Channel 4 News, but to senior management.  In this instance, due to time pressures, the process was not followed.

There was some good news for Channel 4, the regulator finding that its efforts to correct the mistake were sufficient and not in breach of a further requirement in rule 5.2 to acknowledge and correct significant mistakes quickly (akin to 1(ii) of the Editors’ Code).

This was the fourth case in three years in which Ofcom had found Channel 4 in breach of the accuracy requirements.  In such circumstances, Ofcom took the rare step of directing Channel 4 to broadcast a summary of Ofcom’s Decision, a step not taken since 2008.

Key points

While the decision is a broadcast one, there are parallels for newspapers and websites (perhaps especially for websites) reporting on fast developing stories:

  1. When relying on a single source in a fast moving situation, ensure all members of the team are communicating.
  2. Where possible, ensure all internal procedure are followed. When you do deviate, ensure your reasoning can be explained (if necessary to the regulator or a court!)
  3. If you do decide to take the risk, ensure that suitable caveats are used until the accuracy of the information has been conclusively confirmed.
  4. If you become aware that information is inaccurate, move swiftly to clarify the position.

Relying on a single source is not a theoretical risk, something that could never happen to you.

Some years ago, a weekly newspaper reported that a man had been arrested for murdering a woman. Relying on a previously reliable source, the paper reported that the arrested man was the woman’s estranged husband.  In fact, the arrested man was her new boyfriend.  Despite fulsome apologies, the error was only fully resolved after the paper paid a six figure sum to the husband.

The Channel 4 incident acts as a timely reminder of the need to take care, check your facts, and only rely on a single source in the most exceptional of circumstances.

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