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Reporter’s notes fail to save daily from censure over drink-driver story

The press watchdog has censured a regional daily for wrongly reporting that a drink-driver gave a “positive roadside breath test” – even though it accepted the term may have been used in court.

Sharon Mitchell, whose guilty plea to the offence was covered by Stoke-on-Trent daily The Sentinel, has had her complaint against the newspaper partially upheld after an investigation by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

The Sentinel had reported Mitchell gave a “positive roadside breath test”, when in fact she was breathalysed in police custody, three hours after refusing to provide a sample to officers at her home.

IPSO found the error was significant because it related to the location and chronology of the incident which resulted in Mitchell’s arrest, although contemporaneous notes from the court hearing by a Sentinel reporter showed the term “roadside” was used during proceedings.

Breathalyser

Complaining under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, Mitchell had also claimed it was inaccurate to describe her as a “drink-driver” and to report that she had crashed the vehicle before “going into her home and drinking more booze”.

Denying a breach of Code, The Sentinel said it was accurate to call Mitchell a “drink-driver” because she had pleaded guilty to drink-driving offences and been handed a 40-month driving ban, which would be reduced by 40 weeks should she complete a drink-drinking rehabilitation course.

The newspaper provided a copy of the reporter’s contemporaneous notes to demonstrate that a “roadside test” had been referred to during court proceedings.

These notes stated: “Officers requested a roadside breath sample. She refused and was arrested for failing to provide a specimen and taken to custody. She provided two specimens of breath for analysis and the reading was 108 in breath.”

Though The Sentinel acknowledged that “roadside test” may have been a general description of the test rather than a reference to its specific location, it did not consider that this rendered the story inaccurate or represented a significant inaccuracy requiring correction.

However, the paper amended the story online and later offered to publish a footnote correction to make clear Mitchell was breathalysed in custody.

IPSO acknowledged The Sentinel’s position that a “roadside breath test” may have been a general description of a preliminary breath alcohol test, rather than a specific reference to the location in which it was obtained, and may have been how the test itself was described in court, as shown in the reporter’s notes.

However, where the story had explained the chain of events including that Mitchell had been drinking at home after the accident and prior to the breath test, it found the reporter’s notes did not support the statement that she had provided a “positive roadside breath test”.

As such, the Committee considered that the publication had taken insufficient care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, although it found a subsequent correction identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record.

The complaint was upheld in part, and the full adjudication can be read here.