The Times and the Daily Mirror breached accuracy standards when they published a story from a “reputable” news agency which wrongly reported a former mayor had died, the UK’s largest press regulator has ruled.
Local title Hemel Today, website for the Hemel Gazette, used the same story but resolved matters by writing a personal letter of apology and offering to donate to a charity of the complainant’s choice.
The articles, which appeared in “news in brief” form in the two national newspapers, claimed the former mayor of Dacorum, Gillian Chapman, had died by suicide.
Both the Times and the Mirror identified the deceased as “Gillian Chapman, 55”, giving the location of her home and describing how she was found dead by her daughter. The Mirror also pictured the woman.
The Times said “a former mayor killed herself after suffering mental and physical illness during the menopause”, with the Mirror using very similar wording.
Hemel Today’s report said an inquest had heard “a former Mayor of Dacorum took her own life after struggling for years with the effects of the menopause” and that she was “mayor from 2011 to 2012, as well as a councillor…from 2007-15, after moving to the area in 1994”.
Gillian Chapman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation, saying the newspapers had breached Clause 1 (accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice because they wrongly said that she, the former mayor of Dacorum, was dead.
The inquest had in fact related to another woman of the same name and the image alongside the article in the Mirror was of the complainant, not the deceased.
The Mirror accepted it had published a “significant inaccuracy” that needed correcting in its story, headlined “Suicide over menopause”.
However it denied a breach of the code, saying the story had been provided by an agency which had “failed to appropriately check the facts of the story”.
The publication said it was “reasonable for it to rely on the agency to correctly identify the subject of an inquest story” and that “therefore, it had not itself failed to take care over the story’s accuracy”, according to the IPSO ruling.
The title did, however, offer to write Chapman a letter of apology and publish a correction on page two of the print newspaper.
The correction said: “We would like to clarify that Gillian Chapman, the former mayor of Dacorum, has not passed away, and has no connection to the events described.
“We would like to apologise to Mrs Chapman for the error and any distress caused.”
The Times also apologised for the error in its story, headlined “Menopause suicide”, and removed the online article after being contacted by IPSO.
It published a correction saying: “We apologise for the error, which was in copy provided by a news agency.”
But it also denied a breach of the code, saying the story was “a brief item which had come from a reputable news agency”.
It had checked the news agency had not issued a correction relating to the story before publication, it added.
The Times said “in cases where low-profile stories were provided by agencies, the obligation to take care under Clause 1(i) could not extend to independently verifying every fact”, according to IPSO.
IPSO said inaccurately identifying the subject of an inquest was a “fundamental and damaging error on a basic point of fact”.
The regulator said that as the inaccuracies were “potentially damaging” to Chapman and the correct position was “readily available”, the agency had failed in providing a story before checking its accuracy.
But IPSO added that the Editors’ Code of Practice makes clear that publications are “ultimately responsible” for any breaches of the code that might result from the use of external contributors.
Both publications were therefore found in breach of Clause 1 (accuracy) and told to publish the corrections they had previously offered.
When contacted by IPSO over the same story, Johnston Press-owned Hemel Today immediately accepted the article had inaccurately identified the deceased woman as the former mayor and apologised to her.
It said that the article had been submitted by an “established” news agency and published in good faith.
Nonetheless it removed the article from its website as soon as it was made aware of the inaccuracy, offered to publish an apology in print and online, wrote Chapman a personal letter of apology, and offered to make a charitable donation to a charity of her choice.
In a standalone online article, headlined “An apology to the former mayor of the Borough of Dacorum, Gillian Chapman”, editor David Summers wrote: “We would like to sincerely apologise to Mrs Chapman, and members of her family, for the upset that was caused by this serious inaccuracy.”
IPSO did not rule on whether there had been a breach of the code as Chapman said the title had resolved the matter to her satisfaction.