Channel 4 News committed a “serious breach” of broadcasting rules after wrongly identifying a man thought to be the Westminster terror attacker, Ofcom has said.
The mistake was made during a broadcast which aired at 7pm on 22 March – the day five people were killed after a man drove a van into pedestrians on Westminster bridge before murdering a policeman with a knife outside Parliament.
The perpetrator, Khalid Masood, was shot dead by security services.
A spokesperson for the regulator said: “This is the fourth time in three years we have found Channel 4 in breach of its requirement to report news with due accuracy.
“We are particularly concerned that another serious breach has happened, given Channel 4’s previous assurances to Ofcom that improvements to its compliance processes were being made.
“Considering the seriousness of this breach, we are requiring Channel 4 News to air a summary of our breach decision.”
During the introduction to the programme, anchor Jon Snow said: “A source has told this programme tonight that the attacker is a man called Trevor Brooks, better known as Abu Izzadeen, a well-known member of the now disbanded British Islamist group, Al Muhajiroun4. That’s news that will raise huge questions for the police and security services”.
Senior home affairs correspondent Simon Israel said: “… I’ve had it confirmed within the last half an hour that the suspect who the police shot dead is Abu Izzadeen, formerly known as Trevor Brooks, aged 41, and who has had a very long history of association with Islamist extremism.”
Archive footage of Izzadeen was later broadcast along with a potted history of his extremist activities.
Later in a studio discussion, Snow said: “Abu Izzadeen – I mean, this has been confirmed to us as the suspect in these events today. He was very well-known to the police, he’s been involved in terror-related activities since 2006, he was jailed for several years, convicted.”
Some 35 minutes into the programme Snow asked Israel: “What do we know now more on the identity of the attacker?”
Israel: “Yes, I appeared quite certain earlier in the programme, but there appears to be some doubt now. A source was pretty certain that the attacker, who was shot dead by police, was, as I had earlier said, Abu Izzadeen, who has a long history of extremism in this country. It now appears that might not be the case, it might be someone else, owing to the fact that new information has emerged to suggest that Abu Izzadeen is still in prison having served a sentence having been arrested and detained two years ago and then brought back to this country to serve another sentence.”
At the end of the programme, Snow said: “We’ve got a little bit more on this fast-developing story about today’s attack in Westminster. Channel 4 News has been contacted by Abu Izzadeen’s brother, who tells this programme that he is in fact still serving a prison sentence.”
Channel 4 News told Ofcom that at 5.30pm, 90 minutes before transmission, a journalist monitoring social media informed the editor of “strong speculation that the suspect may be Abu Izzadeen”.
At 6.30pm, Israel was asked to check whether this name was accurate.
He checked with two sources, one of whom believed Izzadeen was the attacker – Channel 4 said.
Channel 4 News said basing the story on a single anonymous source was justifiable because the source had a “track record in providing reliable information”.
The decision to run with the story was made by the editor at 6.56pm.
At 7.45pm a journalist in the newsroom spoke to Izzadeen’s brother who stated that he was still in prison.
Ofcom: “We considered that by incorrectly stating that Abu Izzadeen was responsible for multiple killings, murdering a police officer and carrying out the attack, and reprising that theme throughout the first 35 minutes of the programme, the licensee had broadcast a significant inaccuracy.
“Given the particularly high audience expectations that there would have been for this programme, in our view, this inaccuracy was of such magnitude and given such prominence that it was not fully mitigated by the later steps taken in the programme to correct the error.”
It also expressed concern that referral procedures around the use of single-source information were not followed – saying story should have been referred up to the ITN chief executive.
A Channel 4 spokesperson said: “We acknowledge Ofcom’s ruling. Channel 4 and ITN take this matter very seriously and we are working with Channel 4 News to review and improve their existing editorial and oversight procedures.
“This was a fast-moving story, broadcast in the immediate aftermath of a terror attack. Channel 4 News moved swiftly to correct and clarify the facts as conflicting information came to light.
“We note that Ofcom acknowledges Channel 4 News made appropriate corrections while on air; removed the programme from other platforms and carried a full correction and apology the following day.”
A Channel 4 News spokesperson said: “Channel 4 News takes its obligations under the Ofcom Broadcasting Code extremely seriously and is committed to providing audiences with high-quality, accurate and impartial news programming. We have participated fully in Ofcom’s investigation and note the regulator’s ruling which takes into account the immediate steps taken to correct and clarify the error during the course of the programme.”