Press regulator Impress has rapped Skwawkbox for publishing a contentious story just four hours after sending a 9pm request for comment to a Labour MP.
The independent left-wing news website published an article about Ilford North MP Wes Streeting headlined “Streeting ‘shouts in Abbott’s face’, arranges march against ‘Windrush child’” on 20 April.
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The article reported claims that Streeting had shouted “not my party” at Abbott and had to be “physically steered away” from her following a parliamentary debate on 17 April.
It also said Streeting sent an email organising fellow Labour politicians to escort Ruth Smeeth MP on her way to giving evidence against Marc Wadsworth in a show of “moral support and solidarity”.
Wadsworth was expelled from the Labour Party earlier this year after heckling the Jewish MP at the launch of a report on anti-Semitism in the party.
Approaching Streeting for a response to the claims at about 9pm on 19 April, Skwawkbox also sought his comments on “the perception that this week you’ve confronted one black person and are rallying support for a protest against another”.
The article was published without a response from Streeting at 1.19am.
Lawyers for Streeting contacted Skwawkbox on the day of publication, claiming the article contained “untrue and defamatory comments”.
Eight days later Skwawkbox published its response in an article headlined “Skwawkbox response to Streeting’s ‘lie’ claim over Abbott abuse article”.
Its lawyers then formally rejected the MP’s complaint by saying the story had been in the public interest and stood up by four witness statements from other MPs.
Streeting complained to Impress after Skwawkbox published another article on 9 August, which was not the subject of complaint, headlined: “MP’s, other witnesses: Streeting’s ‘disgusting, disgraceful’ behaviour left Abbott ‘shellshocked”.
He disputed the claims it made about him confronting Abbott, shouting in her face and having to be “physically steered away”.
He also claimed he was not given sufficient opportunity to challenge inaccurate statements.
Streeting argued Skwawkbox “would have known that publishing those allegations would have reputational consequences and that there were no urgent factors at stake that could justify publication without giving him a chance to reply”.
Skwawkbox told Impress there was “no possibility” its story was inaccurate and that it had “under-emphasised the incident”.
The website said it had spoken to no less than four MPs, including shadow ministers, and that it had witnesses who were “willing to testify under oath about what they heard”.
Skwawkbox lawyers added that they had “confirmed the nature of sources” in the article, although Impress said the office of Diane Abbott did not provide comment to it on the alleged incident.
The website also said four hours was “more than ample” for a response as it claimed to have only been given half an hour to respond to stories about itself in the past.
Impress said Skwawkbox had not taken all reasonable steps to ensure accuracy but that its committee was “not in a position to test the veracity of the evidence” provided by the title and could not “determine the accuracy of the factual statements published”.
Impress therefore could not rule on whether the website had breached its rules on misrepresenting and distorting facts or obligations to publish prominent corrections to significant inaccuracies.
But it said Skwawkbox should have offered Streeting a reasonable chance to respond.
Impress said: “Although the publisher was confident of its sources, in order to take all reasonable steps to ensure accuracy, the publisher should have offered the complainant a reasonable opportunity to respond to the facts alleged; these facts remain in dispute and what actually happened has not been authoritatively determined.
“The committee did not consider that contacting a party via email, after 9pm without specifying a deadline for response and then publishing less than 4 hours later, amounted to a reasonable attempt.
“The committee noted it would be good journalistic practice to state the time by when a party should respond to requests for comment and to provide sufficient detail about any allegations to which a response is sought.”
The Impress Regulatory Committee therefore found Skwawkbox had not taken all reasonable steps to ensure accuracy, in breach of Clause 1.1 of the Impress Standards Code.
It said: “This blog considers this finding to be self-evidently flawed in its dismissal of relevant context.
“However, Impress is the UK’s only independent regulator and is free to make its own decision.”
Picture: Skwawkbox/UK Parliament