Ofcom has found Channel 4 News to be in breach of the requirement to report news with due accuracy, as a result of its incorrect identification of the man responsible for the Westminster terror attack.

On 22 March 2017, Channel 4 News reported on the attack which had taken place earlier that day. The report included coverage live from Westminster, as well as analysis from the studio and discussions in various formats between journalists and contributors to the programme.

The first half of the programme focused on a man, Abu Izzadeen, who Channel 4 News incorrectly identified as the person responsible for the terror attack and who had been shot dead by police that day. In fact, Abu Izzadeen was alive and well and in prison.

Abu Izzadeen was named during the introduction to the programme, and then again on numerous occasions throughout the programme. It was only later on in the programme that the correspondent said that there was “some doubt” about whether it was Abu Izzadeen. At the end of the programme, he stated that contact from Abu Izzadeen’s brother indicated that he was in fact still in prison.

On the next day’s main edition of the programme, Channel 4 News announced that the killer had been confirmed as Khalid Masood, and referred to a serious error in having identified Abu Izzadeen.

Six complaints were made to Ofcom about the error. Ofcom acknowledged that breaking news requires editorial teams to make decisions rapidly while under intense pressure. However, it found that Channel 4 News’ rush to get this story to air resulted in it broadcasting a significant error on a major news story, and that it was in breach of the requirement to report news with due accuracy, under Rule 5.1 of the Broadcasting Code.

Ofcom noted that it was particularly concerned that Channel 4 News had not followed its own guidelines requiring referral up to ITN’s CEO and Channel 4, when broadcasting potentially contentious information based on a single source as was the case here. Doing so may have avoided the broadcast of such a serious mistake. Ofcom directed Channel 4 to broadcast a summary of its decision in a form and manner to be decided by Ofcom.

This case shows the need to take particular care when identifying individuals caught up in the news. Making a mistake can lead not only to regulatory sanction as in this case, but may also lead to legal action, for example for defamation.

Last year, a soldier who was wrongly identified in a newspaper received damages and an apology for defamation. Lance Bombardier Kerry-Ann Morris’ twin sister and mother were convicted of child cruelty in 2015 over the death of a 7-year old girl. The Nottingham Post published a photograph of Morris, taken when she attended court to give evidence for the prosecution in the case. It wrongly identified her as her non-identical twin sister.

And in 2013 The Independent paid an undisclosed sum in damages to Croatian actor Ljubomir Jurkovic, whose photograph the newspaper had used on its front page, wrongly identifying him as alleged Nazi war criminal Samuel Kunz. The photograph was in fact of the actor playing an officer in the Croatian Ustasa (the Croatian Fascist Movement) in a film. In addition, there have been many other instances over the years where media organisations have had to pay libel damages to those whose photographs have been mistakenly used in contexts which are defamatory.