· Decision of the Complaints Committee 00264-14 Coleman v Hendon and Finchley Times
Summary of complaint
Summary of complaint
1. Dr Brian Coleman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Hendon & Finchley Times had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Helen Michael, owner of Café Buzz, North Finchley, visited by Equita bailiffs,” published online on 9 September 2014, and in print on 11 September 2014.
2. The complainant is a former councillor, who was suspended from the Conservative Party after pleading guilty to assaulting the café owner referred to in the article.
3. The article reported that council bailiffs had visited the cafe to reclaim unpaid debts, which had then been cleared by a customer, who wanted to thank the café owner “for helping to get rid of [the complainant]”.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate, as the tone of the piece implied that the café owner was a “victim” or a “heroine”. Rather, there was a court order against her for unpaid council tax, and she had failed to keep up with repayments. He said that this should have been noted more prominently in the article. The complainant stated that the newspaper had not offered evidence that the council had acted improperly, and he considered that the article should have included more extensive comment from the council. He speculated that it was unlikely that the café owner was not aware of a court summons or liability order against her, as she would have received letters from the council about these matters.
5. The complainant considered the article’s reference to him to be a breach of his privacy. He said that this article was one of many about him on the newspaper’s website. On an occasion in the past, a journalist from the publication had telephoned members of his local Rotary Club to ask for comment about his becoming President. He said that the newspaper was harassing him, including by naming him in the article.
6. The newspaper defended the accuracy of its coverage, and stated that the complainant did not have grounds to dispute the facts of the matter. It noted that the council had not complained about perceived inaccuracies in the piece, but had provided a letter providing comment on its use of bailiffs to reclaim debts, which the newspaper had published.
7. The newspaper said that the complainant had been relevant to the story because of the customer’s comments. Further, he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to his conviction.
8. The newspaper defended its conduct as measured and reasonable. The previous story about the complainant’s presidency of Barnet Rotary Club was in the public interest. While the complainant was now largely removed from the political scene, he had achieved notoriety throughout his career and it was inevitable that his name would sometimes appear in the press.
Relevant Code Provisions
9. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Clause 3 (Privacy)
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.
Clause 4 (Harassment)
i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on their property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.
Findings of the Committee
10. The complainant considered that the article contained inaccuracies relating to the café owner’s debt, and the steps taken to recover the funds, but he did not have direct knowledge of the situation, and his concerns were mostly based on speculation. Neither the council nor the café owner had complained about inaccuracies in the article. Further, the article had included comment from both parties, and the newspaper had published a follow-up letter from the council. The newspaper had detailed both sides of the dispute. The article had not stated that the council or the bailiffs had acted improperly, but had included the view of the café owner that the action taken had been inappropriate. There had been no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1 (i), and the Committee did not establish the existence of inaccuracies which would require correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
11. The complainant’s objection to the tone of the article,
and what he perceived as the suggestion that the café owner was a “victim”, did
not engage the terms of Clause 1. The newspaper was entitled to publish the
café owner’s comments on her experiences.
12. While the complainant objected to the article’s
inclusion of his name, the fact of his conviction was in the public domain, and
the newspaper was entitled to refer to it. The publication of the customer’s
comments did not represent an intrusion into the complainant’s private life.
There was no breach of Clause 3.
13. The terms of Clause 4 relate to the conduct of
journalists during the news-gathering process, and do not generally apply to
the way in which newspapers choose to cover stories. The inclusion of the
complainant’s name in the article did not raise a breach of Clause 4
14. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 22/09/2014
Date decision issued: 15/12/2014Back to ruling listing