Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00624-20 Oldfield v North Wales Pioneer
Summary of Complaint
1. Carol Oldfield complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the North Wales Pioneer breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Stonemason's falling out with Colwyn Bay couple lands him in court” published on 31 January 2020.
2. The article reported on the court case of a stonemason who had assaulted a couple after failing to complete a job for them and to repay money the couple had loaned him. The article reported that “David and Carol Oldfield distributed flyers to neighbours and others warning them not to employ [the defendant] but what happened when they confronted him at his place of work landed the 53-year-old ex-soldier in court.” The incident was reported as occurring in September 2019. The article said that the couple had captured footage of the stonemason using “abusive language” and that he ”dropped a spade” on the other man’s foot. The article included a quote from the defendant which stated “In my opinion they came there to harass, humiliate and hinder my work in a public place”. The article ended by reporting that both charges had been proved, that the woman’s evidence had been “very credible” whilst the stonemason’s had “been inconsistent” and that the stonemason was to be sentenced shortly. The article had appeared online, and was deleted the morning of the sentencing.
3. The complainant, one of the couple who had been assaulted, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said that it was inaccurate to report that she and her husband had “distributed leaflets”. She said that the leaflets had been distributed after the assault had taken place whereas the article gave the misleading impression that the leaflets had been given out prior to the attack and therefore justified it. She said that the court had found that the leaflets were not relevant and were not to be included as evidence. In addition, the complainant said that the content of the leaflets had not been read out in court, so the newspaper was unaware of their content; the leaflets had not warned people “not to employ” the defendant, but not to pay him in advance, or loan him any money. She also said it was inaccurate to report that her partner had distributed the flyers, as only she had been cross-examined about them, although she did not deny that they had both distributed these leaflets after the incident.
4. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate in that it was biased in favour of the defendant. She said that referring to the leaflets, when they had been held to be inadmissible, in addition to naming the defendant as an ex-soldier; reporting that he felt harassed by the couple; describing what she called a “physical assault” as “abusive language”; and reporting that he had “dropped a spade”, when it was deliberate and not accidental, had the cumulative effect of making her and her partner seem to be to blame for the incident and gave the impression that they had attacked the defendant.
5. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It had sent a court reporter to the court and it provided the notes that had been taken, as well as an email from the defence solicitor who said he had no note or recollection of the leaflets being held to be inadmissible. The solicitor did say, however, that the leaflets were found to be a possible mitigating factor, but were not relevant to the court finding the defendant guilty. The court reporter’s notes also made reference to the leaflets and that it had been heard in court that one of the leaflets had been put on the defendant’s landlord’s van in July, months prior to the attack. In addition, the court reporter’s notes said that the defendant had said in his evidence: “Letters were put through the letter boxes of vulnerable people I intended to work for” and also stated that the defence solicitor had presented the leaflets as a “warning”. The publication said that, despite the leaflets not being read out in court, this information was sufficient for it to characterise the leaflets as a “warning”. It also said that the defendant had said that “they” had distributed the leaflets; it was therefore not inaccurate for it to have reported that both the complainant and her partner had distributed them.
6. The publication said that it had only published information that was provided in court, and even if the complainant disagreed with what was heard, such as claims from the defendant, it had accurately reported it. It had also mirrored the language that was used in court, such as that the defendant had “dropped a spade” and “abusive language” had been used. It also said that it had included the defendant’s background as an ex-soldier purely for context.
Relevant Code Provisions
7. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
8. The article had suggested that the complainant and her partner had distributed the leaflets before confronting the defendant, which was when the attack took place. The Committee acknowledged that there was a disagreement between the parties about when the leaflets had been given out. However, the publication had provided notes which indicated that it was heard in court that at least one of these leaflets had been distributed prior to the attack, and the complainant had not disputed that one had been given to the defendant’s landlord in July. In light of this, and the fact that it was accepted that leaflets had been distributed and this had been heard in court, there was no failure to take care and no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
9. The publication had provided notes which recorded that the defence solicitor had described the leaflets as a “warning”. The complainant had also accepted that the leaflets had advised others not to pay the defendant in advance, nor to give him loans. While the leaflets may not have explicitly advised against hiring the defendant, they had said that he should not be paid in advance. Given that the complainants accepted they advised people not to employ the stonemason without safeguards, it was not inaccurate to characterise this is as “warning [others] not to employ” him.. Furthermore, while only the complainant had been cross-examined about the leaflets in court, the Committee did not find it significant to report that both her and her partner had distributed them. It was therefore not inaccurate to report that the leaflets had warned people not to employ the defendant, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on either of these points.
10. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concerns that the article was not balanced, and was biased towards the defendant. The Code does not require balance, but that publications take care not to publish inaccurate and misleading information. In this case, the publication had used language from the court case, as presented by the solicitors, and was entitled to report comments from the defendant, even if the complainant did not agree with them. In addition, the article made clear that the defendant had been found guilty. On this basis, there were no inaccuracies, and therefore no breach of Clause 1.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 02/02/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 14/05/2020Back to ruling listing