· Decision of the Complaints Committee 00854-15 Wilson v Daily Record
Summary of complaint
1. Douglas Wilson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Record had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Revealed: Highland laird wannabes fooled into thinking they have bought Scottish land in multi-million-pound global scheme”, published on 21 February 2015.
2. The article reported that customers of Highland Titles, a company of which the complainant is the Director, were “fooled” into believing that they had bought land, stating that they in fact received “nothing” in return for their money.
3. The complainant said that Highland Titles does not deceive its customers or misrepresent its product. He said that customers receive a “personal right to their plot of land”, and also a gift set. He said that details of the legal position regarding ownership of the land were published prominently on the company’s website. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) had previously found that selling a personal right to the land was sufficient to justify the claim that customers could “buy land in Scotland”. The complainant said that the company received excellent customer feedback.
4. The complainant said that the CEO of the company, Dr Peter Bevis, does not live in Spean Bridge, as reported, but in Alderney. He had not lived in the Highlands since 2006. He was also concerned that the article stated that Dr Bevis “claims to plough the profits into conservation”; this is not a “claim”, the company does put a portion of its profits into conservation. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to say that Dr Bevis ran Highland Titles through a charity, the Highland Titles Charitable Trust; the Trust owns Highland Titles, but it could not be described as running the company, and Dr Bevis is not involved in the Trust.
5. The journalist had contacted the complainant for comment prior to publication, but the complainant was concerned that his comments had not been properly considered, and some important aspects of the article had not been put to him for comment.
6. The newspaper believed that its article was a legitimate interpretation of Highland Titles’ business model and the content of its website. It said that the plots cannot be registered with the Land Registry of Scotland, as the area of land is so small that the Land Registry does not recognise it. It said that the company’s website gives the impression that its customers would be able to legitimately use the title of “Laird” or “Lady”, as a consequence of having purchased land in Scotland. In fact, anyone can assume such a title, and apply to have their name changed by deed poll. The newspaper sought clarification on the legal position from the University of Edinburgh, which said that “ownership cannot transfer to a buyer of a souvenir plot,” and “Scotland does not recognise a personal right of ownership” (the complainant did not dispute this). While the newspaper accepted the complainant’s position that customers receive a gift set, it said that Highland Titles’ customers do not own any land as a result of their transactions with the company; Highland Titles retains ownership.
7. The newspaper provided screenshots which showed that changes had been made to Highland Titles’ website since the complainant had brought his complaint. These changes included the amendment of the phrase “buy land in Scotland” to “buy a souvenir plot in Scotland” and the amendment of “enjoy the full land ownership experience” to “enjoy the landowner experience”. The newspaper also provided screenshots of the questions and answers page of the website, which showed that customers were being told that “you are still the owner of your plot in any situation”, “ownership is perpetual”, and that customers could resell their land in future. The newspaper cited these as evidence that customers were being “fooled” into believing that they actually acquired full legal title in the land.
8. The newspaper said that Highland Titles does not publish its charity accounts, and so there was no independent means of establishing what the charity was doing with its profits. It said that Highland Titles is wholly owned by the Highland Titles Charitable Trust; in this context it did not believe that it was inaccurate to say that the company is run through the Trust. The newspaper accepted that Dr Bevis does not live in the Highlands, but lives in Alderney; this was an error.
9. The newspaper offered to publish the following correction on page 2 of a forthcoming edition, and online:
“Following our article of 21 February which claimed that members of the public were being fooled into buying Scottish land, we have been asked to make clear that the Highland Titles website itself states that small plots of land sold as souvenir gifts cannot be registered with the land registry. Buyers do not receive ‘nothing’, they receive a substantial gift set. Further, Peter Bevis, who is a director of Highland Titles does not live in Scotland, he lives in Alderney and does not run the Highland Titles Charitable Trust. We apologise for this error.”
10. The complainant said that this was insufficient as it did not include the company’s position that its customers were not being “fooled”.
Relevant Code Provisions
11. 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.
Findings of the Committee
12. The Committee understood the complainant’s concern about the use of the claim “Highland laird wannabes [have been] fooled into thinking they have bought Scottish land in multi-million-pound global scheme.” The article had provided the basis for the claim, which included that customers would understand that they had “bought a plot of land” in the sense that this is ordinarily understood, when in fact title in the land had not passed to the customer, and it was not possible for a customer to register the sale at the Land Registry. The newspaper had contacted Highland Titles prior to publication, and had also included in the article the company’s position that “our customers obtain a personal right to the land, we make our sales on the advice of our Scottish solicitors and the Advertising Standards Authority are satisfied that we make that sufficiently clear on our website.” The Committee noted that the questions and answers page of the company’s website demonstrated that some customers had been confused about the nature of the land transaction and that the company had revised some of the pages of its website to make the position clearer following publication of the article. In all the circumstances, the Committee considered that the central claim of the article represented the newspaper’s characterisation of some customers’ confusion arising from the lack of clarity that had previously been provided by the company as to precisely what interest their customers acquired in the land. This interpretation did not raise a breach of Clause 1.
13. Further, while it was accepted that customers received a gift set, as opposed to “nothing”, the article clearly related to the legitimacy of the company’s main product, which is souvenir plots of land. It was not significantly misleading in this context to omit that they receive a gift set. This omission did not breach Clause 1.
14. While the claim that Dr Bevis lived in Spean Bridge was evidently inaccurate, it was not a central claim in the article, and Dr Bevis did live in the Highlands until 2006. The inaccuracy was not significant and did not require correction.
15. The Committee found that the newspaper was entitled to report that Highland Titles “claims to plough the profits into conservation”. The company does make such a claim and, given that it does not publish the relevant accounts which would show its contributions to conservation efforts in financial terms, the way in which the newspaper presented this information did not raise a breach of Clause 1.
16. Lastly, the Committee found that, given that Highland Titles is wholly owned by the charitable Trust, and Dr Bevis runs Highland Titles, it was not significantly inaccurate to state that “Bevis…runs the firm through a charity.” There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
17. While the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s prompt offer to publish a correction, it was not required in order to fulfil the newspaper’s obligations under the Editors’ Code.
18. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 24/02/2015
Date decision issued: 06/05/2015Back to ruling listing