Decision of the Complaints Committee 02514-18 Rochdale Borough Council v Rochdale Online
Summary of complaint
1. Rochdale Borough Council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Rochdale Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “ Councillors’ allowances will top one million,” published on 19 March 2018.
2. The article reported that a Freedom of Information request had shown that Councillors’ allowances for Rochdale Borough Council now totalled £75,000 a month or £900,000 per year, and would total over £1million once National Insurance contributions were added. It stated that this revealed the impact of the increase in councillor allowances that had come into force in December 2016. It stated that “Councillor Allen Brett, now the leader of the Council…promised not to take the increase, but then accepted it.” The article went on to state that Councillor Brett had not responded to an invitation to comment, but included a number of statements from other council members who had not taken the allowance increase, including one council member who thanked the member of the public who put in the Freedom of Information request, “for uncovering this spending as we approach the May Council elections. Usually, figures are published in June, a month after local elections.”
3. The complainant
said that the predicted spend on Councillors’ Allowances for 2017/18 was
£883,000. Therefore, it said that it was inaccurate to report that Councillors’
allowances would be more than £1 million. The Council also said it was
inaccurate for the article to report that Councillor Brett refused all
increases in his allowance, but then accepted it. It said that there were two
separate Councillor Allowances that had been increased, both the basic
allowance and special responsibility allowance. Councillor Brett had said that
he would not accept the increase for his special allowance for his role as
deputy leader of the Council, and he did not take this.
4. The complainant
also raised concern that the publication had approached several Council members
for comment, but had not put these claims, including the projected cost of
Councillor Allowances to the Council’s communications team. It said that
Councillors had made the Council aware that they had been approached for
comment on this matter, and the Council had provided a statement to the
publication. The Council said that
omitting this statement from the article was misleading, as the Council should
have been given a right to reply to these claims. It also said the article was
misleading, as it believed the statement from a Councillor, claiming the
figures were normally published in June, suggested the Council were trying to
hide this information.
5. The publication
did not accept that it had breached the Code. It provided the information
supplied in response to a Freedom of Information request to the Council, which
showed that Councillor Allowances in February 2018 totalled £75,009.53. It said
that extrapolating this for 12 months, gave a figure of just over £900,000 as
reported in the article. It said adding national insurance contributions, it
was accurate to state that the total cost for 2018 would be more than £1
million. It said requests for comment were sent directly to the Councillors
concerned, as it was a political point about the specific action of these
Councillors. It said it was not appropriate or necessary, in these
circumstances, to contact the Communications department for comment.
Regardless, following direct correspondence with the complainant, it included
the Council’s statement in the article.
6. When contacted
by the complainant, the publication also clarified that Councillor Brett had
“promised not to take all the increase, but accepted the increased basic
allowance.” It said that reporting that he had promised not to take any of the
increase, and then had taken all of it, was not significantly inaccurate, as
this was Councillor Brett’s position in 2017; however in 2018, when he became
leader of the Council, the FOI request showed that in this new role, he had
accepted the increase in both basic and special responsibility allowance.
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.
Findings of the Committee
8. The Freedom of
Information request had shown that the total amount spent on Councillor’s
Allowances in February 2018 was just over £75,000. The publication had
extrapolated this figure to calculate the projected total spend on Councillor
Allowances for 2018. This information was based on information provided by the
Council and there was no basis to believe the monthly figures given were not
representative of average spend. There was no subsequent requirement on the
publication to approach the Council’s communication team for comment. In these
circumstances, the publication had taken care over the accuracy of this claim
and there was no breach of Clause 1 (i).
9. The complainant
maintained that the total spend for 2017/2018 would be less than £1 million.
However, as the article made clear, it was reporting the total spend for 2018,
after the increase in Councillor Allowances had been brought in, not the
financial year 2017/18. The article accurately reported this projected spend,
and there was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).
10. As Deputy Leader
of the Council, Councillor Brett had stated that he would not take an increase
in his special allowance for his role as Deputy Leader. However, it was
accepted that several months later, when his role changed to Leader of the
Council he had accepted the increased basic and special responsibility
allowance. The publication had also gone to Councillor Brett prior to
publication for comment on this. In these circumstances the publication had
taken care over the accuracy of the claim that Councillor Brett had “promised
not to take the increase, but then accepted it”. There was no failure to take
care over the accuracy of this information, and reporting this did not
represent a significant inaccuracy. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this
11. The article had
accurately reported the timing of the release of figures by the Council. There
was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action required
The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.
Date complaint received: 22/03/2018
Date decision issued: 18/06/2018