02852-19 Cook v Stamford Mercury

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02852-19 Cook v Stamford Mercury

Summary of Complaint 

1.    Tony Cook complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Stamford Mercury breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Plan for empty pub to be flats”, published on 22 February 2019. 

2.    The article reported that a planning application had been received by the local Council to turn an empty pub into flats. It reported that the pub had been sold to an unnamed couple in 2007, but after falling into financial difficulties, the original owner had regained the premises. It stated that the couple had removed all the stock, plant and machinery from the premises. 

3.    The article appeared in much the same format online on the 23 February 2019 under the headline “Plan for empty Old Coach House pub in Market Deeping to be flats”. 

4.    The complainant was one of the previous proprietors of the pub referred to in the article. He said that the article breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) by reporting as fact that the pub had run into financial difficulties under his management, and that he had removed stock and machinery from the premises; he said these matters were currently the subject of a legal dispute. He also said that the article breached Clause 2 (Privacy), as although he was not named in the article, it was well known in the local community that he had been running the pub at that time period.  He said that the article had been distressing to him and his wife. 

5.    The publication said that the article was based on a publicly-available planning application from the local Council’s website, of which it provided a copy. This document said that the complainant and his wife had bought the business in 2007, but were in financial difficulties within 12 months, and since the business went into liquidation in 2018, the property had stood empty, as the previous owners had removed all plant and machinery for dispensing drinks. The publication said that the article was an accurate summary of this planning document, which it was entitled to report and rely upon. It noted that the article did not name the couple, and clearly attributed the claims over what had happened to the planning application. It said that it did not accept that reporting on this publicly available document could possibly engage the terms of Clause 2. 

6.    However, when the complainant contacted the publication, to express concern that the application was inaccurate, and to note it has been removed from the council’s website, it removed any reference to the complainant from the online version of the article and published the following clarification on page 3 29 March 2019, two days after it was contacted by the complainant:  

A story published in the Mercury on February 22 about the Old Coach House in Market Deeping being potentially turned into flats suggested that former owners, who bought the business in 2007, had run into financial difficulties while running the establishment and had removed stock and machinery from the premises. This couple has contacted the Mercury to say this is untrue and have asked us to point out that they were not in financial difficulties, nor did the business go into liquidation or was repossessed. The couple voluntarily gave up possession of the building and are currently in a legal dispute with [named person] and other parties over the ownership of the building. The Mercury apologises for the distress caused by this article to the couple, which was published in good faith based on documents that were in the public domain.” 

During the course of IPSO’s investigation, on 17 April, the publication added the wording as a footnote to the online article

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.  

Clause 2 (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. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so. 

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.  

Findings of the Committee 

8.    The publication was entitled to report and rely on the content of the planning application submission, and had done so accurately. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i). The Committee was not in a position to rule on the accuracy of the claims in the document. However, the article had presented them as established fact, and not attributed them to the application. There was therefore an obligation, under the terms of 1(ii) to make clear that the accuracy of the claims was disputed. The publication had acted promptly by printing a clarification on page 3 of the print edition of the newspaper two days after it was contacted by the complainant – this was sufficiently prominent. This clarification made clear that the circumstances surrounding the history of the business were under dispute and the subject of legal proceedings, and acted immediately to remove the reference to the complainant from the online version. There is no requirement under the terms of Clause 1 (ii) for a correction to be accepted by the complainant; it if for the Committee to decide if a correction is sufficient. This clarification specifically addressed the allegations which related to the complainant regarding the management of the pub, and put the complainant’s position on the matter on record in full. The clarification also apologised to the complainant from any distress caused. Although there was a delay in adding the clarification to the online version of the article, the publication had amended the article promptly, and the complainant had raised objections to the publication of the print clarification without his consent. During IPSO’s investigation, the publication added the clarification to the online version of the article, and where the total delay amounted to just over 2 weeks after IPSO begun its investigation into the matter, the Committee considered that this action was sufficiently prompt. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii). 

9.    The article reported information which was in the public domain and did not name the complainant. No private information was revealed and so there was no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusions 

10. The complaint was not upheld

Remedial action required 

11. N/A

 

Date complaint received: 28/03/2019

Date decision issued: 03/05/2019

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