Decision of the Complaints Committee – 03164-19 Walker & Thompson v Hull Daily Mail
Summary of Complaint
1. Claire Walker and Clare Thompson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Hull Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Carers left in financial trouble after row with ex-employer over pay”, and that the conduct of journalists acting for this publication breached Clause 3 (Harassment).
2. The article reported that four women said they had been “left in financial peril” after “falling into a dispute over pay with their ex-employers” – the complainants. The sub-headline read “Four workers claim former boss owes them wages”. The article reported that the women said they had gone a month without being paid the full amount they said they were owed by the complainants’ company. The article said that “a spokeswoman for the firm has said staff who are owed money will be paid on February 1, although there are further rows over the amount each woman is due”. It reported the spokeswoman’s position that she had not refused to pay the woman, and that she had followed employment law correctly. The article went on to detail the account of each woman, and the nature of their disputes with the complainants’ company. Each account included a response from the complainants, stating their position in relation to the specific allegations made. The article concluded with a statement from one of the complainants, saying “Looking at employment law, I have no fault. Money will be paid in full on February 2. The care we deliver is excellent”.
3. The article also appeared online on the same day under the headline “Hull carers’ misery over claims they haven’t been paid for a month by Life Long Care Services Ltd”. This version of the article was substantially the same as the print article, but also stated that the women had received messages in December informing them that they would be paid on January 1 2019, but that this had not happened.
4. The complainants also said that the article breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), because they disputed many of the claims made by the women quoted in the article, in relation to the payment problems described.
5. The complainants said that the publication had breached Clause 3 (Harassment) in relation to contacts they had received following the publication of the article. These contacts had related to the further planned stories arising from the reported allegations; these stories were not ultimately published. They said that, during the week of the 10-17 March, they had received daily contacts by phone from a journalist; while most of these calls went unanswered, on two occasions one of the complainants had answered the phone, and had explained that they did not wish to be contacted in relation to the story. Following these calls, on March 19, the complainants said they had received a Facebook message and an email from the journalist, which they were able to provide to IPSO. The complainants said that, subsequently, in early April, the journalist had contacted them again by phone; one of the complainants had said that they would seek legal advice in relation to the allegations made, but the other complainant had then taken over the conversation and informed the journalist that they did not wish to be contacted. They said that they had then received text messages and calls from the journalist. The complainants were able to provide a record of one missed call received on 9 April, and of one message received on that day. In response to this message, they had asked for the journalist’s manager’s contact details, which they had used to make a complaint directly to the publication. This complaint largely related to the content of the proposed new article, and stated that the complainants felt targeted by the journalist and the publication; in it, the complainants requested a meeting with the editor and the journalist to discuss the story. It did not refer to the nature of the contacts from the journalist, or contain a request to desist from contact.
6. The publication denied any breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). It said that the day after the article was published, the complainants had contacted it to say that they felt the article was “fair”. It said that the publication had given the complainants time to respond to the allegations made in the article, and their response had been included in it.
7. The publication also denied any breach of Clause 3 (Harassment), and disputed the complainants’ account of the contacts made to them by the journalist; in particular, it disputed that the complainants had many any request to desist in contacting them. The publication said that, following the initial contacts made in relation to the January article, its journalist had not made any successful phone contact to the complainants during March. The journalist had attempted to call the complainants prior to the message and email sent on March 19, but had not got through to them; he had subsequently posted a note through the door of their business address at this time as well. Subsequently, in early April, the journalist had successfully contacted the complainants by phone, and put new allegations to them for comment; no request to desist had been made at this time. The journalist had then messaged the complainants on 9 April to ask them to respond to these allegations, to which the complainants had responded by asking the journalist for his manager’s contact details, which he had provided.
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.
8. Clause 3 (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 property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.
iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.
Findings of the Committee
9. The article had presented a series of allegations made by four named individuals against the complainants’ business. The headline reported that there was a “row…over pay”, which was not in dispute, and the sub-headline made clear that the workers “claim[ed]” that their former employer owed them money. In each instance, the allegations were presented as claims made by these individuals, and the status of these claims was made clear, through the use of direct quotations and attribution. In addition, the complainants’ position was recorded prominently, both at the beginning and end of the article, and in relation to each of the individuals named and the specific allegations they made. Where it was clear that pay disputes were ongoing in several cases, and where the position of the complainants and the women in question were presented appropriately, the Committee did not find reason to consider that the article was misleading in its presentation of the allegations made. There was no breach of Clause 1.
10. The complainants’ and the publication’s accounts of the contact between the complainants and the journalist were conflicting. In particular, the complainants said that they had made a verbal request for the journalist to desist in contacting them in March having picked up the phone to a caller who the complainants believed to be the journalist. The publication denied that this request to desist had been made. The complainants said that, despite their request, the journalist had attempted to contact them repeatedly during March and contacted them, again, in April. The journalist denied that any successful phone contact had occurred in March, which he said was supported by the email he sent to the complainants on 19 March in which he stated that he believed that the phone number he had for the complainants was invalid. It was accepted that the journalist had made contact with the complainants by phone in April. While the complainants said that a request to desist had been made during this phone call, the publication denied that this was the case. The publication accepted that the journalist had subsequently sent a message to the complainants, via social media, setting out the further allegations he was investigating, and asking for their comment. The Committee considered the parties’ respective accounts and noted that, in April, the complainants had contacted the journalist’s manager, by email, to make a complaint about the journalist. The email did not refer to the frequency of contact, or contain a request to desist. In the light of all the circumstances and the absence of any documents which would determine the position, the Committee could not find that there had been any failure to respect a request to desist in breach of Clause 3(ii).
11. The terms of Clause 3(i) provide that journalists should not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit. The Committee noted the complainants’ concerns regarding the high volume of contact which they said they had received from the journalist.
The Committee noted that the messages and emails which had been sent by the journalist were courteous and professional and that the complainants were being contacted over a four month period in relation to a developing story concerning their professional activities as representatives of a business. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the journalist had engaged in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit. There was no breach of Clause 3.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 11/04/2019
Date decision issued: 31/10/2019