Decision of the Complaints Committee 03186-14 Tanswell v Frome Standard
Summary of complaint
1. Derek Tanswell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Frome Standard breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply), Clause 3 (Privacy), Clause 4 (Harassment), Clause 6 (Children), Clause 12 (Discrimination) and Clause 13 (Financial Journalism) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Councillor flouts laws he serves to uphold”, published on 23 October 2014, and an article headlined “Family facing anxious wait after flouting planning laws over caravan”, published on 8 January 2015.
2. The articles reported that the complainant, a Frome councillor who served on Mendip’s planning committee, had “flouted” planning laws after he moved a static caravan on to a field in Chapmanslade that he owned with his partner, Sharon Snook. The articles also reported that the couple had installed a septic tank and built a wall at the access to the site, and said that a retrospective planning application had been submitted by Ms Snook. The earlier article reported that this application was to be heard by mid-December. The later article reported that the complainant’s family would have to “wait a little longer to get a decision”, after the decision on the application had been deferred, pending further investigation in to the agricultural officer’s report, and its claim that the alpacas Ms Snook intended to rear required 24-hour monitoring.
3. The complainant accepted that a caravan had been moved onto the site, that a septic tank had been installed, or that a wall had been constructed, but denied responsibility for these actions; he said he did not own the land, that he did not undertake the above actions, and therefore denied that he had “flouted planning laws”. He said that he lived at a different address, where he pays his council tax and runs his business, but confirmed that he works part-time at the Chapmanslade site. He said that he visits the site to see his partner and to see his children to bed, and that he sometimes leaves his van overnight, and gets a lift or cycles home. He said he did not visit the site every day, but confirmed that he was at the site when the static caravan arrived, as he had been contracted to connect up the water. He confirmed that he had acted as a planning agent on previous planning applications in relation to the land, but denied that this meant that he owns the land, or that the allegations made in the article were accurate. The complainant contended that the later article was inaccurate as the council’s agricultural consultant had not said that the alpacas needed monitoring 24 hour hours a day, as reported, but had said that alpacas required a presence on the site.
4. The newspaper telephoned the complainant on 17 October and 21 October, but did not receive a response; the reporter subsequently texted the complainant and there was an exchange of messages on 21 October, in which the newspaper put the claim that a retrospective planning application had been submitted to the complainant, who responded by denying that there was a retrospective planning application. He provided the journalist with the contact details of “[his] wife’s planning consultant”, and said that the consultant would verify his claims that no planning permission was required, and that there had been no breach of any regulations. The newspaper noted that during the exchange, the complainant had not denied owning the land.
5. The planning consultant contacted the newspaper on the day the first article was published and informed it that he had been instructed by his clients “Mr D. Tanswell & Ms S. Snook in respect of the [Chapmanslade] site”. He explained that planning permission was granted for the erection of an agricultural building on the land in June 2014, and that during the construction of this building, “the siting of the mobile home and the installation of a septic tank is a ‘permitted development’ and does not require express planning permission”.
6. The complainant provided IPSO with the “Planning Contravention Notice” (PCN) which had been served on Ms Snook. The PCN stated that the suspected breach of planning control related to the “unauthorised use of agricultural land for the stationing and residential use of a static caravan”. The complainant provided the response to the PCN from the planning consultant, which said that the consultant had been “instructed by Ms Snook and her partner Mr Derek Tanswell”. The agent denied that there had been a breach of planning regulations, and provided a defence to the siting of the static caravan. In addition, it said that “we are also instructed to prepare and submit an application for the retention of the mobile home for a temporary period of 3 years in connection with the establishment of an alpaca breeding enterprise”. The complainant noted that the response to the PCN made clear that Ms Snook was the owner and occupier of the land.
7. An appraisal of the planning application prepared by an agricultural consultancy stated that Ms Snook would be assisted in developing a viable agricultural holding “on a part-time basis by her partner, Mr Derek Tanswell”, and went on to state that “together, Ms Snook and Mr Tanswell believe they have the attributes necessary to establish and manage a successful business at the site”. In addition, the appraisal stated that “there must be someone on site at most times to ensure the proper functioning of the [alpaca] enterprise”, and that “it is neither responsible not practical to establish an alpaca breeding unit without living on site to care for the stock”.
8. The newspaper said that it approached Wiltshire Council, after it had been contacted about the caravan by neighbours of the complainant. The council provided an official comment a few days before the story was published, in which it said that a static mobile home had been stationed on the site, without planning permission, in August. The council went on to say that a retrospective planning application for the siting of a mobile home had been received after the council served a requisition for information as a prelude to take formal enforcement action. A report to the Western Area Planning Committee on the proposal to site a mobile home on the site in question stated that “the application is for the (partially retrospective) siting of a mobile home ... It is partially retrospective in that the mobile home is already on site and occupied”.
9. The newspaper provided statements from a number of the complainant’s neighbours who said that he had lived in the mobile home since August 2014, that he referred to the land as “my land”, that he had acted for Ms Snook in planning applications in relation to the land and that he had been seen working on the land.
10. The newspaper offered to publish a clarification making clear that the complainant does not own the land in question, but that it is, in fact, in Ms Snook’s name.
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. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply)
i) A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for.
Clause 3 (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. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.
Clause 4 (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 their 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.
Clause 6 (Children)
i) Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion.
ii) A child under 16 must not be interviewed or photographed on issues involving their own or another child's welfare unless a custodial parent or similarly responsible adult consents.
iii) Pupils must not be approached or photographed at school without the permission of the school authorities.
iv) Minors must not be paid for material involving children's welfare, nor parents or guardians for material about their children or wards, unless it is clearly in the child's interest.
v) Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child's private life.
Clause 12 (Discrimination)
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
Clause 13 (Financial Journalism)
i) Even where the law does not prohibit it, journalists must not use for their own profit financial information they receive in advance of its general publication, nor should they pass such information to others.
ii) They must not write about shares or securities in whose performance they know that they or their close families have a significant financial interest without disclosing the interest to the editor or financial editor.
iii) They must not buy or sell, either directly or through nominees or agents, shares or securities about which they have written recently or about which they intend to write in the near future.
Findings of the Committee
12. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s contention that the articles were inaccurate because he did not own the land in question, or live in the static caravan, and that it was inaccurate to allege that he had “flouted planning law”. The Committee noted that the complainant’s partner, and their children, lived in the static caravan; a planning consultant had been instructed to respond to the PCN by both the complainant and his partner; in his responses to the newspaper’s enquiries, the complainant had defended the siting of a static caravan; and the complainant confirmed that he had acted for his partner in a previous planning application in relation to the same land. The Committee acknowledged that it was inaccurate to describe the complainant as owning the land, but took the view that, in the above circumstances, it was not significantly misleading. It welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a correction to make clear that the land is formally owned by Ms Snook.
13. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that the siting of a static caravan was a “permitted development”, and that there was therefore neither a breach of planning law, nor a retrospective planning application. Nevertheless, a PCN notice had been served on the complainant’s partner, which identified the suspected breach of planning control. In response to this PCN, whilst the complainant’s consultant denied any breach of planning law, he nevertheless notified the council that a planning application was being prepared for the retention of the mobile home for use as a residence by an agricultural worker. The council had referred to the application as retrospective in its contact with the newspaper, and the report to the planning committee for its 17 December meeting referred to the application as “partially retrospective”. In these circumstances, it was not significantly misleading to refer to the planning application as retrospective.
14. Where the council, the body charged with enforcing planning laws, had identified that the stationing and residential use of the caravan was a suspected breach of planning control, and the complainant’s response to this was to submit a planning application for the retention of the mobile home, it was not misleading to report that he had “flouted strict planning laws”. The Committee noted that the earlier article under complaint reported the complainant’s position that there was no breach of planning law.
15. No significance attached to whether the council’s agricultural consultant had said that the alpacas required 24-hour monitoring, or if he said simply that a presence was needed on the site. This aspect of the complaint did not raise a breach of Clause 1.
16. The articles reported on an application for planning permission. This did not intrude on the complainant’s privacy, and there was no breach of Clause 3.
17. The text messages from the reporter to the complainant were not intimidating, but were professional in tone, and she had not persisted in questioning the complainant after a request to desist. There was no breach of Clause 4.
18. The complainant had not raised a concern which engaged the terms of Clause 2, Clause 6, Clause 12 or Clause 13, and the Committee did not consider these aspects of his complaint further.
19. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 29/12/2014
Date decision issued: 23/04/2015Back to ruling listing