Decision of the Complaints Committee 03396-18 Thurrock Council v Thurrock Independent
Summary of complaint
1. Thurrock Council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Thurrock Independent breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “THE SOUND OF SILENCE”, published on 26 April 2018.
2. The article detailed allegations made in a whistleblowing letter concerning “bullying, malpractice, negligence and nepotism” in Thurrock Council. The article reported on the allegations contained the letter, specifically allegations of negligence made against Thurrock Council’s Children’s services. It claimed that prior to the Council receiving the whistleblowing letter, a “small child died while under the care of Thurrock Council”.
3. The article explained that the newspaper had approached the Council with “12 specific questions” relating to the allegations contained in the letter, including the question: “According to the document, a young child under the council’s care – at least that the council was aware of – has died in recent months. Is this true? How long had the council been aware of the family’s issues?”
4. The article reported the Council’s response in full:
“The council takes its responsibilities for children very seriously. All whistleblowing allegations are robustly investigated and where necessary action is taken. The public will be aware of other whistleblowing allegations presented to the council which have led to the dismissal of officers and indeed, the council prosecuting in a court of law where the case was proven. The public should be reassured that as a public body we act in the best interests of the public we serve and will continue to do so. If there is an unexplained death of a child, police and other statutory agencies investigate and with the Council determine what action, if any, needs to be taken”.
5. The article quoted the contents of the whistleblowing letter, which had claimed that: “Only within the last seven days we have seen the death of a 23-month-old toddler. This case has been open to Children’s Services since May 2017.” The letter had also claimed that chronic neglect may have been a contributing factor in the child’s death. It raised concern that due to the current existing management team, similar situations might continue to occur.
6. In addition to the headline, the body of the article criticised the complainant’s response to the claims made in the whistleblowing document. The article said that the Council had “dismissed” the claims and had characterised the Council’s response as a “112 word brush off”.
7. The article was also published online on 24 April 2018, under the headline “Whistle-blower’s present damning allegations against Thurrock Council children’s services”. In the online article, the article claimed that if it were true that a child had died under the Council’s care, it “would lead to the third serious case review in Thurrock in recent years”. The article also claimed a response from the Council relating to a separate matter, had been received 'late on Wednesday'.
8. The complainant said that the article had contained misleading and damaging allegations concerning its Children’s services. The complainant said the child referred to was not in the care of the council. It said that a case “being open to social services”, as in this case, was not the same as the child being in the council’s care.
9. The complainant said that contrary to the article’s claim, Serious Case Reviews are not triggered automatically: a decision is taken as to whether a review is appropriate by an Independent National Panel which is advised by the Chair of the Local Children's Safeguarding Board. The complainant said that this process was explained to the journalist, prior to publication of the print article. The complainant provided a link to information relating to Serious Case Reviews, published on its own website. This page contained a link to Government Guidance, which stated: “Serious case reviews are undertaken by local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs) for every case where abuse or neglect is known - or suspected - and either: a child dies, or a child is seriously harmed and there are concerns about how organisations or professionals worked together to protect the child.”
10. The complainant said that the article, including the headline, had suggested that the whistle-blowers’ allegations had not been taken seriously by the council. On the contrary, it had responded to the journalist’s questions with a statement, as was standard practice for media enquiries. It said it was not possible to publicly comment on the specifics of cases or about individuals, including residents or council employees, out of respect for their privacy. The complainant also disputed the online article’s claims that the Council’s responses had been submitted “late”; it had been submitted at 11.10am on Wednesday 25 April.
11. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the report was fair, accurate and represented the facts known to the newspaper.
12. The newspaper provided the whistleblowers’ letter, which it had received anonymously on Thursday 19th April. The newspaper said that given the nature of the documents enclosed in the letter, which included screen shots of information that could only have come from someone inside the council. The newspaper said that upon receipt of the letter, and following two telephone calls with contacts from within the council, it became clear that the allegations contained within the letter were a serious and legitimate issue that the newspaper should tackle.
13. The newspaper provided the correspondence which had passed between the journalist and the council, prior to publication.
14. The newspaper provided an email which it had sent to the complainant on 23 April at 15:52; this email set out the proposed story to be published online that day at midnight and invited the complainant to confirm whether it was true that “a young child under the council’s care – at least that the council was aware of – had died in recent months”. The email said that the print deadline for response was 10am on Wednesday, 25 April. The newspaper received a response from the complainant, which was reported in the print article, on 24 April at 15:26. Upon receipt of this, the journalist had responded: “Can I confirm that this 112 word statement is the summary answer to the 12 questions posed in my email to you. I need that qualifying because clearly the council appears to have declined to answer some significant and extremely specific questions. You also declined the opportunity to discuss these matters face to face.” The complainant responded on 24 April at 16:14: “Your overall enquiry was referencing a document, so you can take the answer to be in response to the overall ‘whistleblowing’ document”.
15. The newspaper sent a further email on 24 April at 16:45 and repeated the question regarding the child set out at paragraph 14 above. The newspaper said that despite being previously made aware of its 10am print deadline, a response was received from the Council at 11.10am on 25th April, which stated:
“If a child who is in the care of the local authority sadly dies, there is a statutory, nationally agreed, independently monitored process which determines if a serious case review is needed. This is not a decision the council takes, it is undertaken by an Independent National Panel who is advised by the Chair of the Local Children’s Safeguarding Board. A serious case review is not undertaken where agencies are not at fault.”
16. The newspaper said that it was accurate to report that the child had been in the “care” of the council, and did not accept that the article had distorted the degree of responsibility which the council had over the child’s welfare. It said that it followed that where a childcare issue had been brought to the Council’s attention, and a case was “open”, the council had a duty of responsibility of that child.
17. The newspaper said that it was entitled to criticise the complainant for its response to the whistleblowing claims. It noted that the complainant had only responded with a general 112 word statement, following 12 detailed questions. It said that the very fact that the whistle-blowers had felt the need to approach the newspaper with their concerns, demonstrated that the council had not taken the matter seriously.
18. The newspaper noted that, following the publication of the article, the Council had sent a letter to the journalist who had written the story, complaining of the “ongoing vexatious and unreasonable nature of [his] contact” with the Council following the journalist’s media enquiries. The letter said that the Council was considering ceasing contact and engagement with the journalist, in line with their procedures. The newspaper provided this letter as an explanation as to why it felt unable to respond directly to the complaint.
Relevant Code provisions
19. 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.
Findings of the Committee
20. The whistle-blowers’ letter had detailed a series of serious and significant concerns relating to the management practices of Children’s services at Thurrock Council; the newspaper was entitled to report on these claims, provided that it took care not to publish these claims in an inaccurate, misleading, or distorted manner. The allegation relating to the death of the child, and whether the council could be considered culpable, was presented throughout as an allegation which had been made by the whistleblower, rather than as a statement of fact asserted by the newspaper.
21. Care had been taken by the newspaper to review the contents of the whistleblowers' letter, and make enquiries as to its veracity through its contacts within the council, prior to approaching the complainant for comment. The complainant had been put on notice, 8 hours prior to the publication of the online article, of the newspaper’s intention to report on the claims made in the letter, the contents of which had been in the council’s possession since January 2018. Further care had been taken. The newspaper had provided the complainant with a copy of the proposed article and an opportunity, in response to 12 detailed questions, to provide its denial to the claims made against it.
22. No denial was received in relation to the core allegation made by the newspaper that a child “under the council’s care”, had died.
23. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that a “case being open” was not tantamount to the child being in the council’s care. However, it was not in dispute that the child concerned had been known to the Council for almost a year, and a case had been open at the time of their death, as set out in the whistleblowers’ letter. Further, in response to a clear question, posed by the newspaper several times, the complainant had not denied the existence of the case or the allegation that the child was “under” its care at the time they had died. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in those circumstances. Further, given the events set out in the whistleblowers’ letter and in circumstances where no denial from the complainant had been received, the Committee did not establish that the article contained a misleading impression of the allegations of the whistle-blowers’, such as to require correction.
24. The article accurately reflected the government guidance, which was that a serious case review is undertaken by local safeguarding children boards for every case where abuse or neglect is known - or suspected – and a child dies. Further, the newspaper was entitled to criticise the manner in which the complainant had responded to the whistle-blower’s allegations; the basis for the headline’s criticism was set out in full in the print article, including the Council’s 112 word response; readers were able to make up their own minds on the legitimacy of the claim that this statement was a “brush off” which “dismissed” the whistle-blowers’ allegations. The Council’s response relating to the separate matter, had been sent at 11.10am on Wednesday 25th April; it was accurate to describe this as “late”, in circumstances where the Council had been aware of the 10am print deadline. There was no breach of the Code.
25. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date compliant received: 08/05/2018
Date decision issued: 10/08/2018
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