Decision of the Complaints Committee 03480-18 Nottingham City Council v The Sun
Summary of complaint
1. Nottingham City Council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "£40,000 blown on moving 40 newts", published on 13 April 2018.
2. The article reported that the "hard-up" Nottingham City Council had “spent £40,000 on relocating a colony of newts … at the same time as it needs to make £27 million of cuts". It explained that the newts are a protected species and were found in a pond at the site of a new enterprise zone and that the council were "paying experts £40,000" to relocate them in order to build a bridge to a science park. The article reported the council’s position that it had to act by law but included the position of a Conservative councillor who "said it should have been sorted earlier". It quoted a local resident criticising the spending.
3. The article appeared online under the headline "NEWT WORTH IT Hard up Nottingham City Council splashes £40,000 on relocating 40 newts". The online article featured additional background information on great crested newts and another comment from a local resident criticising the spending.
4. The complainant said that the article was misleading as the headline and opening paragraph suggested a link between spending cuts by the council and the cost of moving the newts, when this money came from the D2N2 Local Enterprise Zone, which was a central government fund and not part of the council's budget. It said D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership allocated Local Growth Fund money towards the development of the Nottingham Enterprise Zone and some of this money was set aside for the removal of the newts, which was a legal requirement in order for the development to continue. The complainant said that it administered the project and invoiced D2N2, who then funded it from the Local Growth Fund. It claimed that even if any of the set-aside funding was left over, it could only have been spent on the development of the Enterprise Zone and would not have ended up as part of the council's budget. Therefore it was misleading to refer to the council's own finances in this context, as it implied misleadingly that the council were wasting council money at a time of budget cuts.
5. The newspaper denied that it had breached the Editors' Code of Practice. It said that the council had spent £40,000 moving a colony of newts, that it was entitled to criticise this decision and that it had made it clear that the council had to act by law. It accepted that the funding did not come from Nottingham City Council's general budget, but it was still funding which the council had spent, from state funds it could access, which could have been spent on other things in the Nottingham Enterprise Zone, had the newts not been moved or if the council negotiated a better deal. The newspaper said that the fact that the council would not have the option to spend it on anything other than the Nottingham Enterprise Zone was irrelevant.
6. Nonetheless, as a gesture of goodwill, it had amended the online article to feature a prominent reference to the funds having come from the D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership, but maintained that there was no breach.
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.
v) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.
Findings of the Committee
8. The complainant administered the Local Enterprise Zone, controlled the funds, and authorised the use of funds for this project. In this context, it was not inaccurate for the newspaper to report that it had “spent” the funds. The fact and extent of the budget cuts facing the council were also not in dispute. The question was whether the report had suggested misleadingly that the funds concerned were local council funds, and if so, whether this misleading impression was significant such that a correction or clarification was required.
9. Although there was a legal requirement to move the newts, this only created an obligation; the council had taken the decision about allocating resources for the project. It was also not in doubt that the money spent was public money, which could have been used (at least in part) for other purposes relating to the Local Enterprise Zone, had a different decision been taken by the council. In the view of the Committee, while the article highlighted the council’s budgetary position, it stopped short of claiming that the funding came from the council’s budget; it was ambiguous. It also accurately recorded the council’s position that it was fulfilling a legal obligation; the criticism quoted from a councillor and local residents related to the sums involved. The Committee did not establish a failure to take care over the presentation of this information, there was no breach of Clause 1 (i). The Committee considered whether, in the full circumstances, a clarification was required, but concluded that it was not: the council had made the decision and had spent public funds of £40,000 on the project (regardless of their source), some of which could have been used for alternative purposes in the local area. In this context, any ambiguity as to the source of the funds was not significant so as to require clarification or correction. The article was not significantly misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1.
8. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 14/05/2018
Date decision issued: 19/10/2018
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