Decision of the Complaints Committee 03502-18 Little v Witney Gazette
Summary of complaint
1. Lynn Little complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Witney Gazette breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "Mayor set to hand over chains after months of controversy" published on 28 February 2018 and an article headlined "Mayor at centre of furore over allowance to hand over chains", published on 16 May 2018. The first article appeared online with the headline "Controversial Carterton mayor Lynn Little forced to hand over chains"; and the second article appeared online with the headline: “Controversial Carterton mayor Lynn Little to hand over chains”. The remainder of the articles were the same as the print editions.
2. The first article reported that the complainant, the mayor of Carterton, would "conclude five years in office following months of council infighting", and following a unanimous vote by councillors, another councillor would take on the role, with his position set to become official at a meeting in May. It said that the complainant had recently suffered an "onslaught of criticism" from fellow councillors who had accused her of "misappropriating funds", and that a motion had been carried to establish whether the complainant would face legal action if she failed to return £4,835 paid out of the "Mayor’s Allowance Account", to "non charitable activities" between 2015 and 2017. The article went on to explain that these payments included a donation of £4,000 to "'Ted Little's Veteran's Home', an organisation not registered with the Charity Commission". The article said that the remaining expenditure related to "civic dinners", for which the complainant had given some guests free entry, and described an "explosive meeting", where the complainant denied the allegations and noted to the attendees that the police and the monitoring officer had dropped their investigation against her. The article stated that councillors had carried a "vote of no confidence against Mrs Little" the month before.
3. The second article contained much of the same content as the first article, and featured a further quote from the new mayor elect, who said that he would allow town hall staff to manage finances previously managed by the mayor and promote more transparency in relation to Council spending. The article also featured a quote from the complainant, stating that since Carterton Town Council solicitors had made their claim against her, they had not substantiated their claims with any evidence.
4. The complainant said that the headline to the online version of the first article was inaccurate as she was not "forced" to hand over her chains. She said that her mayoral term was coming to an end; she had voluntarily made the decision not to run for another term; and that it was always her intention to complete her mayoral term in 2018.
5. The complainant said that the articles contained a number of further inaccuracies. She said that it was misleading to label her as a "controversial mayor", as the allegations against her were not only unproven, but both West Oxfordshire District Council and Thames Valley police had concluded that there was no case to answer.
6. The complainant disputed the articles' claims that she had donated funds from the Mayor’s Allowance Account to “non-charitable activities”. She said that Carterton Town Council had not provided any proof that any donations were made for non-charitable organisations and Ted Little Veteran’s Home was still a charity, despite it not being registered with the Charity Commission, which was not a requirement.
7. The complainant said that the articles portrayed her as a criminal under investigation because the author failed to note that charities do not need to be registered with the Charity Commission if they receive an annual income under £5000. She said that the author had attended the meeting and heard the complainant make this declaration, but had failed to include this information in the article. This portrayal was exacerbated because the articles featured the comments of her successor, without including her own direct response.
8. The newspaper accepted that it was incorrect to say that the complainant was "forced" to give up her chains; this was a result of a sub-editor not reading the story properly before inserting the headline. The newspaper removed the word "forced" from the headline and offered to publish the following correction online:
In an article which appeared on this website on February 22, 2018, we ran a story about Lynn Little standing down as the mayor of Carterton. The headline to the article initially read she was 'forced to hand over the chains'. While the story itself was accurate, it was wrong to say in the headline Ms Little was forced to stand down from her position. In fact, she did so when her term came to an end after a motion of no confidence in her had been lost.
9. The newspaper denied that it had otherwise breached the Editors' Code of Practice. It said using the term "controversial" to refer to the complainant was not misleading; it is a term used to refer to stories where there has been widespread criticism. It noted that its use of the term was vindicated by the vote of no confidence from the council against the complainant.
10. The newspaper said that official documents showed that the complainant did make donations from the Mayors Allowance Account to “non-charitable activities”, with the largest payment of £4000 being made to Ted Little Veteran’s Home, which was not registered with the Charity Commission. The newspaper referenced the minutes from a Carterton Town Council meeting held on 20 February which stated "on 23 January 2018 a Motion was passed requesting that the Mayor, Cllr Mrs Little, repay £4,835 to the council that had been paid out of the Mayor's Allowance account in contravention of Council policy and that if the funds were not returned, the matter would be pursued through civil litigation.
11. The newspaper stated that the author of the articles had contacted the complainant before any story was published, and said that the author had endeavoured to present both sides of the story. It denied any claims of bias towards the new mayor. It said that any underrepresentation of the complainant in the articles was due to her refusal to comment. The newspaper strongly refuted any accusations of a campaign against the complainant.
Relevant Code provisions
12. 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
13. It was accepted that the headline of the first online article was inaccurate. This had occurred due to a sub-editor inserting the headline without properly reading the article. This was a significant inaccuracy because it suggested that the complainant was involuntarily made to resign as mayor, as a result of the issues discussed in the article, which was not the case. This represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i). A correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
14. The Committee then considered whether the first article had more broadly misrepresented the end of the complainant's tenure as mayor and implied that she had been forced to step down. The Committee noted that there was a "vote of no confidence" against the complainant and considered that it was not inaccurate for the first article to state that she would "step down", "conclude five years in office" or "hand over her chains"; this was consistent with the complainant's admission that she would step down at the end of the term. The fact that the article did not explicitly state that the complainant had voluntarily chosen to step down at the end of her term did not imply that she was forced to step down. The article had accurately described the events surrounding the end of the complainant's tenure. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
15. The correction offered by the newspaper addressed the point that the complainant had not been "forced" to hand over chains, as stated in the headline to the article, which was amended to remove the word "forced" to make clear the correct position. The newspaper's removal of the inaccuracy in the headline, and its offer to publish the correction online as a separate story near the top of the website, with a link to the original story, represented due prominence under the terms of Clause 1(ii).
16. The newspaper was entitled to characterise the complainant as "controversial". Controversy does not in itself constitute illegality and in this instance the use of this word clearly referred to the prolonged disagreement and heated discussion amongst the complainant and council members, as set out in the article. In those circumstances, and where such disagreement had led to a vote of no confidence, it was not misleading for the newspaper to make this characterisation. There was no breach of Clause 1 in respect of this point.
17. The Committee acknowledged the complainant's position that Ted Little Veteran’s Home was a charitable cause, even though it was not registered with the Charity Commission, and her position that it was, therefore, misleading to claim that payments had been made in respect of non-charitable activities. However, the article had set out the allegations concerning the complainant’s conduct, as set out in the minutes of the 20 February Council meeting, in particular, the concern from fellow Councillors that money had been paid out of the Mayor’s Allowance Account to a charity which was not registered with the Charity Commission. In those circumstances, the Committee considered that on balance, the claim of “uncharitable activities”, was presented as a criticism made by the Council. The newspaper had taken care to report the allegations made against the complainant, as set out in publicly available documentation, accurately. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
18. The Committee did not consider that by prominently featuring the mayor elect's comments, the articles had given the impression that the complainant was a criminal under investigation. The publication were entitled to report the mayor elect's comments and the articles included the complainant's denial of the allegations. There was no breach of Clause 1 in respect of this point.
19. The compliant was upheld.
Remedial action required
20. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.
21. The correction offered by the newspaper was sufficient to meet the requirements of Clause 1 (ii): it addressed the identified inaccuracy in the articles and was offered with sufficient promptness and prominence. This should now be published.
22. Following receipt of the Committee’s decision, the complainant made comments on the wording of the correction which the Committee required the newspaper to publish. Having considered the points raised by the complainant, the Committee decided that the following wording was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii), and should be published online as a separate story near the top of the website, with a link to the original story.
In an article which appeared on this website on February 22, 2018, we ran a story about Cllr Mrs Lynn Little standing down as the mayor of Carterton. The headline to the article initially read she was 'forced to hand over the chains'. While the story itself was accurate, it was wrong to say in the headline Cllr Mrs Lynn Little was forced to stand down from her position. In fact, she did so when her term came to a natural end.
Date complaint received: 22/05/2018
Date decision issued: 23/08/2018