· Decision of the Complaints Committee 04026-15 Baker v The Argus (Brighton)
Summary of complaint
1. Trudy Baker complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Argus had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in a series of articles: “Animal activists force children’s charity to halt fundraising night” and “Despicable attack on a vital children’s charity”, both published on 2 June 2015, “Post wasn’t ‘cruel joke’”, published on 3 June 2015, “Greyhound racers raise thousands for charity”, published on 5 June 2015, “£10k for charity from dog racers”, published on 8 June 2015, and “Calling dog lovers to help re-home gentle greyhounds”, published on 11 June 2015.
2. The newspaper reported that a children’s charity had cancelled a fundraising event at a greyhound racing stadium after supporters of the campaign group Greyt Exploitations sent employees of the charity “abusive” messages on social media.
3. The complainant, the coordinator of Greyt Exploitations, complained that the coverage was significantly misleading. She said that the reports had misrepresented the campaign and the nature of the correspondence sent to the charity. She had asked supporters to email the Chief Executive of the charity to politely ask him to cancel the event. It was inaccurate to report that the charity had received “threats” or a “series of aggressive messages”. The complainant was particularly concerned that headlines had referred to “threats” and a “reign of hatred”.
4. While the complainant accepted that the charity’s Chief Executive had been sent an “extremely distasteful” message, the message had not been threatening and it had been sent by an individual who was not affiliated with Greyt Exploitations. The comment on Greyt Exploitations’ Facebook page had read “sent a polite e-mail to ask if they are going to arrange a day at the hospital so we can all go and bet on the children.” The article had reported the Chief Executive of the charity as saying that “when we received messages, including that the activists should go to the baby unit and bet on which baby ‘would and would not make it’…we knew we were dealing with dangerous individuals and felt enough was enough.” The person who had posted the message had later clarified that she had meant that that the children could race around the ward and spectators would bet on the winner, and the complainant was concerned that the paraphrasing of the message had made it sound more sinister and was significantly inaccurate.
5. The complainant raised a number of additional concerns about the accuracy of the coverage. She said that Greyt Exploitations is a greyhound protection and welfare group, not an animal rights campaign; the organisation shared work contact details, not “personal contact details”, of employees of the charity; it was misleading to include reference to animal rights groups that had waged violent campaigns; a national newspaper, rather the Greyt Exploitations, had claimed that 40,000 dogs had been injured as part of commercial dog racing in the past decade; and the reported amount of money raised by the greyhound racing industry, following the cancellation of the event, represented conjecture as there was not a separate fund for donations. The complainant was also concerned that the article had not reported information about the motivation for the campaign.
6. The complainant also considered that the newspaper’s coverage represented harassment, in breach of Clause 4. In particular, she raised concerns that she did not believe she had been granted enough time to respond to a request for comment, prior to publication of an article, and that the short time-frame had put her under unnecessary pressure.
7. The newspaper said that the coverage accurately reported the comments made by the Chief Executive of the charity, including his comments that the campaign had been “intimidating and threatening”. The newspaper said that it was reasonable to describe people who responded to the Facebook campaign and subsequently emailed or contacted the charity via social media as supporters of the complainant’s campaign. The comment cited in the article was ill-advised, and it was reported that this had been removed from the complainant’s website. The coverage reported that the complainant had apologised for any offence caused. The exact wording of the comment was not significant in the context of the coverage as a whole.
8. The newspaper said that the complainant had not been harassed.
9. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code of Practice. Nonetheless, it offered to publish a letter from the complainant.
Relevant Code Provisions
10. 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.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Clause 4 (Harassment)
i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
Findings of the Committee
11. The newspaper had been entitled to report the views expressed by the Chief Executive of the children’s charity about messages received, and his explanation of why the charity had felt it necessary to cancel the event. The comments had been attributed to the Chief Executive and made clear that the charity had experienced the messages as “abuse” and “intimidating and threatening social media”. The complainant accepted that she had encouraged supporters to contact members of the charity directly, and that the charity had subsequently received a “distasteful” message. She was not in a position to assess the nature of any other private messages received by the charity, and it was not disputed that the charity had been so concerned by the messages it had received that it decided to cancel its fundraising event. In these circumstances the description of the communications was not significantly misleading. The newspaper had also reported the complainant’s position that “at no time have we ever threatened or used violence”. There was no breach of the Code on this point.
12. While the person who had posted the message suggesting that people “bet on the children” had later sought to clarify that she had been referring to the children racing, and not betting on who would survive, the message was open to interpretation; it was clear that the charity had understood that it had the latter meaning, and was extremely concerned by it. The newspaper’s reporting of the message was not significantly inaccurate or misleading.
13. The Committee considers headlines in the context of the stories that accompany them rather than as standalone statements. The text of the coverage had made clear the nature of the concerns about the behaviour of the campaign group and Greyt Exploitations’ position on the matter. In this context the headlines had not been significantly misleading.
14. The individual who had posted the message had written on Greyt Exploitations’ social media page, and appeared to have contacted the charity in response to their campaign. It was therefore not inaccurate or misleading to describe her as a “supporter”. The coverage also included comments from a member of Greyt Exploitations which said that they did not know the individual who had posted the message in question.
15. The distinction between sharing work contact details and personal contact details, when it was not disputed that the contact details provided were those of individuals and not for the charity more generally, was not so significant that it would require correction under the Code. Similarly, the fact that it was a newspaper that had claimed that 40,000 dogs had been killed on Britain’s race tracks, in the context of an article about Greyt Exploitations, and not the charity itself, did not represent a significant inaccuracy.
16. The newspaper had not been obliged to include all information provided by the complainant, nor had it been required to present a detailed explanation about the campaign’s objectives. The omission of this information was not significantly misleading. The newspaper’s reference to animal rights groups which had engaged in violent campaigns was not inaccurate or misleading. The coverage had made clear the allegations against Greyt Exploitations, and had not suggested that they engaged in violence. There was no breach of Clause 1.
17. The articles had made clear that members of the greyhound racing industry had launched the appeal, which had raised more than £9000. It was therefore not inaccurate to report that the industry had raised this money. There was no breach of the Code on this point.
18. The terms of Clause 4 generally relate to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. The publication of a number of articles about the campaign did not constitute harassment. The complainant had engaged with the newspaper, and there was no suggestion that the complainant had asked the newspaper to desist from contacting her. There was no breach of Clause 4.
19. Although it did not find a breach of the Code, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a letter from the complainant as a positive response to the complaint.
20. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 09/06/2015
Date decision issued: 03/09/2015Back to ruling listing