· Decision of the Complaints Committee 04601-15 Butler v Watford Observer
Summary of complaint
1. Gaybrielle Butler complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Watford Observer breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in a reader’s letter headlined “Bushey synagogue will regret eruv”, published on 3 April 2015.
2. The letter expressed grave concern about the proposals for the establishment of an eruv (a defined area in which Jewish people may carry or push objects while observing the Sabbath) in Bushey, North London. It was attributed to “Gay Butler, The working group for Bushey Residents Group”; the Group was lobbying against the eruv. The letter suggested that the eruv would disturb the local community and identify Bushey as a “Jewish area”. It said that Jewish law was incompatible with democracy and discriminatory.
3. The complainant said that, following a request from a journalist, she had submitted comments to the newspaper on behalf of the Residents Group, for inclusion in an article. She said that she had made clear to the journalist that the comments were being submitted on behalf of the Group, and were not from her personally; she did not want her name attached to them. She said that the publication of Bushey Residents Group’s comments in the form of a letter bearing her name represented a breach of Clause 1. She was particularly concerned as she had received subsequent abusive messages, criticising the nature of the comments made in the letter.
4. The week after publication of the letter a number of readers’ letters were published which were critical of the views expressed. The Group then submitted a further letter which was intended to address the points raised, but was told that it had missed the newspaper’s deadline by two hours. The newspaper also said that it would not publish the letter the following week, as it believed that both sides to the debate had already had an appropriate opportunity to air their views. Given that the letter under complaint was not intended to be published as a letter, the complainant believed that the Group had not had an opportunity to present fully its view on the debate, and this represented a breach of Clause 2.
5. The newspaper did not believe that it had breached the Code. It said that the fact that the comments submitted had been intended for publication was not in dispute. It said that the comments had been emailed after the print deadline for the next edition of the newspaper; therefore it was decided that the comments should instead be published the following week, as a letter. The complainant was the Group’s spokesperson, and had read out a statement on behalf of the Group at a public meeting the same week that the letter was published. It said that it is the policy of the newspaper not to publish letters without a name, even when the letter is submitted on behalf of a group. As such, the letter was published with the complainant’s name, and noted her membership of the Bushey Residents Group. Nonetheless, the newspaper accepted that it would have been preferable to check the identity of the sender and whether or not the comments were intended as a letter for publication.
6. While the newspaper did not believe that it had published any significant inaccuracies, the week after the publication of the letter under complaint the newspaper printed the following clarification:
“We have been asked to point out that comments in the letter ‘Bushey synagogue will regret eruv’ published in last week’s Watford Observer, was sent by the Bushey Residents’ working group and not by one individual and, as such, it expresses the views of that group and not an individual.”
7. The complainant was concerned that the clarification had not included her name, and so did not fully make clear the position.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. 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 2 (Opportunity to reply)
A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for.
Findings of the Committee
9. It was accepted that the complainant had submitted the comments, albeit on behalf of the Residents Group. It was also accepted that they were meant for publication. It was not inaccurate or misleading for the newspaper to have attributed the comments to the complainant in circumstances where it was made clear that she was writing on behalf of the Group, and where the letter represented her views. This did not breach Clause 1.
10. The Committee was concerned by the newspaper’s failure to inform the complainant in advance that it intended to publish the comment she had submitted as a letter. Publication in this form misleadingly suggested that she had chosen to engage with the newspaper using the medium of the letters page. However, as she had acted to introduce the views of the Residents Group into the ongoing public debate, this distinction was not significant, and no clarification was required.
11. The terms of Clause 2 provide for an opportunity to reply to published inaccuracies; it does not require newspapers to continue publishing opposing views on a controversial topic. The concerns raised by the complainant in this regard did not raise a breach of Clause 2. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the prompt clarification published by the newspaper.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 20/07/2015
Date decision issued: 26/10/2015Back to ruling listing