Decision of the Complaints Committee 05294-19 Stainer v Folkestone Herald
Summary of Complaint
1. Michael Stainer complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Folkestone Herald breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Ex Grand director in dock over emails”, published on 18 July 2019.
2. The article reported on the complainant’s court appearance after he had been “accused of knowingly sending ‘false information’ about one of the building’s residents“. It said that he had confirmed his name, address and age, denied his charge, and that his next court date had been set.
3. The article also appeared online on kentlive.news headlined “Former director of The Grand in Folkestone accused of sending 'false information' about resident” on 11 July 2019. This version of the article was substantially the same as the print article.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 because the headline had suggested that a third party, such as the police or Crown Prosecution Service, had “accused” him, when actually it was the alleged victim who had privately brought the case. He said that at the court appearance reported on, the magistrates had asked the CPS to review the case. He also said that it was inaccurate to say that he had been “charged” when it was a summons. He contacted the publication directly about his complaint. While this correspondence was ongoing, the CPS had discontinued the case against him due to lack of evidence, and the person who had brought the case had been ordered to pay the costs.
5. As a gesture of goodwill, during direct correspondence, the online version of the article was amended as follows:
“The prosecution was brought by [named third party].”
“Defending, Tom Flavin said: ‘There's an obligation on [named third party] and CPS to review any prosecution to see if they should take over prosecution if they can and whether they should or not. ‘I believe in this case, there has been limited communication with the police and none with the CPS as yet.’ The court heard the CPS must indicate if they intend to take over the matter by August 5. If they do, he will next appear at Canterbury Crown Court on August 7 and has been released on unconditional bail until then.”
6. During direct correspondence, the following clarification was published in the Folkestone Herald as a gesture of goodwill:
“Clarification: Michael Stainer
IN the July 18 edition of the Herald we reported Michael Stainer, the former director of The Grand in Folkestone, appeared in court on July 10 accused of knowingly sending “false information” about one of its residents, [named third party].We have been asked to point out this was in fact a private prosecution brought by [named third party]. The case was passed to the CPS and, following a review of the case, it was discontinued because there was insufficient evidence for a prosecution. We are happy to clarify this matter and apologise for any confusion.”
7. The complainant said that the online changes and the clarification had not resolved his complaint as they had not stated that the person who had brought the prosecution had been ordered to pay all the costs, nor had the clarification included a photograph of that person, when the original article had included a photograph of him. He also said that the online article was still inaccurate as it referred to him as being “charged” when a person can only be “charged” by the CPS.
8. The publication did not accept that there had been a breach of Clause 1. It said that there was no substantial difference between a public and a private prosecution, and even if a charge was dropped it would result in a “not guilty” verdict. It also said that a person could still be described as “charged” when a prosecution was brought privately; it provided the complainant’s charge sheet as evidence of this. It also said that Clause 1(ii) did not apply; the online article had been amended in goodwill and the complainant had agreed that the amendments had resolved his complaint. However, as a gesture of goodwill, the publication offered to publish the following wording at the top of the online article:
We are happy to clarify that this case was passed to the CPS and, following a review of the case, it was discontinued because there was insufficient evidence for a prosecution.
Relevant Code Provisions
9. 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
10. The Committee considered the differences between a private and a public prosecution. In this instance, the article had been misleading by failing to make clear that this was a private prosecution as opposed to a prosecution which had been brought in the name of the state following an evaluation of the evidence by the Crown Prosecution Service. The use of the term “charged” in the report, without making it clear that it was a private prosecution was also misleading in circumstances where the prosecution had not been brought by the state. The newspaper had failed to take care not to publish misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i) and, given its significance, a correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
11. The print correction which had been published, had made clear that the case was a private prosecution. The newspaper had also amended the online article to make it clear that this was a private prosecution, and it had offered to publish a corrective footnote which stated that the case had been passed to the CPS, and had been discontinued due to lack of evidence. The print and online corrections had not specifically addressed the complainant’s concern that the article had inaccurately stated that he had been “charged”. Nevertheless, the Committee considered that the correction and the amendments were sufficient to make it clear that that the prosecution had not been brought by the state.
12. The print correction had been published with due prominence as it had appeared on page 2 in the regular corrections column (the original article had appeared on page 14). The Committee considered that the offer to publish the corrective update at the top of the online article represented a suitably prominent position and the publication of an accompanying photograph was not required. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii).
13. After the CPS discontinued the case against the complainant, he contacted the publication notifying it of the position. As such, the publication had an obligation to report on the development so as to avoid a breach under Clause 1(ii). The Committee was satisfied that the correction published in the print article put the latest position on record and no further update was required. However, the online article needed to be updated in order to reflect that the complainant’s case had been discontinued. The wording offered by the publication was sufficient and information relating to the costs position did not need to be included. This should now be published to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
14. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).
Remedial Action Required
15. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.
16. The correction published in print by the publication had identified the misleading information which had been published and had set out the correct position. It was offered promptly and with due prominence and no further action was required. The correction, which the newspaper had offered to publish online, also put the correct position on record and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.
Date complaint received: 12/07/2019
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 28/02/20
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