Decision of the Complaints Committee 05677-18 Costello v Swindon Advertiser
Summary of complaint
1. Martin Costello
complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Swindon
Advertiser breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an
article headlined "Suspended Ukip man posting on party's website"
published on 20 August 2018.
2. The article reported that the complainant, a former Ukip candidate, had been posting on the local party's Facebook page, despite him serving a suspension from Ukip for his involvement in a "fracas at a London socialist bookshop". The article featured comments from the chairman of Ukip in Swindon voicing his disapproval; claiming that he had advised the complainant to stop being active online while under investigation. It claimed that a local resident had alerted the administrator of the page that there was content being published by a suspended member of the party; the posts originated from the complainant's Facebook page. The article reported that the publication had contacted the complainant but he did not want to comment.
3. The article was published online under the headline "Suspended Ukip candidate Martin Costello still posting on party's Facebook page" published on 20 August. The online version appeared in much the same format as the print article.
4. The complainant said the article was inaccurate; he had not posted anything on the Facebook page nor the party's website; the posts originated from his own Facebook page but said an administrator of the page shared them. The complainant said there was no fracas in the bookshop as alleged in the article. He conceded that there was an altercation between a few people but no books were damaged, the police did not attend and there were no arrests; fracas was an exaggerated characterisation of the events. The complainant said that he had not been provided with adequate time to respond to the publication; a reporter had called him the day before publication and he was not afforded 24 hours to respond. Therefore the claim that he "did not want to comment" was misleading. Additionally, he said that the publication had manipulated comments on its own Facebook page to hide his posts.
5. The publication conceded that they had made an error regarding the complainant's posts; the reporter in this instance had misunderstood the difference between someone actively and personally sharing their own Facebook post and a page administrator sharing posts from other accounts. It pointed out that the posts featured the complainant's name, photograph and were written in the first person, it was only during the complaint, once their correspondence was reviewed again, that the error was spotted. The publication offered to amend the article to make it clear the complainant had not personally posted. The publication amended the article and offered to publish a correction on the same page that article appeared in print and as an addendum to the online article. The publication offered the following wording:
In an article headlined ‘Suspended Ukip man posting on party's website’ we said the former Ukip candidate Martin Costello had been posting on the local party’s Facebook site while suspended from the party. In fact, he had not been posting, his posts had been shared on to the page. We apologise for this error and are happy to make this clarification.
6. The publication otherwise denied breaching the Code. It said it called the complainant on Sunday, the day before publication, and followed this up with an email but there was no response; this provided more than enough time for the complainant to provide one. It was therefore not misleading for the article to claim that the complainant did not want to respond.
7. The publication said that it was not misleading to refer to the incident in the bookshop as a "fracas". It provided a YouTube video of the incident, which showed the complainant with a group of individuals who had stormed the bookshop, chanting and directing slurs towards the owner. The publication noted that his involvement in the incident had led to the complainant's suspension from Ukip; in the circumstances, "fracas" was an accurate description of the events.
8. The publication said it was under no obligation to carry comments on their Facebook page or their website; the comment in question was debunking of their article and removing this comment did not breach the Editors' Code.
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 article reported that the complainant had posted on Ukip Swindon's Facebook page while suspended by the party. The reporter misunderstood how comments worked on Facebook and did not check this prior to publication; this represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i).This was a significant inaccuracy because it implied the complainant had contravened his suspension. The proposed correction made it clear that the complainant had not personally posted on the website, this had been offered with adequate promptness and prominence. This was sufficient to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
11. It was not inaccurate to characterise the incident in the bookshop as a "fracas". The footage supplied by the publication made it clear that that there was a public disturbance; the complainant was at the scene and it was not in dispute that he had been suspended as a result of the incident. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
12. The Code does not state that a right to reply must be provided or stipulate that a minimum of 24 hours must be allowed in the event that publications request comment. The publication had contacted the complainant but he did not respond; it was not significantly misleading to report that he did not want to comment; there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
13. The selection of user generated comments for publication does not fall within IPSO's remit. Therefore the complainant's concern that the publication had hidden or removed comments on Facebook fell outside IPSO's remit.
14. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).
Remedial action required
15. The correction offered by the publication addressed the inaccurate claim in the article; this was offered with sufficient promptness and prominence and the proposed correction was adequate to meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii). This should now be published.
Date complaint received: 20/08/2018
Date decision issued: 20/12/2018
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