Decision of the Complaints Committee – 05823-20 A woman v the Halifax Courier
Summary of Complaint
1. A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the conduct of a reporter from the Halifax Courier breached Clause 14 (Confidential sources) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
2. The complainant worked as a floor manager for a retail chain. Around 28 March 2020, she said she posted publicly on a social media site about her day at work. The name of her employer was then evident from her social media profile. According to the complainant, a journalist commented on the since-deleted post and asked for her to get in touch with the publication. The complainant then sent two emails to the publication’s news desk, on 28 and 31 March respectively. These emails raised concerns about non-essential purchases at the store at which she worked and a lack of measures to protect staff from the risk of Covid-19. It was alleged that the complainant’s then employer had placed profit above the protection of staff. The complainant stressed in her emails to the publication that she needed to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job.
3. Between 31 March and 21 April, the publication’s reporter contacted the employer’s press office and asked for a statement in response to the concerns which the complainant had raised in her emails to the publication. On 21 April, the complainant was suspended from her job, partly because of an allegation that she “made derogatory comments regarding the company and its customers to the media”. She was dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct on 4 May 2020, the allegation above having been substantiated by her employer.
4. The complainant said that the publication must have provided her name or sufficiently identified her to her employer in their email to the company. She said that the only other person she had raised these concerns with was her MP, and the hearing notes and letters from her employer referred to her “comments…to the media”. Her employer also provided her with an extract from an email, described as being from “the media”, that contained the complainant’s name and referenced the same concerns she had raised, and contained the same language she had used, in her emails to the publication.
5. The publication accepted that the complainant was a confidential source within the meaning of Clause 14. However, it denied the complainant’s claim that its reporter had passed over her details or otherwise revealed her identify in his email to the complainant’s employer. However, the publication was unable to provide the email it had sent to the employer. It said that the journalist had deleted the email after it had been sent and that, although it had contacted the employer on receipt of the complaint, the employer had also been unable to retrieve the original email. The publication acknowledged that its policy was for emails to be retained for two years; it said in this case the email had been deleted through error. The reporter said that, to the best of his recollection, the email only referenced the fact that the source was a worker at one of the company’s two stores in Halifax.
6. The publication stressed that the hearing notes and letters from the complainant’s employer never referred to the publication by name and simply mentioned the complainant’s comments to “the media”. Finally, it raised the possibility that the complainant’s identity in relation to the allegations could have been revealed in some other way. For example, in light of her public social media post, her employer could have presented her with anonymous allegations as part of a “fishing exercise” to see if she would admit to her involvement.
7. In response, the complainant said that there could have been no “fishing exercise” as she was presented with an extract from an email which contained the exact concerns she had voiced with the publication, in which she was named. There was therefore no denying that she had been the source of the allegations at this stage; and therefore, nothing to “fish” for.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. Clause 14 (Confidential sources)
Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.
Findings of the Committee
9. The first stage of any decision under Clause 14 is to assess whether the complainant was a confidential source of information. The complainant had provided the publication with information about working conditions in the store and had clearly requested that she remain anonymous for fear of losing her job. The complainant was a confidential source of information within the meaning of the Clause. The publication had also accepted this was the case.
10. The Committee then turned to the question of whether the publication had failed in its obligation to protect a confidential source, the complainant. It carefully considered the difficulty in determining whether the reporter had identified the complainant in his email to her employer and noted that this email -a key piece of evidence- was no longer available. It noted that the letters confirming the complainant’s suspension and dismissal, and the suspension hearing notes, referenced the complainant’s comments to “the media”. It could not therefore be disputed that the complainant had been dismissed by her employer for making comments “to the media”. The key question was therefore whether the comments “to the media” referred to the concerns which the complainant had raised with the Halifax Courier, or to another media organisation.
11. The complainant confirmed that the only media organisation she had contacted about her concerns was the Halifax Courier. During the disciplinary process, the complainant’s employer had produced part of an email it said it had received from a media organisation, which requested the employer’s comments and mentioned the complainant by name. This email set out the same concerns which the complainant had raised, and contained the same language she had used, in her email to the publication.
12. The Committee acknowledged the publication’s denial that the email produced by the complainant’s employer had been sent by its reporter. However, it noted that the burden of establishing compliance with the Editors’ Code lies with the publication. In support of her complaint, the complainant had provided the email she had sent to the publication and the email her employer said it had received from a media organisation. The publication accepted that an email had been sent to the complainant’s employer, but it had been unable to provide a copy for consideration by the Committee to demonstrate that it had not identified the complainant; the publication explained that the email had been deleted, despite its policy which required its retention for two years. Considering all of the available evidence, the Committee found that the publication had been unable to establish that it had protected the complainant as a confidential source and there was a breach of Clause 14.
13.The Committee took the opportunity to express its serious concern over the breach of Clause 14 in this instance. It represented a breach of a moral obligation and had had serious consequences for the complainant.
14.The complaint was upheld.
Remedial Action Required
15. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the newspaper had breached Clause 14, the publication of an adjudication was appropriate.
16. The complaint did not relate to any published material, and so the Committee considered carefully where the adjudication should appear. The breach of the Code was very serious. It had partly led to the complainant being dismissed by her employer. The Committee also had regard to the gross failure of record-keeping on the publication’s part. It had deleted the email in which it had passed over the complainant’s name to her employer within a couple of months of its being sent, when its policy is to retain such emails for two years. The adjudication should therefore appear on page 3 of the newspaper, or further forward, and the headline of the adjudication must also be published on the newspaper’s front page -directing readers to the adjudication on the page it appears. The headline to the adjudication should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, give the title of the newspaper and refer to the complaint’s subject matter. The headline must be agreed with IPSO in advance.
17. It should also be published on the publication’s website, with a link to the full adjudication (including the headline) appearing in the top 50% of stories on the publication’s website for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:
A woman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the conduct of a reporter from the Halifax Courier breached Clause 14 (Confidential sources) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
In March 2020, the complainant contacted the newspaper to voice concerns about working conditions at her store at which she worked. She alleged that her employer had placed profit above the protection of staff. The complainant stressed she needed to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job. In May, she was dismissed by her employer, partly for making comments “to the media”. She accused the newspaper of revealing her identity to her employer.
The publication accepted that it had contacted the complainant’s employer and passed over the complainant’s concerns to them in a since-deleted email. However, it said that it had kept her anonymous.
IPSO found that the complainant was a confidential source of information. The key question was whether the newspaper failed to protect the confidential source by revealing her identity to her employer.
The complainant’s employer had presented her with part of an email from a media organisation at her suspension hearing, which requested the employer’s comments and mentioned the complainant by name. This email contained the same concerns the complainant had raised, and the same language she had used, in her original email to the publication.
The publication was also unable to demonstrate that the email it sent had sufficiently protected the complainant’s confidentiality; instead, the email had been deleted, despite the newspaper’s policy which required its retention for two years.
For these reasons, IPSO had concluded that the newspaper had been unable to establish that it had protected the complainant as a confidential source and there was a breach of Clause 14.
IPSO also took the opportunity to express its serious concern over the breach of Clause 14 in this instance. It represented a breach of a moral obligation and had had serious consequences for the complainant.
Date complaint received: 7/5/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 2/12/2020