Decision of the Complaints Committee 07921-18 National Union of Journalists (NUJ) v The Cumberland News
Summary of complaint
1. National Union of Journalists (NUJ) complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Cumberland News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Journalists vote to go on strike”, published on 14 December 2018.
2. The article reported that journalists employed by a number of local publications – including the Cumberland News – had “decided to take industrial action in a dispute over pay”, in the form of a one-day strike. The article quoted a spokesperson from Newsquest, which is the publisher of The Cumberland News, who said: “We are disappointed that the NUJ has taken this stance especially as Newsquest has, in fact, invested in a new state of the art system for the editorial department and actually increased the number of reporters than under the previous owners. Our primary focus is to ensure that these titles have a sustainable future and, despite this strike action, they will continue to be published in full.”
3. The article was published in substantially the same form online, under the headline “Journalists to take industrial action over pay”; it was published on 7 December 2018.
4. The complainant said that the article distorted the nature of the industrial action which had been proposed by its members. It said that the mere reference to a “dispute over pay”, did not identify the real reason for the strike, and therefore rendered the article misleading by omission. The complainant alleged that a variety of factors had led to the journalists’ strike action: the refusal of the local management to negotiate a pay claim submitted in January 2018; a reduction in the amount which journalists were able to claim in travel expenses; concerns over redundancies and staff resignations; and a failure to negotiate or discuss staff concerns. The complainant said that omitting the context in which the strike action had arisen, would have left readers to wonder whether staff were being paid too much, or indeed, if they were being paid at all.
5. The complainant said that journalists did not merely “decide” to take industrial action, which implied a reckless lack of consideration; in fact, careful attempts to settle the dispute had taken place over a number of months. The complainant also said that the inclusion of an extensive statement from Newsquest meant that the piece lacked balance and was misleading; this statement referred to developments within Newsquest which were unrelated to the reason for the strike action. The complainant noted that in contrast, the publication had failed to contact the union prior to publication, or to include a comment from it in the article.
6. The newspaper denied any breach of the Code, and rejected the complainant’s position that by omitting the nature of the “dispute over pay” and the context in which it arose, the article was rendered inaccurate or misleading.
7. The newspaper said
that the article was a short piece which accurately summarised the reason for
the strike action, as set out by the NUJ’s own description of it to its members
on the ballot papers. The newspaper provided a sample of the ballot papers to
IPSO. The ballot paper relating to the trade dispute with CN Group Ltd
(Carlisle) described the dispute as “a failure to adequately increase editorial
basic pay in 2018”. The ballot paper relating to the trade dispute with CN
Group Ltd (Whitehaven) described the dispute as “a failure to reach a
negotiated settlement of the outstanding aspects of the 2017 pay claim”; this
was also set out in the ballot paper relating to the trade dispute with CN
Group Ltd (Workington).
8. The newspaper said that there will always be some readers who would like more information to be given about a particular subject, or for a story to be presented in a different way, as in this case; however, it argued that this was an issue of comprehensiveness, rather than inaccuracy. It said that an ordinary reasonable reader of the story would be clear that a decision to strike was taken by means of a vote. The newspaper said that the Code made no requirement to seek a response from subjects of articles, and did not accept that the omission of a comment from the NUJ rendered the article inaccurate or misleading.
Relevant Code Provisions
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.
Findings of the Committee
9. The Code does not include a requirement for balance. However, there may be certain circumstances where a publication’s presentation of a particular subject, for example, through its decision to include certain pieces of information and omit others, may render the article misleading. This was not such a case.
10. The article had reported that journalists had decided to strike over a “dispute over pay”; the online article had explained that the journalists had voted and this was made clear in the headline to the print article. No misleading impression was given as to how the decision had been taken.
11. The newspaper’s description of the reason for the strike action had been based on information which had been set out in the ballot papers sent to journalists; all of these explicitly stated that the various concerns raised related to pay. The newspaper’s characterisation of the strike action did not represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in those circumstances. The omission of the specific concerns about pay, and the circumstances in which they had arisen, did not render the article misleading; the article was an accurate summary of the overarching reason for the strike action. The Committee did not accept that the article gave a misleading impression which would have led a reasonable reader to question whether staff were being paid too much, or indeed, at all.
12. The inclusion of a statement from Newsquest in response to the strike action did not render the piece misleading in circumstances where the reason for the action had been accurately summarised. There was no breach of the Code.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 18/12/2018
Date decision issued: 14/03/2019
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