09074-16 Highland Council v Express.co.uk

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 09074-16 Highland Council v Express.co.uk

Summary of complaint

1. Highland Council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Express.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in relation to an article headlined “Sturgeon’s flagship ‘Named Person’ scheme savaged by dad kept from sick baby”, published on 17 August 2016.

2. The first paragraph of the article reported that “a pilot scheme for Nicola Sturgeon’s heralded ‘named persons’ scheme repeatedly broke the law, keeping a father from his new-born and even allowing her name to be changed without his permission”. The named person scheme is a system where a “named person” is appointed to monitor the welfare of a child. The article reported that an individual, named in the article, who was no longer in a relationship with his child’s mother, had been “pleading with  [the Council’s] Director of Health and Social Care…for access to information and case notes on his daughter’s well-being for weeks”. It reported that he had “since discovered through a subject data access request that his four-month-old daughter has been airlifted to hospital and had her name changed on case notes, which is in breach of the law”.

3. The article also reported that the Council’s Director of Health and Social Care “has not only refused to help but has admitted there is [sic] too many managers after the child was given five different Named Persons in just four months”. It said that in an email to the father, the Director of Health and Social Care had said: “there are enough people involved just now I suggest, without adding another manager like myself”, and reported the father’s comment that “my baby daughter is just four months old and yet I have had five separate people involved in her case”. It also reported that the father had been “refused his basic rights despite his name being on the birth certificate”. The article contained a series of comments from the father, criticising the complainant for its management of his case. It also reported that “Highland Council has not responded to requests for comment”. 

4. The complainant said that the article did not identify the legislation alleged to have been breached, but that it was satisfied that the Named Person scheme had been administered appropriately, and denied that it had “kept a father from his newborn”. The complainant said that it had no role in private and civil matters between the mother and father of the child concerned, and it had no power or role in assigning a name to the child. It had not, and had not purported to “change” the child’s name, and the use of the name preferred by the mother in official records did not amount to this. It said that it was inaccurate to report that the child’s social work records had been changed, as there were no such records. The use of the name preferred by the child’s mother in the health visitor notes was not “in breach of the law”.

5. The complainant denied that the Director of Health and Social Care had “refused to help” the father. It said that the Director had said to the father that he was already engaged with two of his senior colleagues, and intimated that he did not need his assistance as well. It denied that the Director’s comments represented an admission that there were too many managers. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to claim that the child in question has been given five different Named Persons in just four months; the child had the same health visitor throughout the period. When that health visitor was on leave, another health visitor visited the child and mother to ensure continued support. The complainant denied that the named person scheme had kept the father from his child. The complainant said that the father had a right to health visitor records, which it held, but that the complainant also appeared to have difficulty in obtaining information from other agencies in relation to medical information for which it was not responsible. It said that the father first requested the health visitor records on 27 June, along with a request for other information. He then made a subject access request specifically for these notes, which was received on 11 July. In compliance with the 26 August deadline under data protection legislation, the health visitor notes were supplied to the father on 11 August.

6. The complainant said it was inaccurate to report that it had not responded to requests for comment. It had responded by saying that it was aware of the father’s requests, which were receiving attention, but that it would not be appropriate to offer any further comment at this time.

7. The complainant initially wrote to the publication’s Scottish office on 23 August to complain about the article. It wrote a further letter on 9 September to the London office to chase for a response. It said it was concerned that it only received an acknowledgement of the complaint on 15 September, and a response to the complaint on 27 September, and that the onus had been placed on the complainant to identify the appropriate destination for the complaint.

8. The publication said that both parents with parental responsibility, as defined by the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, must consent to a change in the surname of a child. It said that the complainant had acted illegally by changing the child’s name on official documents, constructed for the purpose of care teams to conduct their statutory duty, without the permission of the child’s father, who had parental responsibility. It provided a copy of an internal email from the complainant’s solicitor, in which she stated that “my advice is that you should use the name on the birth certificate for statutory purposes and otherwise if parents with [parental responsibilities and rights] wish the child to be known by a different name and the child is too young to express a view then we should try to accommodate the wishes of the parents. If they can’t agree you are best using the name on the birth certificate for all purposes unless there is a child protection or child welfare concern which indicates otherwise”. The publication also provided the Council’s minutes of a meeting between the father and the council, which stated that “the legal stance is that the Legal name should be used. This will be changed on [the child’s] file”.

9. The publication said that the assistance the Council’s Director of Health and Social Care had given the father was a matter of interpretation. It said that the father had contacted the Director of Health and Social Care asking for access to information, and raising concerns about the number of people within the council responsible for his daughter’s case, and her medical treatment. It said that in his response, the Director said that “there are enough people involved just now I suggest, without adding another manager like myself”, which was the basis for the article’s claim that the complainant had admitted “there were too many managers”.

10. The publication said that prior to publication, it had spoken to the father, who provided significant documentation. It had then contacted the complainant, to request its comments on the claim that it was failing to help the father access information about his daughter. The publication’s email specifically requested the complainant’s comments on the email from the Director of Health and Social Care to the father. The publication said that at a later date, the father had sent an email to the Director, asking why his daughter’s name had been changed on official documentation. It provided an email from the Director, forwarding this email to colleagues at the council, in which the Director stated “a further email, for info. I am not going to respond further”.

Relevant Code provisions

11. 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

12. In reporting the father’s grievances about the complainant’s actions in relation to his child, the publication had made a number of very serious claims about the complainant’s interaction with the father, including that it had acted illegally; that it had kept the father from his child; and that it had admitted that there were “too many managers” involved in addressing his concerns. The Committee considered carefully whether the publication had taken appropriate care in presenting these allegations.

13. The article alleged that the complainant had “repeatedly broke the law” by changing the child’s name on the health visitor records. However, the publication did not suggest that the complainant had sought to effect a change in the name of the child. Rather, the dispute was over which name should be used on health visitor records. The statutory guidance provided by the publication on the procedure for legally changing a child’s name was therefore not relevant. The complainant’s legal adviser had advised that the name on the child’s birth certificate be used, but the advice did not say it was unlawful to do otherwise. The publication provided no basis for suggesting that the complainant had acted illegally in using the mother’s preferred name on the health visitor records.  The publication had not asked the Council to respond to this allegation, and did not demonstrate it had otherwise taken sufficient care over the accuracy of this claim. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (i). The claim that the council had acted illegally was a serious allegation, and was significant, in the context of the article. The publication had not offered to correct this significant inaccuracy, and the complaint was therefore upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

14. The basis for the claim that the Director of Health and Social care had “admitted there is [sic] too many managers”, was that in response to a request for assistance from the father, the Director of Health and Social Care had said that “there are enough people involved just now I suggest, without adding another manager like myself”. The Committee considered that this did not constitute an admission that there were “too many managers”. Indeed, the Director had explicitly recognised the need not to involve “too many managers”. The article was significantly inaccurate on this point, and representing a further breach of Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (ii). The Committee recognised that the father had been in communication with a number of people at the council. However, this did not provide a basis for the article’s assertion that the child had been given “five different Named Persons in just four months”. Where the article criticised the council in its operation of the ‘Named Person’ scheme, this claim was significantly inaccurate, representing a further breach of Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (ii).

15. The Committee acknowledged that the father was concerned that he had difficulty in obtaining information about his daughter via the named person’s scheme, operated by the complainant. However, the headline of the article claimed that the father had been “kept from [his] sick baby”, and the sub-headline of the article claimed that the complainant had been “keeping a father from his newborn”. These claims suggested that the complainant had acted to prevent the father from seeing or attending to his child, which significantly misrepresented the substance of the father’s complaint against the complainant, as reported in the article. The headline and sub-headline of the article were significantly misleading in this respect, representing a further breach of Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (ii).

16. Before publication of the article, the publication had written to the complainant to request its comments on the allegation that the council was “refusing…to help [the father]”, and the father’s allegation that “he’s been fobbed off by a succession of staff”, and had specifically referred to the Director’s statement that “there are enough people involved just now”.  The complainant provided a short statement in response, in which it stated that it was “aware of [the father’s] requests and these are receiving attention”. The Committee recognised that the complainant’s response was limited in nature, but it had not failed to respond to the publication’s requests for comment. Having set out a number of serious allegations about the complainant, it was significantly misleading for the article to claim that council had not responded to the publication’s enquiries. This was a further significant inaccuracy, and failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (ii).

17. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that the Director of Health and Social Care had corresponded with the father, and that his colleagues were in the process of assisting him. However, the Director had told the father that “there are enough people in involved just now I suggest, without adding another manager like myself”. In addition, when he had received another email from the father, he had passed this on to colleagues with the note: “a further email, for info. I am not going to respond further”. In these circumstances, it was not significantly misleading to report the father’s complaint that the Director had “refused to help”. 

18. In addition to the breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), the Committee was concerned at the way the publication had responded to this complaint. The pre-amble to the Code makes clear that editors must maintain in-house procedures to resolve complaints swiftly. The Committee was very concerned it had taken a month for the publication to reply substantively to the complaint, before the complaint had been made to IPSO. This was an unacceptable delay.

Conclusions

19. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

20. The Committee determined that the article contained a number of significant inaccuracies, which represented serious claims about the complainant’s interactions with the father of a young child. The newspaper did not demonstrate it had taken sufficient care over the accuracy of these claims, in breach of Clause 1 (i). Having failed to respond promptly to the complaint it received directly from the complainant, the publication also failed to offer any correction to these claims during the IPSO complaints process, in breach of Clause 1 (ii). Given the seriousness of the breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered that the appropriate remedy in this case was the publication of the Committee’s adjudication.

21. The adjudication should be published on the publication’s website, with a link to it (including the headline) being published on the homepage for 24 hours. It should then be archived in the usual way.  The headline of the adjudication must refer to the name of the publication, make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, and refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed in advance. If the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, the full text of the adjudication should also be published on that page, beneath the headline. If amended, a link to the adjudication should be published with the article, explaining that it was the subject of an IPSO adjudication.

22. The terms of the adjudication to be published are as follows:

Following publication of an article on Express.co.uk on 17 August 2016, headlined “Sturgeon’s flagship ‘Named Person’ scheme savaged by dad kept from sick baby”, Highland Council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Express.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The complaint was upheld, and IPSO required Express.co.uk to publish this adjudication.

The article reported that “a pilot scheme for Nicola Sturgeon’s heralded ‘named persons’ scheme repeatedly broke the law, keeping a father from his new-born and even allowing her name to be changed without his permission”. It reported that he had “since discovered through a subject data access request that his four month-old daughter…had her name changed on case notes, which is in breach of the law”.  The article also reported that the council’s Director of Health and Social Care “has not only refused to help but has admitted there is too many managers after the child was given five different Named Persons in just four months”. The article claimed that the complainant had not responded to requests for comment.

The complainant said that the use of the name preferred by the child’s mother in the health visitor notes was not “in breach of the law”. It denied that the Director of Health and Social Care had admitted that there were too many managers.  It denied that the child was “given five different Named Persons in just four months”.  The complainant said that it had responded to the publication’s request for comments, contrary to what was claimed in the article. The complainant said it was satisfied that the named person scheme had been administered appropriately.

The publication said that both parents with parental responsibility must consent to a change in the surname of a child, and maintained that the complainant had acted illegally by changing the child’s name on official documents. However, the publication did not suggest that the complainant had sought to effect a change in the name of the child. Rather, the dispute was over which name should be used on health visitor records.  The publication said that the Director of Health and Social Care at the council had told the father that “there are enough people involved just now I suggest, without adding another manager like myself”. It explained that this was the basis for the article’s claim that the complainant had admitted “there were too many managers”.

In response to the complaint, the publication provided no basis for the serious allegation that the complainant had acted illegally in using the mother’s preferred name on the health visitor records.  The publication had not asked the council to respond to this allegation, and did not demonstrate that it had otherwise taken sufficient care over the accuracy of this serious allegation, in breach of Clause 1 (i). The article was significantly inaccurate on this point, and the publication had not offered to publish a correction, in breach of Clause 1 (ii).

The Director of Health and Social Care had not made an admission that there were “too many managers”, nor was there a basis for the article’s claim that the child concerned had been given “five named person in just four months”. Both these claims were significantly misleading, and the publication had failed to offer appropriate corrections, representing further breaches of Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (ii).

The Committee acknowledged that the father was concerned that he had difficulty in obtaining information about his daughter via the named person’s scheme, operated by the complainant. However, the claims that the father had been “kept from [his] sick baby”, suggested that the complainant had acted to prevent the father from seeing or attending to his child, which significantly misrepresented the substance of the father’s complaint against the complainant. This represented a further breach of Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (ii).

The complainant’s response to the publication’s enquiries prior to publication was limited in nature. However, it had not failed to respond to the publication’s requests for comment. Having set out a number of serious allegations about the complainant, it was significantly misleading for the article to claim that council had not responded to the publication’s enquiries. This was a further significant inaccuracy, and failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (ii).

In addition to the breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), the Committee was concerned at the way the publication had responded to this complaint. The Editors’ Code makes clear that editors must maintain in-house procedures to resolve complaints swiftly. The Committee was very concerned it had taken a month for the publication to reply substantively to the complaint, before the complaint had been made to IPSO. This was an unacceptable delay. 

Date complaint received: 11/10/2016
Date decision issued:  13/04/2017

 

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