Decision of the Complaints Committee 09541-19 Brown v The Times
Summary of Complaint
1. Colin Brown complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Village green opponent tells of abusive Christmas cards”, published on 11 December 2019.
2. The article reported on the public hearing of a planning application for land to be recognised as a village green. It reported that there had been a “decade-long row over the planning application” and that the hearing had been told that “abusive Christmas cards, graffiti and the police” had been involved and that “officers were called to Forder”. It explained that the owner of the land had said that she had been left terrified by threats and abuse from people “she labelled Saga Louts” and that she claimed that things started to turn nasty after an interim decision “went in her favour”. The article reported that the complainant had agreed “to lead the bid” and that he had submitted the application in 2008 on behalf of “150 villagers”. It reported that he condemned the abuse and included a statement from him in which he said that he did not believe any of the applicants were responsible.
3. The article appeared online in substantially the same terms.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that the objector, the owner of the land, had not appeared at the hearing and it was, therefore, inaccurate to report that the objector had “said” or had “told” the hearing about the allegations of abuse. He said it was also misleading and biased to report on the content of her witness statement in circumstances where she had not been cross-examined.
5. He said that the article was inaccurate as the police were not called to Forder in connection with the allegations of abuse, nor was this said during the hearing. He also said that the hearing was not shown pictures of the graffiti.
6. He also said it was misleading to describe the application process as a “decadelong row” as he had never spoken to the objector, and did not think it was appropriate to use a colloquial term such as “row” in reference to a legal matter. He also found the term “Saga Louts” to be insulting and inaccurate. The complainant also complained that the description of "proper locals" in the article was inaccurate as the applicants were long-term residents of Cornwall.
7. The complainant said it was inaccurate to report the objector’s claim that an interim decision of the council had gone in her favour, as in actuality the inquiry had simply been postponed. In addition, it was inaccurate to describe the application as submitted “on behalf of 150 villagers” as it was actually 143 Saltash people who had completed a questionnaire. He said that Forder was a hamlet and only a third of the group lived there, so to name them all as “villagers” was misleading.
8. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to describe him as leading “the bid” as he was an applicant, and there was no “bid”.
9. The complainant also said that the reporter had asked to take a photograph of him, and asked the complainant to do this outside. The complainant said the reporter had deliberately taken a photo of him out in the rain in order to make him appear angry and to give a misleading impression of him. This photograph was not published as part of the article.
10. The publication said it did not accept that the Code had been breached. It said that the fact that the objector’s evidence was given to the hearing in a witness statement which was not read out and that the objector did not give oral evidence at the hearing did not affect the accuracy of the terminology in the article. It said it was not significantly misleading to have reported that the hearing “heard” or was “told” rather than “read”.
11. It also said that the article was an accurate and precise report of the allegations of abuse made in the objector’s witness statement, and that it was balanced with arguments from both sides, including a statement from the complainant which made clear he condemned the abuse. It said that it did not believe that it was necessary to set out the entire history of the application and that the article did not take a position supporting either side.
Relevant Code Provisions
12. 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
13. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the objector had not given oral evidence at the hearing and that her witness statement had not been read out. However, the Committee did not consider that it was significantly misleading to describe the content of her written witness statement, which was provided to the hearing as evidence, as what the objector had “told” the public meeting or had “said” during the hearing. The selection of material for publication is a matter of editorial discretion, as long as the Code is not breached. The newspaper was not obliged to report the evidence from the applicants which was heard at the hearing, but noted that it had included a statement from the complainant. The omission of the further information identified by complainant was not misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
14. The Committee found that it was not inaccurate to report that “officers had been called” to the area. It noted that the complainant was not in a position to know whether the police had been called and had visited the objector’s property, and that he himself had gone to the police station after hearing allegations of a link between the abusive Christmas card and the planning application. The abusive graffiti and the Christmas card had formed part of the objector’s evidence and photographs of the graffiti had been attached to her witness statement, which had been provided to the hearing as evidence. In these circumstances, it was not misleading to report that the hearing had been shown pictures of the graffiti. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
15. The Committee found that it was not misleading to characterise the planning application as a “decade-long row”; the application had been submitted in February 2008 and was highly contentious. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
16. The Committee understood that the complainant found the term “Saga Louts” to be offensive, however the Editors’ Code does not deal with issues of offense. There was no breach of Clause 1.
17. The Committee did not find it misleading for the newspaper to report the objector’s position that an interim decision had “gone in her favour”. This was her opinion, and was clearly presented as such. There was no breach of Clause 1.
18. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the 143 applicants included people from the wider Saltash locality and are not just the residents of Forder. However, in the context of an article which was reporting on the hearing of a planning application affecting the local community, it did not consider that it was significantly misleading to report that the application had been made “on behalf of 150 villagers”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
19. The Committee did not find it significantly inaccurate to describe the complainant as leading “the bid” in circumstances where he had submitted the planning application and where the nature of the application was made clear in the article. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
The Committee noted the complainant’s concern with regards to the photograph that was taken of him. However, this photograph was not included in the online or print version of the article and therefore his concern did not engage the terms of Clause 1.
20. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 15/12/2019
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 18/03/2020Back to ruling listing