Decision of the Complaints Committee – 10508-20 A man v Central Fife Times & Advertiser
Summary of complaint
1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Central Fife Times & Advertiser breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 14 (Confidential sources) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “'Noise from dairy is so bad it's putting my marriage under strain'” published on 18 June 2020.
2. The article reported on an ongoing dispute between a dairy farm and its neighbours over noise issues. It reported comments from two neighbours of the farm who spoke of the disruption caused by noise from the dairy, and how they had raised their concerns with the local council which had served noise abatement orders. The article included a response from the managing director of the dairy who refuted the complaints and said that there were in fact no abatement orders and that the site operates within planning controls. As well as the neighbours who were quoted, the article named another neighbour and reported that he had contacted the council about “simply ridiculous” noise levels.
3. The complainant was the neighbour who was named as having contacted the council about the “simply ridiculous” noise levels. He said that he had been identified in connection with his concerns about the dairy, despite having reached an agreement with a different reporter that he would be quoted anonymously in relation to these concerns. He said that naming him in the article therefore, breached Clause 14. He said that he had copied in the newspaper to an email which he had sent to the Council in early April, in which he raised concerns about the dairy farm. Following this email, he had a long phone conversation with a reporter from the newspaper in preparation of an article. He said that in this phone call, he explained that he wished to be anonymous in relation to these concerns, because he was concerned about reprisals from the dairy farm. As such, he was not named in the article published in late April.
4. He said that when his neighbour contacted him in early June to ask if he could provide some background information about his concerns for a new article, he sent an email to the same reporter on 2 June and explained that he “Won’t provide name as [the dairy] makes threats”. He said that because this original reporter was on leave and the new article was being written by a different reporter, his neighbour called the newspaper offices several times to ensure that this email had been forwarded to the new reporter. He said that the neighbour then also asked prior to publication that this email be withdrawn and that no information provided by the complainant be included in the article. He said that the person who answered the calls at the newspaper assured the neighbour that this would happen. He said that therefore, he was very distressed to see his name appear in the article in relation to his concerns about noise levels at the dairy when this was contrary to the agreement he made in April, the request made in his email of 2 June, and the assurances given to his neighbour by the newspaper when he called prior to publication. He said that the original reporter had acknowledged that there was an agreement in April that he would be a confidential source in relation to this information because after the article under complaint was published, he contacted him via Facebook messenger to say:
“[Complainant], [original reporter] here, I am due you an apology. Before I went on holiday I forgot to tell [new reporter] to ensure that he did not mention your name in any story on [the dairy] and treat it in the same way we way we did the right-away article some weeks ago. I found out yesterday that your name had been included in the story published on Wednesday.”
5. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 1. He said that the quote attributed to him had been taken from an email he sent to the council and the newspaper in May and referred to a different concern relating to noise issues at the dairy. He said that these concerns had been resolved, and so it was misleading to include this quote in the context of separate noise concerns. He also said that it was inaccurate to report the managing director’s quote saying that there were no abatement orders against the dairy. He said that there was at least one official council nuisance abatement still in place, and four council noise abatement notices which had been issued in the last year. He provided a copy of abatement orders which he said were still active. He also said that there was an ongoing planning enforcement case and numerous other planning enforcement investigations carried out against the dairy in the last year.
6. The newspaper sincerely apologised for the distress caused to the complainant. It said that the inclusion of the complainant’s name in the article was a mistake. It said that the reporter who had agreed in April that the complainant would not be named in relation to his concerns about the dairy farm was on leave at the time the article had been published, and had not told the new reporter who wrote the article under complaint about this agreement. It said that in his handover note to the new reporter, the original reporter only passed over the complainant’s emails to the council from May, which was where the quote attributed to the complainant originated from. He did not pass over the email from 2 June, nor did the person from the newspaper who answered the phone to the complainant’s neighbour prior to publication. It said that this was an honest mistake, and there had been communication difficulties whilst the newspaper staff had been forced to work remotely. It said that if the new reporter had been aware that the complainant had previously expressed a wish to be anonymous, he would have made sure that he was not named in the article. Although the newspaper accepted that it should not have named the complainant, it noted that the concern attributed to the complainant in the article was not confidential information about him, and provided examples of where the complainant had objected publicly on the council’s website to the dairy farm and its operations. It said that therefore, the complainant’s dissatisfaction with the farm was already in the public domain at the time of publication. It also noted that the complainant’s email to the council of 13 May was copied to the newspaper’s newsdesk, a different councillor, and contacts at a different newspaper and a TV station.
7. The newspaper did not accept it was inaccurate to report that the complainant had contacted the council about the “simply ridiculous” noise levels from the dairy – it was not in dispute he had done this, as demonstrated by the emails sent to the council and the newspaper in May. It said that the article did not make claims that this contact was in relation to ongoing issues or those raised by the complainant’s neighbour but noted that it was clear from correspondence that the complainant had ongoing issues with noise from the dairy. In relation to whether there were abatement orders against the dairy, the newspaper said that the quote from the managing director was included as a right of reply to the complainant’s neighbour’s claims that several noise abatement orders had been served on the dairy. It said that this response had been provided at a late stage, and it simply was not possible or practical to fact check each claim made in a quote prior to publication. However, it said that it had proceeded to publish a follow up article which disputed the position of the managing director, and so it considered that the correct position was on the record.
8. The newspaper said that it had sincerely apologised and tried to resolve the complainant’s concerns as soon as it became aware of what had happened. It said that as well as the new reporter, the original reporter, and the group editor contacting the complainant individually to apologise, it had offered to print a full apology in the next edition of the newspaper when the complainant initially indicated that this was something he wanted. It said that it was a matter of regret that it had not been able to resolve the complainant’s concerns.
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.
Clause 14 (Confidential sources)
Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.
Findings of the Committee
10. The newspaper acknowledged that there had been an explicit agreement in writing between the complainant and the first reporter that the complainant would not be identified in relation to information he provided for publication. This agreement had been made in April when the first article was published, but still stood at the time the second article was published, as was reiterated by the complainant in his email of 2 June. Regardless of whether any of the information had been placed in the public domain by other means – which the complainant denied – in light of this confidentiality agreement, the complainant was a confidential source and the publication of the complainant’s identity in connection with his comments constituted a clear breach of Clause 14.
11. The Committee commended the newspaper’s swift response to the complaints and its attempts to resolve the matter prior to the complainant’s contact with IPSO, but it was also mindful of the distress caused to the complainant as a result of his identification in the article. The Committee noted that the incident had exposed shortcomings in the publication’s systems for handling staff absences, which in this instance had led to a significant breach of the Code.
12. The Committee also considered the remainder of the complaint, under Clause 1. In the view of the Committee, the article did not suggest that the complainant’s comments related to a particular incident; rather it was clear that the complainant had voiced concerns about the noise at the dairy. As such, it was not misleading as to the complainant’s position to include his quotation in an article reporting on a separate noise concern. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
13. The claim that the dairy had not been served any abatement orders by the Council and had complied with all planning controls appeared in a quotation attributed to the dairy’s managing director. The publication of the claim in this form, clearly attributed to its source, did not constitute a breach of Clause 1(i). Following publication, the complainant was able to show that this claim was inaccurate by providing copies of previous abatement notices served against the dairy. He said that at least one of these abatement orders was still active at the time the article was published This demonstrated a significant inaccuracy on this point which required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). The newspaper had published a follow up story which acknowledged the dispute. However, this article did not identify the previous inaccuracy and so therefore did not constitute a correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). As such, there was a breach of Clause 1(ii) on this point.
14. The complaint was upheld.
Remedial action required
15. The newspaper had breached Clause 14 and Clause 1(ii). The appropriate remedy for a breach of Clause 14 was the publication of an adjudication. Where the Committee had also found a breach of Clause 1(ii) which required remedy, it was proportionate to incorporate this further remedial action into the terms of the adjudication, as opposed to requiring a further standalone correction. The article was published on page 3. As such the adjudication should appear on page 3 or further forward. The headline should be agreed with IPSO in advance, but should reference the complaint’s subject matter, that it has been required by IPSO following an upheld ruling, and appear in a font and size typical for that page.
16. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:
Following an article published on 18 June 2020, a man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Central Fife Times & Advertiser breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 14 (Confidential sources) of the Editor’s Code of Practice in an article headlined “’Noise from dairy is so bad it’s putting my marriage under strain’”.
The article reported on an ongoing dispute between a dairy farm and its neighbours over noise issues. As part of this, it named one neighbour and reported that he had contacted the council about “simply ridiculous” noise levels.
The complainant was the man named in the article as having complained to the council. He said that he had a prior agreement with the newspaper that he would not be named in relation to his concerns about the dairy farm. The publication accepted that there had been such an agreement and apologised for the distress caused to the complainant. It said that due to the disruption caused by coronavirus, the agreement that the complainant would be anonymous was not conveyed to the reporter who wrote the article.
IPSO found that the newspaper had identified the complainant in relation to information he had provided about his complaint against the dairy farm, contrary to the agreement made between him and the newspaper.
Where the complainant was a confidential source who the newspaper failed to protect, IPSO found that the article breached Clause 14.
The complainant also said that the article had reported the inaccurate claim that the dairy had not been served any abatement orders by the Council and had complied with all planning controls. Although this claim was accurately presented as a quote, the newspaper accepted that this claim was inaccurate. The newspaper did not offer to publish a correction in response to this significant inaccuracy.
For this reason, IPSO found that the article also breached Clause 1(ii).
Date complaint received: 18/06/2020
Date decision issued: 03/12/2020