Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11928-21 Tierney v Wisbech Standard
Summary of Complaint
1. Steve Tierney complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Wisbech Standard breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Police reveal 3 councillors got written warning over Covid”, published on 15th November 2021.
2. The article reported that “[t]hree Wisbech town and Fenland district councillors received written warnings from Cambridgeshire Police for breaching Covid-19 regulations”. It identified by name three councillors as having been at the Angel Public House on Christmas Eve in 2021, one of them being Steve Tierney. The article went on to state that the individuals were identified by Cambridgeshire Police after the seizure of CCTV footage, and that they had not received fines, but the matter was dealt with by a “written warning”. The article included some of the text of the letter written to the three councillors. The letter stated that the police had received a complaint “to report that you have breached the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) Regulations 2020. It is alleged that you have other persons (not from your household or as part of a permitted bubble) on the 24th December 2020 at the Angel Public House” and that the police “have reviewed CCTV footage from the public house and this appears to support the allegation”. The letter also stated that “Police on this occasion will not be taking any formal action against you for this breach, but I would like to take this opportunity to remind you to keep up to date with current government regulation and guidance”.
3. The complainant, one of the councillors named in the article, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 as it claimed that he had received a written warning from the police and that he had breached Covid-19 regulations. The complainant said that he had never received a written warning from the police and that he did not commit any breaches of Covid-19 regulations on Christmas Eve. The complainant further said that a police warning had a specific meaning and provided a link to a Gov.uk page about police warnings and cautions. He said that a warning and a caution were the same thing and involved an individual admitting to an offence and agreeing to be cautioned.
4. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the publication had made a freedom of information (FOI) request to Cambridgeshire Police, who confirmed that the letter quoted in part in the article had been sent to three councillors. The publication provided the correspondence containing the FOI request and the full letter from the police, which it said made clear the breaches of the Covid-19 regulations. The publication went on to state that the identity of the three councillors was confirmed by a senior source who had seen the CCTV footage. It said that the source who examined the CCTV footage confirmed Councillor Tierney was one of the three councillors seated at the same table as other individuals drinking in the pub and that it was certain no other councillors were present.
5. During the investigation, the complainant was asked to confirm whether or not he had received the letter from Cambridgeshire Police; he said that he had not received a warning or caution from the police but did not confirm or deny whether he had received the letter quoted in the article.
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.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
6. The complainant’s primary concern was that the newspaper had incorrectly stated that he had received a “written warning… from Cambridgeshire Police for breaching Covid-19 regulations”. The article had included much of the text of the “warning” – a letter from the police – to which it referred. While the complainant denied having received a “written warning” from the police or having breached the Covid-19 regulations, he would not confirm or deny to IPSO whether he had received the letter quoted in the article. This had a significant impact upon the Committee’s ability to make a finding in regard to the accuracy of the assertion that the complainant was the recipient of the correspondence. Notwithstanding this point, the Committee considered that the publication had demonstrated that it had taken care over the accuracy of this claim and its presentation of it. The newspaper had a copy of the full letter and had made an FOI request to Cambridgeshire Police to establish how many individuals the letter was sent to. In addition, a confidential source had confirmed which three councillors could be seen in the CCTV footage. In light of the material provided by the publication to substantiate its position and the complainant’s declining to provide further information, the Committee did not establish a significant inaccuracy requiring correction.
7. While the Committee did not establish a significant inaccuracy requiring correction, it noted the complainant’s position that, according to the government website, “warning” could be used interchangeably with “police caution”. However, it was the Committee’s view that the phrase “written warning” was a non-specific term and did not exclusively mean that an individual had received a police caution. The Committee considered that the article made clear the nature of the warning that was issued by the police.
8. The complainant had also said that the article was inaccurate to claim that he had breached Covid-19 regulations. The Committee considered that the article as a whole made the position clear. It had quoted the letter at length – including the statement that “Police on this occasion will not be taking any formal action against you for this breach” – the letter had also stated that the police had viewed evidence which “appear[ed] to support the allegation” and sought to remind the recipient of the importance of keeping updated on current regulations. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
9. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 21/11/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 17/06/2022Back to ruling listing