Decision of the Complaints Committee 17469-17 Coles v Dartmouth Chronicle
Summary of Complaint
1. Gina Coles complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Dartmouth Chronicle breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:
· “Rain dance fails to dampen festival” published in print and online on 11 August 2017
· “Woofstock ‘doesn’t have our support” published in print and online on 18 August 2017
· “Councillor Hits back over Woofstock story”, published online on12 August 2017.
· “VIDEO: A Dartmouth Town Council committee meeting was recorded on VIDEO for the first time, despite protests from councillors”, published online on 21 July 2017
2. The first three articles reported on comments which the complainant, a Dartmouth town councillor, had allegedly made in relation a dog festival, Woofstock UK, which had taken place in the town.
3. The 21 July article reported on opposition from councillors to the newspaper’s decision to film a town council meeting; it said that the complainant had “demanded” that the cameraman delete the footage she thought was taken before the meeting had started, and reported that she had told him: “I am not fooled by you. I am smart. You can’t fool me. You must have deleted it.”
4. The complainant denied that she had told a journalist, during a conversation at the visitor centre in Dartmouth, that the organiser of “Woofstock UK” was “not the right sort” to be running the event, as reported in the 11 August and 18 August articles. The complainant said that the repeated publication of comments, in a series of articles, amounted to harassment.
5. The complainant explained that she had told the journalist how she had previously researched the organiser’s background, after she had believed that they had lied during a presentation which they had given to the town council about the dog show. When the journalist had asked how she had undertaken this research, the complainant had explained that she had googled her name. The complainant said that this did not amount to “suggesting” to the journalist that he look into the Woofstock organiser’s background on the internet, as reported in the 11 August article.
6. The 11 August article continued by reporting that a subsequent Google search by the journalist had found that the organiser of Woofstock had previously taken her former employers to an employment tribunal, and had alleged that they had discriminated against her on the basis of her sexuality.
7. The complainant denied that she had “thrown the future of Woofstock into doubt”, and that she had “cast doubts” over charitable donations from the festival, as reported in the 18 August article. While the complainant accepted that she had previously questioned why a charity with a larger income had received the donations, as opposed to local charities, she said that her views were understandable comment.
8. The complainant said that the 21 July article inaccurately reported the comments which she had made to the journalist during the council meeting: she had said “I am not stupid”, rather than “I am clever”.
9. While the complainant accepted that she had told the journalist that her “rain dance” hadn’t affected the Woofstock event, she said she had done so during a private conversation with him at the visitor centre. The 12 August article contained a screenshot of an email which the complainant had sent to the journalist, raising concern about the 11 August article. She said that the publication of this email correspondence and comments she had made at the visitor centre, was an intrusion into her privacy.
10. She also raised concern regarding the conduct of a cameraman, acting on behalf of the newspaper, during the filming of town council meetings. She said that the cameraman had set up two video cameras, positioned directly at her face, a few feet away from her: this conduct had amounted to harassment.
11. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the 11 August and 18 August attributed quotes to the complainant which were a fair and accurate reflection of the comments she had made at the visitor centre and in the email exchanges which followed.
12. The newspaper provided copies of the email correspondence which had passed between the journalist and the complainant, following the conversation which had taken place at the visitor centre. In the first email, the complainant had provided a comment for publication, which detailed her concerns about a local woman setting up a new ice cream stall in the town. The journalist had replied, “not the ‘right sort’ for Dartmouth? Perhaps she could team up with [the organiser of Woofstock], of Woofstock fame… one selling ice creams, the other plastic toys for dogs or similar paraphernalia! LOL”. In response, the complainant had said: “LOL indeed! I should have known better than to give you any ammunition for the future!!” The newspaper said that the journalist had been referring to the comments which the complainant had made at the visitor centre, where she had said the organiser of Woofstock wasn’t “the right sort” to be running the event. It said the complainant’s response showed clearly that she was not disputing that she had made the comment.
13. In another email, the complainant had said that she “did not like or trust” the organiser of Woofstock. She said that “she started off with a big lie about the event and I formed an opinion about her then that wasn't altered by learning about her time with [her former employers]”. The newspaper said that the tone and manner of the complainant’s correspondence was that she did not approve of the organiser of Woofstock, whether that be for her history with her former employers, or her charitable donations.
14. The newspaper said that the 21 July article accurately reflected the comments which the complainant had made during the council meeting, but noted that there was little semantic difference between “I am not stupid”, “I am clever” or “I am smart”.
15. The newspaper did not accept that the video recording of the town council meeting was obtained in circumstances of harassment. It provided a photograph of the room as it had appeared on the day as well as the full recording of the meeting which had been published. It said that cameras had been positioned in order to ensure that the whole room could be recorded.
16. Further, the newspaper did not accept that the publication of the complainants comments at the visitor centre, or her email correspondence, represented a breach of her privacy. It said that the visitor centre is a public place and the complainant had been aware she had been speaking to a journalist during that exchange, and in her subsequent emails.
17. Further, given the complainant’s position as a town councillor, the newspaper said that her views on the Woofstock UK dog festival were a matter of public interest. It said that the festival occurred on a Dartmouth park, currently owned and managed by the district council, but subject to possible transfer to the town council. It said that there was a public interest in the complainant’s views, given that she, together with her other councillor colleagues, could soon be in a position to decide who can and cannot use the park.
18. The complainant said that it was the journalist who had introduced the “not the right sort” comment, during the email correspondence which had passed between them. She said that her reply had been in reference to the journalist’s suggestion that the organiser of Woofstock and the ice cream seller could team up and sell various items, and her realisation that the journalist was attempting to combine the two stories together.
19. 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.
Clause 2. *(Privacy)
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Clause 3 *(Harassment)
i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.
(iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.
Findings of the Committee
20. Critical to the Committee’s considerations was the fact that the complainant was an elected politician, as a councillor for the Dartmouth town council; she was also a director of Dartmouth Visitor Centre. Given the complainant’s position, her views on matters relating to the town, were of interest to the community she had been elected to represent.
21. The complainant had spoken to a journalist on two occasions; the first, was in a public setting at the Dartmouth visitor centre, the second, during email correspondence. On both of these occasions, the complainant had spoken freely and openly to an individual she had known to be a journalist. While the Committee noted the complainant’s position that she had considered these conversations to have been private, she had given no indication that her comments were not for publication. Further, the email which had been published in the 12 August article, had been written by the complainant following her request that her comments, about a separate issue, be published in a future article. The Committee also noted that the complainant had been a former local journalist and was a retired editorial manager. The complainant’s views on the Woofstock event were not private or personal information about her, particularly as, given her position as town councillor, her views on a public event were of a matter of public interest. The Committee did not consider that the publication of any comments she may have made, at the visitor centre or in her subsequent emails, represented an intrusion into her private life. There was no breach of Clause 2.
22. The Committee then turned to consider the complaint under Clause 1. In reporting on comments alleged to have been made by the subject of an article, the Committee emphasised the importance of accurately reporting their words, in order to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation.
23. The Committee acknowledged the strength of the complainant’s denial that she had told the journalist that the organiser of the Woofstock was “not the right sort” to be running the event. The Committee was unable to reconcile the differing accounts of what had taken place at the visitor centre. However it noted that the complainant had accepted that she had previously expressed concerns about the organiser, given the complainant’s belief that she had previously lied during a presentation to the town council about Woofstock. The Committee did not consider that the article was significantly misleading in reporting on the complainant’s views on the organiser of Woofstock, and the article did not state that her alleged comments had been in direct reference to the organiser’s sexuality.
24. It was not in dispute that the complainant had informed the journalist of the method by which she had previously researched the organiser’s background; in those circumstances, it was not significantly misleading to report that she had suggested that he look into her background on the internet.
25. The complainant had accepted that she had previously questioned why local charities hadn’t been given the charitable donations from Woofstock: it was not misleading to report that she had “cast doubt” on the charitable donations from the event. It was not misleading to report that the complainant had “thrown the future of Woofstock into doubt”, given that the complainant had accepted that she had previously expressed a lack of support for the organiser.
26. The Committee did not consider that there was a material difference between the reported phrase “I am smart”, and what the complainant had accepted she had said. There was no breach of Clause 1.
27. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant had
found the newspaper’s recording of the town council meetings, distressing. The
question for the Committee was whether the reporter’s conduct had amounted to
harassment. The newspaper had recorded a public meeting on video, which had
been held at Dartmouth’s town council, of which the complainant was an elected
representative. The newspaper had provided the full recording of the event: the
complainant had not been the focus of the video, or held up to scrutiny. The
publication of a series of articles, reporting on the Woofstock event and the
complainant’s concerns in relation to the event, did not constitute harassment,
particularly given the complainant’s position as an elected representative for
Dartmouth. The Committee did not consider that the concerns which the
complainant had raised represented a breach of Clause 3.
28. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action required
Date complaint received: 11/08/2017
Date decision issued: 13/11/2017