Decision of the Complaints Committee – 28482-20 Chott v Yellow Advertiser
Summary of Complaint
1. Vic Chott complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Yellow Advertiser breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Landlord fined after Ilford property used as a brothel”, published on 31 July 2020.
2. The online article reported that Woodland Properties Management Ltd was fined £23,500 for operating an unlicensed House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) and for “serious failures in fire safety and property management”. It went on to report that the property “came to the council’s attention after multiple complaints from local people that it was overcrowded and a hotbed of antisocial behaviour, including use as a brothel”.
3. The complainant, who represented Woodland Properties Management Ltd, said the headline was significantly inaccurate and misleading as it stated as fact that the organisation was fined because the property was “used as a brothel”, adding that he was not even aware of this particular allegation. The complainant also expressed concern that the article incorrectly stated that Woodland Properties Management was the landlord of the property, when it was in fact the managing agent. He also disputed that that the property in question had been “overcrowded” but accepted that the organisation had been fined for non-compliance with HMO licensing.
4. The publication accepted that the headline had been misleading. After it was contacted by the complainant directly, it amended the headline to include the word “allegedly”. During IPSO’s investigation, the publication offered to publish the following wording as a footnote clarification: “An earlier version of this story was posted without the word "alleged" in the headline. This was only on our website for a very short time and was altered as soon as it was brought to our attention. However, we would like to emphasise that claims about the property being used as a brothel were allegations, as is clearly stated in the article, and should be regarded as such.”
5. Whilst the publication accepted that the complainant’s first point of complaint represented an inaccuracy, amending the headline, it did not accept that his further concerns raised a breach of the Code. It said that the body of the article made clear that the claim the property was “overcrowded” was an allegation, attributed to local people who had complained to the council. It did not consider it significantly inaccurate to refer to the complainant’s company as the “landlord”. It added that the article had been based upon a press release issued by Redbridge Council, with copy provided by the BBC's Local Democracy Reporting Service, and published in good faith. The publication did not provide IPSO with a copy of this press release and suggested that it was not responsible for the accuracy of third-party copy.
6. The complainant considered that the actions already taken and proposed by the publication were insufficient to resolve his complaint.
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
7. The Committee recognised the publication’s position that the information included had come from trusted and credible sources. However, the obligations of the Code are clear: publications must demonstrate that they have taken care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information. This requirement extends to all editorial content published by members, including material obtained from third parties.
8. The terms of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code are explicit in their requirement that headlines have to be supported by the text of the article. The Committee emphasised that this should not be interpreted to mean that the body of the article can be relied upon to correct an actively misleading impression given by a headline. In this case, the omission of “allegedly” from the headline gave the misleading impression that it had been established as fact that the property in question had been “used as a brothel”. Whilst the body of the article made clear that the headline reference reflected an allegation, this was not sufficient to rectify the misleading impression already given by headline. Notwithstanding this, the inclusion of “after” in the headline referenced the order of events; it did not imply that the fine was imposed because of this particular allegation where the body of the article made clear the grounds for which the company had been fined. Nevertheless, in the view of the Committee, the publication of the headline amounted to a clear failure by the newspaper to take care not to publish misleading information in breach of Clause 1 (i).
9. In the light of this, the Committee considered that the headline required correction under Clause 1 (ii). The headline of the online article had been amended before IPSO’s investigation. At the beginning of IPSO’s investigation, the publication offered to publish a footnote clarification. The Committee considered this had been offered promptly, especially with the earlier amendment of the online article’s headline, and was of due prominence. The wording acknowledged the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record. As such, the Committee considered that this was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii).
10. The Committee did not find that the other points identified by the complainant raised a breach of Clause 1. Given that Woodland Properties Management Ltd had been held responsible by the council for the operation of the house and had been issued with the resulting fine, the description of the company as a “landlord”, rather than a managing agent, was not significantly inaccurate or misleading in the context of the whole article. The article made clear that the claim the house had been “overcrowded” was an allegation made within a complaint to the council about the property, rather than necessarily being an established point of fact. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
11. The complaint was upheld in part. Remedial action required.
12. The proposed footnote clarification put the correct position on record and was offered promptly and with due prominence. This should now be published to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).
Date complaint received: 13/10/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 05/03/2021Back to ruling listing