Ruling

00281-17 Brighton and Hove City Council v The Argus

    • Date complaint received

      22nd June 2017

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee Brighton and Hove City Council v The Argus

1. Brighton and Hove City Council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Argus breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Council ‘inhumane’ to tent dwellers”, published on 9 January 2017.

2. The front-page article reported that Brighton and Hove City Council, the complainant, had been “branded inhumane” for evicting rough sleepers from their tents into “freezing weather” on New Year’s Day. It quoted a representative of Brighton in Need who had said “these people are humans just like you and me who do not deserve to be woken in the early hours and given ten minutes to gather their belongings together only to see what they don’t manage being taken away to the dump”. The article also quoted a representative of the council, who had said that “there are cases when people are asked to stop camping around the city and this is handled working with partners and outreach workers to make sure people are given advice on where to go…The council works hard to look after people in need on the streets”.

3. The article was also published online.

4. The complainant said that the newspaper had inaccurately reported that it had evicted rough sleepers from their tents on New Year’s Day, and had given them ten minutes to remove their belongings or they would be taken away to the dump. The report had been based on hearsay; the eviction had not taken place.

5. The complainant said that while the newspaper had asked it to comment on the allegation that it had evicted homeless people on New Year’s Day, it had been given insufficient time to check the allegation. Had it been given more time, it would have established that the eviction had not taken place and it would have provided a suitable comment. Moreover, the reporter had not informed it of the allegation that it had woken homeless people in the early hours of the morning, had given them ten minutes to move on, and had threatened to take their belongings to the dump. Had this been made clear, it would have been alerted to the fact that the allegations were all false, and it would have been able to challenge the claims.

6. The complainant requested the removal of the article from the newspaper’s website. It also requested a prominent correction in print and online, which would state that the events reported had not happened; that no one had been evicted from their tents by the council in the early hours of the morning; that the council did not move people on without notice and support; that people’s possessions were not taken to be dumped by the council; and that the council was not given the details of the allegations when asked for comment.

7. The complainant said that it had raised its concerns directly with the newspaper, but it had failed to respond appropriately meaning that the inaccurate article had been shared and repeated online.

8. The newspaper said that the article was based on a proposal for a story submitted through its website by a representative of Brighton in Need. In that proposal, the representative had said that in the last few days “eleven or more tents have been removed and junked by the council” and made the comments, which were quoted in the article, that on New Year’s Day, the council had given rough sleepers ten minutes to move on or their belongings would be taken to the dump.

9. The newspaper said that on receipt of this information, it had spoken to homeless people and volunteers working with them who confirmed that they had seen the council moving people on. The newspaper said this was supported by the council’s own statement that it does sometimes evict people living in tents.

10. The newspaper said that it had put all the allegations to the council before publication during a series a telephone conversations. It could not provide any notes taken, but it was its usual practice to go through all claims thoroughly, and it had published the comment provided by the council that people living in tents were sometimes moved on.

11. In light of the concerns raised, however, the newspaper published the following correction on page eight and it appended it to the online article:

ON MONDAY, January 9, we reported that Brighton and Hove City Council turfed homeless people out of their tents on New Year's Day. We asked the council to provide us with a statement on the allegations which they did. However, since publication the council has informed us that the events reported did not happen. The city council does accept, however, that it evicts rough sleepers from their tents on occasion. We are happy to report that the council states it does this in an appropriate and supportive way. Anyone concerned about a rough sleeper can share information with www.streetlink.org.uk and the details will be used to help connect the person to local services and support.

12. The complainant said that the correction was not sufficiently prominent and it had given the misleading impression that all the allegations had been put to it for comment before the article was published.

14. The newspaper said that it had tried to respond to the concerns raised as promptly as possible. It could not publish the wording requested by the complainant as it was accepted that the council did sometimes move rough sleepers on. Its understanding had been that the article had simply given the wrong date for the eviction.

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

15. The newspaper had based its story on information provided by a credible source – a representative of an organisation that works with homeless people in the city – which had been given “on the record” and had been appropriately attributed in the article. However, although it was accepted that it had put the allegation that homeless people were evicted on New Year’s Day to the complainant, no notes or recording had been taken during the conversation. The newspaper was unable to demonstrate that it had also sought comment on the serious allegation that homeless people were evicted early in the morning, that they had been given ten minutes to move on, and that they had been threatened with the disposal of their belongings. This represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i). The comments quoted in the article had given the significantly misleading impression that the complainant had accepted that the eviction had taken place. A correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

16. The newspaper had published a correction which made clear that the complainant had not evicted homeless people living in tents on New Year’s Day. While the wording also stated the complainant’s position that when homeless people are moved on, it always does so in an “appropriate and supportive way”, it had not made clear that the complainant denied carrying out evictions in the early hours of the morning, that it had given people ten minutes to move on, and its position that it had not threatened homeless people with the disposal of their belongings. Furthermore, the newspaper had been unable to demonstrate that it had given the complainant the opportunity to comment on these allegations before publication, as stated in the correction. The wording was insufficient to meet the requirement of Clause 1 (ii). This represented a further breach of the Code.

Conclusions

17. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

18. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication, the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

19. In this case, the newspaper had taken steps to address the concerns raised by the complainant; however, the wording had not identified the misleading information published, and it had included a further inaccuracy. The prominence of the correction on page eight was also insufficient given that the inaccuracy had appeared on the front page.

20. Given that the allegations made in the article, which the complainant denied, had been set out as claims, and the steps the newspaper had already taken to address the complaint, the Committee considered that the publication of a further correction was appropriate.

21. This correction should appear on page two of the newspaper, and at the top of the article as it appears online. The correction should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation, and it should make clear the complainant’s denial of the specific allegations made in the article. The full wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

Date complaint received: 13/01/17
Date complaint concluded: 22/05/17