Ruling

01585-17 Aventa Partners & Michael Carrick v Wales Online

    • Date complaint received

      6th July 2017

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01585-17 Aventa Partners & Michael Carrick v Wales Online

Summary of Complaint

1. Aventa Partners and Michael Carrick complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Wales Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The Circuit of Wales would be ‘the biggest white elephant that the Valleys have ever seen”, published on 22 February 2017.

2. The article reported that two motorsport businessmen had urged the Welsh Government not to provide a public loan guarantee of more than £200 million for the Circuit of Wales project. It said that one of the businessmen described the project as the “biggest white elephant the south Wales Valleys have ever seen”, and said that it could not succeed commercially. He said that his race team spend an average of £4,000 each time they hire the circuit at Pembury; he also cast doubt on claims that the project would create 6,000 jobs, saying that the British Automobile Racing Club employs just 75 full-time people at a number of tracks in the UK, while a company that owns four other tracks employs under 250 employees. The other businessman predicted that motorsport teams would not pay the daily hire fee of the Circuit of Wales, and said that if the Welsh Government had £200m to spare “it should spend it on helping to secure the future of Port Talbot Steelworks”. The article included comments made by the complainant at a meeting with David Davis MP where he spoke about the market for the use of the track.

3. The complainant said that the claim that the Circuit of Wales project was unviable was based on “wholly inapposite comparisons” to different commercial projects. It said that the entire premise of the article – that “the Circuit of Wales’ business case relies on renting out the track on a daily basis to racing teams for practice and sessions”, and that without this income the project was unviable – was inaccurate.

4. The complainant said that the project includes a technology park development, and other diverse income-generating commercial activities such as restaurants, extreme sport facilities, live music stages, a tower sports complex, a water park, a hotel and a retail outlet village. It said that renting the track to teams for testing and practice sessions was just 2% of the project’s targeted revenue, something which it said was made clear in the project brochure and Wikipedia entry for the project.

5. The complainant also said that it was misleading to claim that the project could not generate even a fraction of the projected 6,000 jobs. It said that comparisons with other circuits, which employ 75 people and 250 people respectively, was misleading because the tracks in question were one-dimensional racing circuits, and did not have hotels and other leisure facilities. It said that as the project had not yet started, thousands of people would be employed during the construction phase. It also said that it was inaccurate to report that “if the Welsh Government has £200m to spare, it should spend it on helping to secure the future of Port Talbot steelworks”. It said that the Welsh Government had not been asked to invest any capital directly in the project, but to provide a credit guarantee to a loan provider for less than 50% of the funding. It said that it had not been contacted about the article prior to publication.

6. The publication said that the Circuit of Wales project is a matter of enormous public interest to the people of Wales. It said that in previous articles, it had set out the views of supporters of the project, but it believed it was important to also outline opposition. It acknowledged that renting of the track was a small percentage of the project’s targeted revenue, but said that in pragmatic terms, the track was the centrepiece of the project and if it did not exist, visitors would not come. It said that this view was shared by the businessmen quoted in the article. It also quoted comments made by David Davies MP in the Commons, who referred to a meeting with the complainant where he claimed he would be able to rent out the track for between £18,000 and £35,000 per day.

7. The publication said that it was accurate to report that doubts had been cast over the figure of 6,000 jobs being created by the project because, as it quoted in the article, one of the businessmen had said that the creation of this number of jobs “would be pushing it somewhat”. It also said that it did not contact the complainant prior to publication because the issue of track hire had already been addressed in a meeting between the complainant and Mr Davies MP, which had been sent to the newspaper by the complainant’s representative. It said that it was made clear in the article that the £200m application to the Welsh Government was a public loan guarantee. In any event, it said that if the project was not successful, the £200m would be at risk.

8. In an attempt to resolve the complaint, the publication offered to add the complainant’s statement to the article, and it offered to amend it to read “the Circuit of Wales’s business case relies partially on renting out the track on a daily basis to racing teams for practice and resting sessions”, or to remove the line altogether. It also offered to add a line to the article clarifying that the £200m referred to was a potential public loan guarantee, and not an investment of public money, as well as publishing the following a statement as a footnote at the end of the article:

We originally reported that the “Circuit of Wales' business case relies on renting out the track on a daily basis to racing teams for practice and test sessions.” The company behind the project has since contacted us to point out that in their business plan renting out the track would amount to only 2% of the projected revenue. We are happy to make this clear.

9. The complainant provided a transcript of the conversation between David Davies MP and the complainant, where he outlined the other facilities planned for the project, and explained that the financial viability of the project did not depend on the track.

Relevant Code Provisions

10. 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.

Findings of the Committee

11. The article conveyed the concerns of two prominent motorsport businessmen about the viability of the Circuit of Wales project. The Committee considered that the article gave the overall impression that the sustainability of the project depended on the commercial success of renting out the track. The newspaper did not dispute the complainant's position that such track-related activity made up just 2% of the project's projected revenue; the failure to verify this position against information about the project already in the public domain, particularly where the complainant had not been approached for comment prior to publication, represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i). Further, this gave a significantly misleading impression of the importance of renting out the track to the overall project which required correction under Clause 1(ii).

12. One of the businessmen told the publication that he doubted that the project would create 6,000 jobs. While the Committee noted the complainant's disagreement with this particular point of view, the quotation had been presented clearly in the article as the opinion of the businessman on how many jobs the project was likely to create from his own experiences of the industry. There was no breach of Clause 1.

13. While one of the businessmen was quoted saying that “if the Welsh Government has £200m to spare it should spend it on helping to secure the future of Port Talbot steelworks”, the second line of the article made clear that the £200 million figure related to a loan guarantee, rather than an actual loan. There was no significant inaccuracy or misleading impression in breach of Clause 1 on this point. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to clarify that the £200 million figure related to a loan guarantee, and not a loan.

14. The publication had offered to amend the article to make clear that the project’s business case relied “partially” on renting out the track or to delete the line altogether; it had also offered to publish a footnote at the end of the article which explained the complainant’s position that the project was relying on multiple revenue streams, not just the track. This amendment and footnote had been offered sufficiently promptly by the publication, and in a prominent position in the article. This amendment should now be made, and the footnote published, in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

Conclusions

The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

16. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.  

17. The newspaper had promptly offered to amend the article, and to publish a footnote, which corrected the misleading impression in the article. These should now be published.

Date complaint received: 24/02/2017

Date decision issued: 31/05/2017