Ruling

01785-21 Brewerton v thesun.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      3rd March 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01785-21 Brewerton v thesun.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Keith Brewerton, acting on his own behalf and on behalf of his son Aled Brewerton, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thesun.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment), Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock), and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Who is Jackie Weaver and what happened at the Handforth Parish Council meeting?”, published on 8 February 2021.

2. The article, which appeared online only, reported on the response to a parish council meeting which had a few earlier days gone “viral” on social media and had been covered widely by the press. The article included a short clip of the meeting, which was just over two minutes long. It also summarised the events of the meeting, as well as setting out the background of some of the participants, and referred to Jackie Weaver as “the meeting clerk from the Cheshire Association of Local Councils.” The article said the “that members [of the council] traded insults and threw each other out of the online call” and that the “meeting appear[ed] to start with an unseen councillor mumbling ‘f**k off’ under his breath.”

3. The article then reported that, after an exchange of words, “Weaver removed [Councillor Brian Tolver] from the meeting and placed him in a virtual waiting room” and that “Councillor Susan Moore then called for civility but the meeting erupted into laughter and two more councillors, Brewerton and Barry Burkill were removed.” The article said that meeting participants had expressed “confusion” in response to a username of Cllr Tolver as “he had labelled himself the ‘clerk’. Weaver said: ‘The chairman simply declared himself ‘clerk’ and notified everybody of the case’.”

4. The article went on to report that: “Those still taking part in the meeting then voted to refuse the three men back into the meeting with Cllr Cynthia Samson likening one to a ‘laughing hyena’.” The article then concluded with comments that Ms Weaver had made during an interview with a television programme, during which she reportedly said that “I have always been very clear who had authority in that meeting... me."

5. Prior to the complainant making a complaint to IPSO, his son contacted IPSO to request that it make the press aware that he was “very concerned about unwarranted and unsolicited approaches from the Press including: emails, telephone calls and visits to my home” and that he “do[es] not wish to speak to the Press and wish that journalists do not come into the area surrounding my home”. This notice was circulated by IPSO to the press – including thesun.co.uk – on 5 February 2021, at 5:41pm.

6. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1: the video of the meeting included with the article had been altered, with sequences changed and interactions omitted. He said that these alterations meant that the video was not an accurate or correct record of what had happened during the meeting. The article also, he said, omitted the fact that his son and his fellow councillors had been “illegally evicted” from the meeting, which he considered to represent a further inaccuracy in breach of Clause 1.

7. The complainant then said that the article itself was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 on several points. He first said that it was inaccurate for the article to refer to Mrs Weaver as “the meeting clerk from the Cheshire Association of Local Councils”; she was, in fact, a Chief Officer. He said that it was also inaccurate to report that “members traded insults”, as he considered that the meeting was improperly called and that he and his associates had been insulted by their fellow meeting participants. He further said that it was not the case that the “meeting appear[ed] to start with an unseen councillor mumbling “f**k off” under his breath” as it was not a council member who had sworn, but a member of the public.

8. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate for the article to report that “[Ms] Weaver removed [Cllr Tolver] from the meeting and placed him in a virtual waiting room” as Ms Weaver did not have the right to remove the member, and had also not placed him in a virtual meeting room but had excluded him entirely from the meeting. He then said that no councillor had “called for civility” nor had this request been followed by “laughter”, as reported by the article. He further said that it was inaccurate for the article to report that “[Ms] Weaver said: ‘The chairman simply declared himself ‘clerk’ and notified everybody of the case’”, as the chairman had declared himself clerk to address a situation in which the council had been left without a clerk, and was attempting to volunteer his services.

9. The complainant further said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that: “Those still taking part in the meeting then voted to refuse the three men back into the meeting with Cllr Cynthia Samson likening one to a ‘laughing hyena’” as those who had been removed from the meeting could not have been readmitted, as they were completely excluded from the meeting. He also said that no individual had laughed like a “hyena”; he had laughed during the meeting, but at a television programme which he had been watching while unaware that he had been readmitted to the meeting. He also said that it was inaccurate for the article to report that Ms Weaver had said "I have always been very clear who had authority in that meeting... me" as she did not have the authority.

10. The complainant also considered that the video included in the article breached Clause 2, as he appeared in the video and said that he had not been informed at the time that the meeting was being recorded. Both complainants had been in their home when the video was recorded, therefore the complainant said that the use of the video intruded into their private life; he did accept, however, that the video had been uploaded to Youtube prior to the article’s publication. The complainant further noted that, while the public were able to watch the meeting, this was via a link only, and approximately 5 to 6 members of the public attended the meeting.

11. The complainant also said that a journalist working for the newspaper had called his home sometime between 5 February 2021 and 8 February 2021, in breach of Clause 3.

12. The complainant then said that a journalist, who said he worked for the publication, approached his home, misrepresented his identity by claiming to be a gardener specialising in hedges and trees, refused to say what his name was, and then refused to leave his property when asked until the complainant said he would call the police. The complainant said that this approach breached Clause 3 and Clause 10. The complainant provided the following notes, which he said was a transcript of the interaction:

Journalist: (Introduced himself as gardener specialising in hedges and trees)

Complainant: I don’t believe you are who you say you are. I believe you to be from the Press.

Journalist: (Smiled) I’d like to speak to Cllr. Brewerton

Complainant: Please leave my property immediately

Journalist: I don’t have to leave. I have a right to be here as I am the Press.

Complainant: You have no right to be on my property. Please leave now.

Journalist: No!

Complainant: I will remove you from my property and call the Police. Leave now please.

13. The complainant also said that he considered that Clause 3 had been breached by the article itself, as it included material which was not compliant with the terms of the Clause; namely, the video, which he considered had been recorded illegally.

14. The complainant then said that he considered that the use of the video breached Clause 10, as he believed the footage of the meeting had been recorded illegally on a secondary device, such as an iPad; he said he knew this was the case as had it been recorded directly from a computer, it would have shown a recording logo and there wasn’t one present in the video. He said that the press had a duty to ensure the video had not been recorded illegally, and that it had not done so in this case.

15. Turning to Clause 4, the complainant said that he considered this Clause had been breached as he did not consider that publication of the article had been handled sensitively. He believed that the publication should have done so, where the viral video had led to great shock amongst his close and extended family.

16. The publication said it did not accept that the article or the conduct of any journalists working on its behalf breached the Editors’ Code. Turning first to the complainant’s Clause 1 concerns, it said that it did not accept that any of the inaccuracies flagged by the complainant were significant and therefore required correction, though it had amended the text of the article in line with the complainant’s concerns.

17. The following amendments were made to the article on 14 September 2021, 11 days after IPSO made the publication aware of the complaint: The reference to “the meeting clerk from the Cheshire Association of Local Councils” was amended to read “the Chief Officer from the Cheshire Association of Local Councils”; "[t]he later meeting appears to start with an unseen councillor mumbling f**k off" was amended to refer to "an unseen individual" making the comment; the reference to a councillor “calling for civility” was amended to read “intervened”; and the reference to a meeting participant being “placed in a virtual waiting room” was removed.

18. Turning to the complainant’s Clause 2 concerns, the newspaper noted that the video included in the article had been widely shared on social media prior to the article’s publication, and it did therefore not accept that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy over the video.

19. The publication accepted that a journalist working on behalf of the publication had approached the complainant’s home, though it did not accept that it had telephoned the complainant. It strongly disputed that the journalist had claimed to be a gardener, or that he had refused to identify himself when asked. The publication further said that the journalist had promptly left the property once the person who had answered the door – a woman, who he presumed to be the complainant’s partner – had made clear that they did not wish to comment. The journalist said that he had not posed as a tradesman, and would not have done so because he could not have asked any questions about the story without identifying himself as a journalist. The publication also said that this approach had happened sometime in the late morning or early afternoon of 5 February, and well before the IPSO notice was circulated after 5pm. It therefore did not accept that this approach represented a breach of either Clause 3 or Clause 10.

20. Turning to the complainants’ Clause 10 concerns arising from the use of the video, the publication again noted that the article was simply reporting on a video which was widely in the public domain; it did not therefore accept that the Clause could have been breached in relation to the video.

21. The publication then noted that it did not consider that the complainants’ concerns engaged the terms of Clause 4.

22. The complainant indicated that he was satisfied with the proposed amendments suggested by the publication, but that the amendments were not sufficient to resolve his complaint given his concerns with the article and reporting. He further said that, in relation to the approach from the journalist, he had a notice on his home which made clear that cold callers were not welcome – this included journalists. He did not dispute the publication’s position that the journalist had spoken to a woman rather than the complainant.

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.

Clause 2 (Privacy)*

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home, physical and mental health, and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

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.

Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)*

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.

ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

Findings of the Committee

23. The Committee noted first that it was not in dispute that the clip of the meeting included with the article was an excerpt from the recording of the meeting. It was clear from the description of the meeting included in the text of the article that it was only an excerpt, rather than an unedited recording of the meeting in full, and that it had been included as an illustration of some of the exchanges which had taken place during the meeting. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the publication of the video in this format was significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted;  there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

24. The complainant had said that the article was inaccurate as he considered that one of the participants in the meeting had acted “illegally”, and that omitting this rendered the article inaccurate. The Committee noted that none of the participants had faced any criminal or civil prosecution at the time of the article’s publication, and that the allegation of illegal behaviour was a serious claim which not supported by any publicly available information at the time of the articles’ publication. In addition, the Committee noted the context of the article; it was reporting on a widely available viral video and was not a report of any legal proceedings connected to the meeting, nor did it purport to examine the legal context behind the meeting. The Committee further noted that it clear from the content of the video which accompanied the article participants believed that the meeting was, in their view, being held illegally. With these factors in mind, the Committee did not consider that omitting the complainant’s allegations from the article rendered it inaccurate in breach of Clause 1.

25. The complainant had also said that the article had inaccurately referred to a Chief Officer as a meeting clerk. The Committee did not consider that this represented a significant inaccuracy in need of correction, where the Committee noted that it appeared that the Chief Officer was overseeing the meeting, introducing the meeting and removing participants in a manner which can colloquially be described as clerking a meeting. There was no breach of Clause 1 in this point.

26. The Committee noted that the complainant had disputed that he had “traded insults” during the meeting. However, the Committee also noted that the complainant had not disputed that there had been insults made during the meeting; it was the identity of the target of these insults which he disputed. The article did not specify by whom the insults had been made or to whom they were directed. As such, the Committee did not agree that the reference to participants “trading insults” was inaccurate or misleading in the manner suggested by the complainant.

27. The article reported that the “meeting appear[ed] to start with an unseen councillor mumbling “f**k off” under his breath”, which the complainant disputed as it was actually a member of the public who had made the comment. While the Committee noted that the publication had not disputed that it was perhaps not a councillor who had sworn, the article reported that a councillor had “appear[ed]” to make an explicit remark, therefore distinguishing this as conjecture on the part of the publication, rather than a claim of fact. This was in line with the terms of Clause 1 (iv), and therefore there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

28. The complainant had said that it was inaccurate for the article to report that “[Ms] Weaver removed [Cllr Tolver] from the meeting and placed him in a virtual waiting room” or that members had voted to readmit them. The complainant said that this was the case as Ms Weaver did not have the right to remove the member, and it was not possible for the members to be readmitted. The Committee noted that the newspaper was obliged to report on the meeting accurately; the question of whether Ms Weaver had the right to remove the member or whether it was possible to readmit them was therefore not a question for the Committee. The complainant had also said that it was inaccurate because the members had not been removed to a virtual waiting room, but had rather been removed from the meeting entirely. However, the Committee did not consider that there was a material difference between removing an individual from a meeting and placing them in a virtual waiting room; both courses of action meant an individual is excluded from a meeting.  It did therefore not consider that the article was significantly inaccurate or misleading on this point.

29. The complainant had disputed the assertion that a councillor had “called for civility”; however, the Committee noted that in the video recording of the meeting an individual had asked a councillor to ”be respectful”. The Committee did not consider that characterising this request as a “call[…] for civility” was inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. The Committee noted that this comment had been followed by laughter. The Committee understood the complainant’s position that the laughter had not been prompted by the meeting, but noted that the article had not included any claim about what prompted the laughter, and that it was not in dispute that the complainant had indeed been recorded laughing at this point during the meeting. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

30. The Committee then noted that the Editors’ Code of Practice makes clear the press has the right to publish individuals’ views, as long as it takes care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. In this instance, the quotes from the meeting participants – that another participant had laughed like a “hyena” and that the chairman ”simply declared himself ‘clerk’ and notified everybody of the case” – were clearly presented as comment, and attributed to the individuals responsible for them. This was also the case in regard to Ms Weaver’s comments made during a television interview, which the article reported on. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

31. The terms of Clause 2 make clear that, when considering an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the extent to which the information complained of is in the public domain. In this instance, the complainant considered that the video included in the article – showing him and his son in their home – breached the terms of the Clause. However, the video showed proceedings at a public meeting held by a public body. Further, the video was available on YouTube at the time of the article’s publication, and had been viewed well over a million times. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy over the video. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 2.

32. The complainant had alleged that the publication had made a telephone call to his house. However, the complainant could not say for certain when the call had taken place – and whether it had been made prior to his son’s request, circulated by IPSO to publications including thesun.co.uk, that the Press desist from approaching him for comment. In circumstances where the complainant could not say with certainty that the call had been made after the request to desist had been circulated, and the publication had not accepted that such a call had been made, there were no grounds to identify a breach of Clause 3 in relation to the phone call.

33. The complainant had said that the journalist who approached his home had not identified himself by name, in breach of Clause 3. However, in the notes provided by the complainant setting out the interaction, the complainant had not asked the journalist for his name, or who he worked for. Where the complainant had not asked the journalist for his name or the publication he worked for, there was no obligation under the terms of Clause 3 for the journalist to provide this information. The Committee considered the separate complaint in relation to the allegation that the journalist had initially misrepresented himself as a tradesman in relation to Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) below.

34. The Committee noted that the complainant’s initial description of the incident, including the suggestion that the journalist refused to leave the complainant’s property when asked, raised significant concerns. However, the newspaper had strongly disputed that the interaction as described by the complainant had taken place as described: it stated that the journalist working for the newspaper had in fact spoken to a woman, rather than the complainant, and strenuously denied that the reporter had refused to leave. The complainant had subsequently accepted that the approach had been made to his wife rather than himself. The Committee was not able to reconcile the accounts given by the parties, but it concluded that there were not sufficient grounds to find a breach of Clause 3 on this point.

35. While Clause 3 (iii) makes clear that Editors should ensure that the principles of the Clause are observed by those working on its behalf, the principles of the Clause relate to behaviour by journalists which could constitute harassment. The complainant did not allege that the video which he considered breached Clause 3 had been obtained by the publication – or individuals working in its behalf – engaging in harassing behaviour towards him. There was no breach of Clause 3 arising from the publication of the video.

36. The complainant had said that the journalist who approached his home had initially identified himself as a gardener, before later stating that he was in fact a journalist working on behalf of the publication. The publication denied that the journalist had pretended to be a gardener and said that it would not have been possible for the journalist to pose questions about the subject of the story without effectively identifying himself as a journalist. The Committee noted that it was not in a position to resolve this dispute of fact; however, it was not in dispute that prior to asking for more information about the viral video, the journalist had identified himself as a member of the press. The journalist had therefore not engaged in subterfuge to obtain material for publication, and there was no breach of Clause 10.

37. The terms of Clause 10 make clear that the press should not seek to publish material obtained by using hidden cameras; the purpose of the Clause is to regulate the publication or acquisition of material obtained using clandestine devices and misrepresentation. In this case, ­the meeting had been recorded; however, neither party disputed that at the time the article was published, the video was widely available in the public domain. The basis advanced by the complainant for claiming the video had been obtained using a clandestine recording device was that it appeared not to have been recorded using the internal recording mechanism in the computer programme used to host the virtual meeting. While the Committee could not establish with certainty how the meeting was recorded, it did not agree that the use of a secondary device to make the recording amounted to a “clandestine” device for the purposes of Clause 10. The video depicted a publicly accessible meeting, and whether it had been recorded using an in-program recording function or a secondary recording device had no bearing on the content of the video. Explicit reference was made in the course of the meeting to the fact it was being recorded, when a participant referred to a copy being sent to a monitoring officer. Furthermore, the minutes of the meeting stated that a recording of the meeting was available. The Committee did not, therefore, consider that any subterfuge or misrepresentation appeared to have been engaged in order to make the recording of the meeting.

38. Furthermore, at the time the article was published, the video from which the clip was extracted was widely circulating in the public domain and had been viewed over one million times; the newspaper had not, therefore, engaged, either directly or through an agent, in making or procuring the recording. the Committee did not consider that the publication engaged in any form of subterfuge or misrepresentation in the recording of the meeting, and there was no breach of Clause 10.

39. While the Committee understood that the video going “viral” had caused distress to the complainant, it noted that the terms of Clause 4 generally relate to cases involving bereavement, injury, and crime. Where the content of the article under complaint related to a parish council meeting, the Committee did not consider that the article related to the complainant’s personal grief or shock, and there was no breach of Clause 4.

Conclusion(s)

40. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

41. N/A


Date complaint received: 02/08/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 10/02/2022