Ruling

01786-21 Brewerton v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      10th 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 – 01786-21 Brewerton v Mail Online

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 Mail Online 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 “'Stop talking!' Is this Britain's worst-ever Zoom meeting? Chaotic council discussion which sees chairman and deputy thrown out takes internet by storm”, published on 5 February 2021; and an article headlined “Handforth Parish Council's Jackie Weaver compares shouting men in viral Zoom meeting to a 'toddler tantrum' and is hailed an 'icon' by Loose Women viewers”, published on 10 February 2021.

2. The articles, which both appeared online only, reported on the response to a parish council meeting which had a few days earlier ‘gone viral’, and had been widely covered by the press. Both articles included the same video clip of the meeting; the video clip was just over three minutes long. In addition, both articles included a side-bar which included brief biographies of some of the call’s participants. Both side-bars referred to John Smith’s wife as a “pharmacy assistant” and Cynthia Samson as a “retired accountant”.

3. The article which was published on 5 February reported that the meeting which had gone viral was a “Planning & Environment Committee meeting” – which was, “its minutes assure us, an extraordinary meeting” – and that it involved “a clerk overseeing the proceedings” who had worked with the council “on and off for nine years”.  It said that the “acting clerk” in question – Jackie Weaver – had been “drafted in from the peacekeeping corps of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils”.

4. The article also included a tongue-in-cheek summary of the meeting, saying that the “Zoom call [wasn’t] big enough for two parish council clerks” to explain why tensions had arisen during the meeting. It went on to refer to the complainant’s son, who participated in the meeting, as “[s]queaky”. The article then reported that, following a comment from a “female colleague on the call”, there had been “belly laughs”, with the complainant “hold[ing] his stomach and rock[ing] back and forth in glee.” The article ended with a transcript of part of the call, in which one of the participants was referred to as “Councillor Peter Moore”.

5. The 5 February article went on to include a comment from a “local council expert”, who said of the meeting that “it appears something odd [is] going on because they seem to have agreed something beforehand – perhaps in a bid to control the influence of the chair”.

6. The article which was published on 10 February stated that one of the meeting participants, Jackie Weaver, was an “acting-clerk” during the meeting and again that she had worked with the council in question “on and off for nine years”. It also reported on an interview Ms Weaver had had with a television programme, during which she had reportedly said that “ultimately, when you see grown men shouting hysterically, it is a bit like a toddler tantrum.” The article said that she had referred to her “colleagues” in this manner. It then paraphrased further comments from Ms Weaver, reporting that “Jackie […] says that the hostility from [a] faction of councillors was hardly a surprise” before going on to include a further paraphrased comment: “In a normal parish council meeting, Jackie wouldn't have the authority to remove someone, but because it was called by two cou[n]cillors - who risked having the hearing 'hijacked' - she says she did.” The article also again referred to one of the meeting participants as “councillor Peter Moore”.

7. The complainant said that both of the articles were inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He first said that the video of the meeting included with the articles 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. In addition, he said that all the articles under complaint were inaccurate as he believed they condoned the actions of one of the participants in the meeting, and he considered that their actions had been improper; the article also, he said, omitted the fact that his son and his fellow councillors had been “illegally evicted” from the meeting and were therefore inaccurate.

8. The complainant also said that both articles were inaccurate as Ms Weaver was not a clerk and had not worked for the council “on and off for nine years”. He further said that, contrary to claims made by both articles, Peter Moore was not actually a councillor. Rather, he was the husband of a councillor. He also said that John Smith’s wife was a dispense assistant, not a pharmacy assistant, and Ms Samson had not worked as an accountant.

9. The complainant also said that the 5 February article had inaccurately referred to the viral meeting as a “Planning & Environment Committee meeting”, in breach of Clause 1. He said that this was the case as the meeting was actually an Extraordinary Meeting of the full council; the Planning and Environment meeting had been the preceding meeting. He also said that the comment from the “local government expert” was inaccurate, as there had been no pre-planning or collusion on the part of him and his associates, and that the article had been disingenuous in describing his son as “[s]queaky”.

10. The complainant said that he did not recall that he had laughed during the meeting. Rather, he said, he was unaware that he was being recorded and had been laughing at something on television during this part of the meeting. He also said that parts of the transcript included in the article were out of order, and that events had – according to his recollection – transpired in a different order.

11. The complainant said that the 10 February article was inaccurate, as the meeting had not consisted of “grown men shouting hysterically”. He also said that the meeting participants were not Ms Weaver’s “colleagues”, as she did not work for the council. He further said that he considered paraphrased comments from Ms Weaver – in which he referred to him and his associates as “hostile” – to be inaccurate, as the hostility was motivated by her actions. He also said that the paraphrased comments from Ms Weaver, in which she said she had the “authority” to remove councillors, was inaccurate as she did not have the authority to act in the manner she did.

12. 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 on his and his son’s 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.

13. The complainant also said that ‘The Mail’ had phoned his home for comment, in breach of Clause 3.

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

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 been more sensitive, where the viral video had led to great shock amongst his close and extended family.

16. The complainant then said that he considered that the use of the video breached Clause 10, as he believed it 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.

17. The publication said it did not accept that either of the articles breached the Code. It first noted that the video which was included and described in both articles had gone viral prior to publication and had been widely viewed; it was therefore firmly in the public domain and there could not be said to be any restrictions on reporting on it; there could be no possible breach of Clause 1, 2, or 10 arising from reporting on the contents of a widely available video.

18. Turning to the specific inaccuracies alleged in the 5 February article, the publication said that the meeting had been widely described as a “planning and environment committee meeting” and that, at any rate, the article described the meeting as an “extraordinary meeting”.

19. The publication then said that the 5 February article made clear that Ms Weaver was not the council’s official clerk, and that she had been “drafted in from the peacekeeping corps of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils”. It said that the reference to two Parish council clerks was intended only to refer to Cllr Brian Tolver changing his name to refer to himself as a clerk; it was not a statement of fact that there were actually two clerks in the meeting.

20. Turning to the alleged inaccuracies arising from the comments of a “local council expert”, which were included in the 5 February article, it noted that the expert was simply commenting on what appeared to transpire in the video.

21. The publication amended both articles to make clear that Peter Moore was not a councillor. However, it considered the transcript to be a faithful account of what was heard in the video clip, noting that it could only report on the contents of the video clip and could not comment on whether the video had been edited prior to it going viral. The publication also amended the articles to make clear that John Smith’s wife is a dispense assistant, rather than a pharmacy assistant, and that Cynthia Samson was not an accountant prior to her retirement. These amendments were made on 28 September 2021 – 25 days after the publication was made aware of the complainant’s concerns. The publication also offered to publish a footnote to both articles flagging these complaints on 26 November 2021.

22. The publication then turned to the 10 February article, and the alleged inaccuracies the complainant had identified. It said that this article again made clear that Ms Weaver was not a clerk, by referring to her as an “acting-clerk”. It also said that it would be happy to remove the reference to Ms Weaver having worked with the council “on and off for nine years”, where the complainant had disputed its accuracy – though it did not consider this inaccuracy to be so significant as to raise a breach of Clause 1, and further noted that this information came from an interview which Ms Weaver had given to Mail Online.

23. Addressing the alleged inaccuracies arising from Ms Weaver’s interview comments, it noted that it was clear that these were Ms Weaver’s comments and were correctly attributed to her.

24. The publication said that no journalist working on its behalf had phoned the complainant – therefore, it could not be said that Clause 3 was breached.

25. Turning to the complainant’s Clause 4 concerns, the publication said that Clause 4 was designed to protect individuals who have suffered a severely traumatic experience, and that its provisions did not apply in this case.

26. The complainant indicated that he was happy with the steps that the publication had taken to attempt to resolve his complaint, but he did not consider that all his concerns had been addressed and did therefore not want 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.

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

27. The Committee noted first that it was not in dispute that the three-minute clip of the meeting included with the articles had been shortened from the original meeting video, which was well over an hour long. It was clear that it was a representation of the events of the meeting rather than a precisely detailed breakdown of the meeting, and neither the articles nor the video claimed that the clip was intended to show the full context of the meeting. Where the Committee did not consider that shortening the video rendered it inaccurate, misleading, or distorted, there was no breach of Clause 1 in relation to the video.

28. While the Committee understood that the complainant had concerns that the articles condoned the actions of a specific individual, it noted that concerns that articles are biased or one-sided – in and of themselves – do not engage the terms of the Editors’ Code. As such, there was no breach of the Clause 1 on this point.

29. The complainant had said that the articles were inaccurate as he considered that one of the participants in the meeting had acted “illegally” – a point omitted by the coverage. 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. The Committee further noted that the articles and accompanying videos made clear that some participants believed that the meeting was being held illegally. With these factors in mind, the Committee did not consider that omitting the complainant’s allegations from the articles rendered them inaccurate in breach of Clause 1.

30. The Committee understood that the complainant disputed that Ms Weaver had worked with the council “on and off for nine years”. However, where this formed a passing reference in the articles, it was not in dispute that Ms Weaver’s association with the council covered several years, and the publication had obtained this information from Ms Weaver, the Committee did not consider that there was a failure to take care over the accuracy of the articles on this point. The complainant also disputed that Ms Weaver was a “clerk”; however, where both articles made clear that she was not the council’s official clerk and the video showed Ms Weaver acting in a manner that could colloquially be described as clerking – removing meeting participants and answering questions – the Committee did not consider that the articles were inaccurate in their description of Ms Weaver as an “acting clerk”.

31. Both articles had reported details about some of the meeting participants, and the publication accepted that these details were inaccurate, had amended the articles on these points, and had offered to publish a footnote flagging the amendments. However, taking the inaccuracies in turn the Committee did not consider that they were significant and represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article.  While Peter Moore appeared to not be a councillor, the focus of the article was not on the formal decision-making of the Council but on the exchanges among the meeting participants shown in the video. In the view of the Committee, the publication’s apparently inaccurate reference to Mr Moore as a councillor did not represent a failure to take care over the article given that he had been referenced briefly and only in the context of recording his involvement in these exchanges. While the Committee welcomed the publication’s amendment of this point and the addition of a footnote, it did not consider that this was a matter of significance requiring correction under Clause 1 (ii) given that Mr Moore had been mentioned only in passing, as a participant in the exchanges reported in the article. In addition, the Committee did not consider that – in the context of a brief biographical note – it was significantly inaccurate to refer to Ms Samson as a retired accountant, rather than a bookkeeper, or refer to a councillor’s wife as a pharmacy assistant rather than a dispense assistant; these biographical details did not significantly affect the matters being reported in the article: the exchanges at the meeting. The Committee also noted that it did not appear that any of the individuals who were the first party to these alleged inaccuracies had flagged their concerns with the newspaper. Taking these factors into account, there was no breach of Clause 1 on these points – though the Committee welcomed the publication’s amendments and offers to publish a footnote on both articles.

32. The Committee did not consider that referring to the parish council meeting as a meeting of the “Planning & Environment Committee meeting” rendered the 5 February article inaccurate, where it included several references to the meeting being an “extraordinary meeting” – including immediately after the sole reference to it being a “Planning & Environment Committee meeting”. The Committee considered this to be the case where the two meetings had occurred one after the other, and where the title of the meeting did not affect the accuracy of the thrust of the article; it formed a single reference, and the focus of the article was the events of the meeting and its aftermath.

33. The complainant accepted that he had laughed during the meeting. Regardless of what prompted the laughter, it could not be inaccurate to report that it had occurred, and doing so did not represent a breach of Clause 1. In addition, while the Committee noted that the complainant considered the description of his son to be inaccurate and offensive, it considered that the nature of the description – “squeaky” – and the fact that the description appeared as part of a tongue-in-cheek summary of the meeting, made clear that this was the publication’s characterisation, rather than a claim of fact. Clause 1 (iv) makes clear that publications are entitled to editorialise, and describing the complainant’s son in this manner did not render the article inaccurate in breach of Clause 1.

34. The Committee understood that the complainant’s recollection of what was said during the meeting differed from the transcript included in the 5 February article. However, having reviewed the full video of the meeting, the Committee was satisfied that the events set out in the transcript corresponded with the video. There was therefore no breach of Clause 1 arising from the transcript included in the article.

35. 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 local government expert and Ms Weaver were clearly presented as comment, and attributed to them. The Committee was therefore satisfied that the publication had distinguished between comment and fact and had clearly attributed the comments made to those who had made them, in line with the terms of Clause 1 (iv). The Committee further noted that the video which accompanied the article demonstrated that there were opposing views to those held by Ms Weaver, both on the legality of the meeting itself and on the role of Ms Weaver and her position (or lack thereof) within the council. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

36. 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.

37.  While the Committee noted the complainant’s concerns that he had been contacted, via telephone, by ‘The Mail’, it noted that this could refer to a number of publications. Where the publication denied making any such phone call and the complainant had not said that it was definitely Mail Online who had phoned him, there were not sufficient grounds to link to phone call to the publication, and there was no breach of Clause 3 arising from the phone call.

38. 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 use of the video.

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.

40. 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 acquisition of material obtained using clandestine devices and misrepresentation. In this case, the publication did not know exactly how the video 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 consider that the publication engaged in any form of subterfuge or misrepresentation in the recording of the meeting.

41. 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, been engaged, either directly or through an agent, in making or procuring the recording. It could not therefore be said that the newspaper had sought to obtain material obtained by using a hidden camera, and there was breach of Clause 10.

Conclusion(s)

42. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

43. N/A

 

 

Date complaint received: 26/07/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 23/02/2022