Ruling

01787-21 Brewerton v mirror.co.uk

    • 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 – 01787-21 Brewerton v mirror.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 mirror.co.uk had 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 “Parish council meeting descends into chaos in 'Britain's worst-ever Zoom meeting'”, published on 5 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 been covered widely by the press. The article also included a 30-second clip from the meeting. It gave a summary of the events of the meeting, referring to “[c]lerk Jackie Weaver”, who was a participant in the meeting. It went on to report that the “meeting began with an unseen councillor mumbling ‘f*** off’ under their breath” before a dispute began between the meeting participants. Following this exchange of words, the article reported that “vice-chair Aled Brewerton, joined by an older unnamed gentleman, proceeded to yell at the clerk to ‘read the standing orders’”. Then, the article said, “[w]hen fellow councillor Susan Moore call[ed] for civility, the meeting erupted into semi-hysterical laughter and two further councillors, Mr Brewerton and Barry Burkill were removed.”

3. The article went on to report that, following concerns raised about the title of the council’s chairman: “Ms Weaver said: ‘The chairman simply declared himself 'clerk' and notified everybody of the case.’” Finally, the article reported that: “Those remaining voted to not allow the three men back into the meeting, with Cllr Cynthia Samson likening one to a ‘laughing hyena’.”

4. 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”.  The notice referred to “press coverage of a Handforth Parish Council Meeting which took place on Thursday 10 December 2020.” This notice was circulated by IPSO to the press – including mirror.co.uk – on 5 February 2021, at 5:41pm.

5. The complainant said that an approach made a journalist working on behalf of the publication had breached Clause 3 and Clause 10 of the Editors Code. He said that, on 5 February, a journalist working for the paper had approached him and at first had pretended to work as a roofer. He recalled the exchange as follows:

Journalist: (Said he was selling roofing)

Complainant: We don’t accept cold callers.

Journalist: (Pointed up to the corner roof and said it needed repairing)

Complainant: It’s fine. I look after it.

Journalist: (Tried to speak about the roof again but [complainant] cut him off)

Complainant: I don’t believe you are who you say you are.

Journalist: (Says he’s from the Mirror but provides no ID. Wants to speak to [his] son)

Complainant: We are giving no statements.

Journalist leaves.

6. The complainant then said that a further approach, made via Facebook Messenger to his son by a journalist working on behalf of the publication on 18 February 2021, had breached Clause 3 and Clause 10 of the Code. He said that this was the case as the message had come after a request to desist, issued via IPSO, had been made, and because his son’s Facebook account allowed friends only to message him; therefore, he believed that the publication must have “hacked” the Facebook account to allow it to send the message. The complainant provided a copy of the message, which said as follows:

“Hi Aled. I am getting in touch from the Daily Mirror where I'm writing a report about the parish council meeting last night. I was hoping you'd share your views on how proceedings unfolded yesterday evening, both in terms of the chaotic nature of the meeting and how Chairman Brian Tolver handled things. If you could message me back or drop me a line on […] I'd be very grateful.”

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. The complainant then said that the article included several inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code. He said that 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. He also said that the article was inaccurate in its references to Ms Weaver being a “clerk” as she was not a clerk for the council. He also said that it was not the case that that the “meeting began with an unseen councillor mumbling ‘f*** off’ under their breath” as it was not a councillor who had sworn. 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.

10. The complainant then said that it was inaccurate for the article to report that “vice-chair Aled Brewerton, joined by an older unnamed gentleman, proceeded to yell at the clerk to ‘read the standing orders’”, as he was the older gentleman in question and had not shouted during the meeting. He said that it was also not the case that another councillor had “called for civility”, or that there had been “laughter”; rather, he said, there was outrage. The complainant also 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.

11. The complainant further said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that: “Those remaining voted to not allow 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 had been laughing at a television programme which he had been watching while unaware that he had been readmitted to the meeting.

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 into their private lives; they 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. 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.

14. The publication said it did not accept that the article breached the Editors’ Code. It confirmed that it had circulated the IPSO privacy notice internally 1 minute after it was received – at 5:42pm – and, furthermore, that it had not attempted to contact the complainant at his home. The publication did accept that a journalist working on its behalf had contacted the complainant’s son 13 days after the notice’s circulation. However, it said that in doing so it had not breached the terms of the privacy notice, as the contact was made in relation to a different council meeting to the one which had gone viral. It said that the publication had made the decision to contact the complainant for a comment on the subsequent meeting having considered the public interest, maintaining that there was a “clear public interest in this story as it related to the behaviour of Councillors and Council members within a public meeting”.

15. The publication denied that it had engaged in any clandestine activity or subterfuge when it messaged the complainant; it provided a web page which set out that it was possible to send ‘message requests’ to people who are not Facebook friends, provided the sender is not blocked. It said that the message showed that the complainant’s son had blocked the journalist after the message was sent; it did not, it said, follow that the publication must have engaged in ‘hacking’ to message the complainant.

16. Turning to Clause 1, it said that the accuracy of the video could be supported both by viewing the full video of the meeting – which was publicly available and showed the events of the meeting – and the council’s minutes of the meeting. It did not accept, therefore, that the video could be said to be inaccurate, nor did it accept that the video had been altered – it was simply a 30-second clip of the meeting. The publication also said that it was not inaccurate to refer to Ms Weaver as a “clerk” where the council’s minutes of the meeting – which it provided – referred to her as such.

17. While the publication accepted that it could not state with certainty that it was a “councillor” who had sworn during the meeting, it said it did not consider that this could be a significant inaccuracy. It said that given the “aggression, tone and behaviour” of the councillors present during the meeting, it was reasonable for the publication to assume that it was a councillor who had made the explicit remark; however, it would be happy to, as a gesture of the goodwill, amend the article to make clear who did make the explicit remark, should the complainant be able to tell it who had sworn during the video. It also did not accept that the article breached the Code by omitting to state that the complainant’s son and his fellow councillors were “illegally evicted” from the meeting, noting that this suggestion appeared to be the opinion of the complainant and was not supported by the minutes of the meeting itself.

18. The publication also said that it did not accept that it was inaccurate to report that “Ms Weaver said: ‘The chairman simply declared himself 'clerk' and notified everybody of the case”  or that “[t]hose remaining voted to not allow the three men back into the meeting, with Cllr Cynthia Samson likening one to a ‘laughing hyena’” where the video clearly showed: someone laughing; that a councillor had made the “hyena” comment in response to the laughter; and that Jackie Weaver had made the comments attributed to her by the article.

19. Addressing the complainant’s Clause 2 and Clause 10 concerns arising from the video, the publication noted that the video was both publicly and very widely available at the time of the article’s publication, and that the council’s meeting minutes made clear that a recording of the meeting could be made available on request. The publication also said that it could not comment on how the video was recorded, as it was not in a position to know the circumstances in which the recording was made; it also, therefore, could not be said to have sought to obtain a video recorded by a hidden camera. With these factors in mind, it did not accept that the article or video could represent a breach of Clause 2 or Clause 10.

20. The publication did not accept that the complainants’ concerns framed under Clause 4 engaged the terms of the Clause, where the article under complaint did not relate to a case of grief or shock.

21. While the complainant accepted that the minutes stated that a recording of the meeting could be made available on request, he also said that the original agenda of the meeting did not state that it was being recorded. He further noted that it was not common practice for such a meeting to be recorded and made public, and that this was a recent development. He then said that the publication could not rely on the minutes to substantiate its position, as he considered that the minutes were inaccurate.

22.  The complainant reiterated that a journalist had approached his home on 5 February, and also said that the journalist had refused to leave his property when requested.

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. Both parties agreed that a journalist working on behalf of the publication had sent a Facebook message to the complainant’s son. The questions for the Committee were, therefore: whether the nature of the contact constituted harassment or persistent pursuit under Clause 3 (i) and whether the complainant’s previous request not to be contacted by journalist applied to this contact, which was relevant to the complaint under Clause 3(ii).

24. In the view of the Committee, the nature of the contact, in and of itself, did not raise any concerns under Clause 3; it was a single, politely worded message in which the journalist identified himself and the publication he worked for, and made clear why he was contacting the complainant. The sending of this message, of itself, did not constitute harassment, intimidation, or persistent pursuit, and there was no breach of Clause 3 (i) on this point.

25. The Committee next considered the complaint that the contact had been made in breach of Clause 3 (ii), because of the previous request by the complainant not to be contacted. The Committee noted that the terms of the request circulated by IPSO explicitly referred to the parish council meeting which had gone viral, and made clear that the complainant’s son did not wish to be approached in relation to this specific meeting. The contact by the journalist related to a different meeting. The Committee also noted that this second meeting (like the first) was a public meeting and a legitimate subject for reporting. Taking care over the accuracy of a report of a council meeting may include contacting members of that council to seek their comments, as the journalist was evidently doing in this case. Taking into account the terms of the original request to desist and the fact that the further request for comment related to a subsequent development in the story (the subsequent meeting), the Committee found that this further message did not breach Clause 3 (ii).

26. The complainant had said that the journalist who approached his home had initially identified himself as a roofer, before later stating that he was in fact a journalist working on behalf of the publication. The publication disputed that any approach had been made to the complainants’ home. The Committee noted that it was not in a position to resolve this dispute of fact; however, where the complainant could not say with certainty at what time of day the approach occurred – and whether it had occurred after a request to desist had been circulated – the Committee did not consider that there were grounds to find a breach of Clause 3 on this point.

27. The complainant had also said that the journalist had refused to leave his property when requested; however, this was contradicted by the account which he gave of the exchange – in which the journalist had left of his own accord after being told that there would be no comment forthcoming. Given the inconsistencies in the complainant’s retelling of the events, and where the publication strongly refuted having sent a journalist to the address, the Committee did not identify grounds to uphold a breach of Clause 3 arising from the journalist’s alleged refusal to leave the complainant’s property.

28. 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 30-second video.

29. In the complainant’s recollection of the alleged interaction with a journalist at his home, prior to asking for more information about the viral video, the journalist had identified himself as a member of the press. It could not therefore be said that a journalist engaged in subterfuge to obtain material for publication – where the publication disputed that any approach had been made, and the complainant’s account of the approach did not demonstrate that a journalist engaged in subterfuge to gain material – and there was no breach of Clause 10.

30. 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, therefore, consider that any subterfuge or misrepresentation appeared to have been engaged in order to make the recording of the meeting.

31. 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.

32. Turning to the alleged breaches of Clause 1, the Committee noted first that it was not in dispute that the thirty-second 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.

33. The complainant also denied that Ms Weaver was a “clerk”. While the Committee understood that the complainant disputed the accuracy of the official council minutes of the meeting, the publication was entitled to rely on these official documents as the basis for its reporting. This reference therefore did not represent a failure to take care over the article, or an inaccuracy requiring correction.

34. 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 information 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 article’s 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 video which accompanied the article 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 article rendered it inaccurate in breach of Clause 1.

35. While the Committee also noted that the newspaper accepted that it was perhaps not a councillor who had sworn, the Committee did not consider that this represented a significant inaccuracy, where it was not in dispute that the meeting had opened with an individual swearing. The Committee further noted that the complainant was not acting on behalf of the individual who had sworn, and that therefore he was speculating as to the identity of the individual who had sworn. The Committee also noted that neither party disputed that there had been laughter during the meeting. The article did not specify what triggered the laughter, and it was therefore not inaccurate in the manner suggested by the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

36.  While the Committee accepted that the sentence “vice-chair Aled Brewerton, joined by an older unnamed gentleman, proceeded to yell at the clerk to ‘read the standing orders’" was somewhat ambiguous, it noted that the video included with the article made clear that it was only Aled Brewerton who shouted, rather than his father. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point, where the video made the true position clear and the claim itself was ambiguous, rather than inaccurate.

37. 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 included in the article were clearly presented as comment, and attributed to the individuals responsible for them. In the article, the quotes from Ms Weaver and the councillor who referred to the complainant “laughing like a hyena” were clearly attributed to them by way of the use of quotation marks, and the articles were framed as their view on the meeting featured in the video. The Committee was therefore satisfied that the publication had distinguished between comment and fact and had clearly attributed the comments of Ms Weaver and the councillor to 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, both on the legality of the meeting itself and Ms Weaver’s role as a clerk. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

38. 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.

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 a case of personal grief or shock, and there was no breach of the Clause.

Conclusion(s)

40. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

41. N/A


Date complaint received: 26/07/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 22/02/2022