Ruling

01790-21 Brewerton v liverpoolecho.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 – 01790-21 Brewerton v liverpoolecho.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Keith Brewerton, acting on behalf of both his son Aled Brewerton and himself, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that liverpoolecho.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 the following articles:

- “Handforth Parish Council meeting goes viral after descending into chaos”, published on 5 February 2021

- “Jackie Weaver speaks out after Handforth parish council meeting goes viral”, published on 5 February 2021

- “Merseyside star of viral Handforth Parish Council meeting ‘disgusted’ at behaviour”, published on 15 February 2021

2. The articles all appeared online only, and all three articles included a 1-minute-and-thirty-seconds clip of a parish council meeting in which the complainants had been participants. This had subsequently ‘gone viral’ and been widely covered by the press.

3. The second article was based on comments which two meeting participants – Ms Weaver and Brian Tolver – had given to the press about the events of the meeting. It gave a summary of the meeting, which included a claim that after an exchange between Ms Weaver and Mr Tolver she “removed Mr Tolver from the Zoom call and placed him in a virtual waiting room” and that “[f]ollowing Mr Tolver’s eviction, vice-chairman Aled Brewerton, joined by an older unnamed man, proceeded to yell at Ms Weaver to ’read the standing orders’. When fellow councillor Susan Moore called for civility, the meeting erupted into semi-hysterical laughter and two further councillors, Mr Brewerton and Barry Burkill, were removed.”

4. The second article also included excerpts of an interview Ms Weaver had given to a radio show, in which she said the following: “[…W]e have two councillors who have legitimately called a meeting... and at that point my job in supporting them to hold that meeting was to make sure they were able to hold that meeting.”

5. The third article centred on an interview with one of the meeting participants – Cynthia Samson – and summarised the events of the meeting alongside quotes from the woman’s interview. It reported that: “At one point Ms Samson suggested the clerk mutes some of the more abusive members, only for one of them to make a derogatory comment about her home town. Speaking to the ECHO, […Ms Samson] said: ‘I thought he was being disrespectful to Jackie […] so I asked her to mute him, and he turned around and said coming from a girl from Birkenhead.’”

6. The third article also reported that Ms Samson had “said Jackie was guiding members on how best to hold a meeting given that the council’s clerk had been suspended” and that she “was disgusted, I still don’t understand why they did what they did – Jackie did nothing wrong, she was clerking the meeting”.

7. The complainant said that all 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 of 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. He also said that he had twice contacted the publication to make it aware that he considered the articles to be inaccurate and a breach of his privacy – and had left a voicemail message – but had not received any response.

8. The complainant then said that the second article was inaccurate, as it included a reference to Mr Tolver having been placed “in a waiting room”. He said that this was not the case, and that Mr Tolver had instead been removed entirely. In addition, he said that it was inaccurate to report that “vice-chairman Aled Brewerton, joined by an older unnamed man, proceeded to yell at Ms Weaver to ‘read the standing orders’”, as he was the older gentleman in question, and he had not shouted during the meeting. He also said that a “fellow councillor” had not “called for civility”, as reported by the article.

9. The complainant also said that a quote in the second article from Ms Weaver, stating that “two councillors […had…] legitimately called a meeting”, was inaccurate, as he considered that the meeting had not been called legitimately and that this should have been reported.

10. Turning to the third article, the complainant said that it was inaccurate because it did not make clear that he had been provoked by the other participant before making the comment about her home town, and because there was no “bullying” involved in the incident, as alleged by Ms Samson’s quotes. In addition, he said that it was inaccurate for the article to include Ms Samson’s quote that Ms Weaver “did nothing wrong”, as he considered that she had indeed acted improperly.

11. The complainant also considered that the video included in the articles breached Clause 2, as he appeared in the video and said that he had not informed when it was filmed that he was being recorded. The complainant and his son had been in their home when the video was recorded, therefore the complainant said that the use of the video intruded on their private life; though they did accept 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.

12. 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 its terms; namely, the video, which he considered had been recorded illegally.

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 articles 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 complainant then said that he considered that the use of the video in the articles 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.

15. The publication said it did not accept that the article breached the Editors’ Code. 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 1-minute-and-30-seconds clip of the meeting. 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.

16. The publication said that neither the journalists who wrote the articles under complaint nor the Editor had any record of having received any contact from the complainant and his son. It also said that it had checked the publication’s complaints log for any such contact, and had found no record of it. Nevertheless, the publication said that it did not consider that the complainant and his son should have been offered the ‘right to reply’, where the articles simply reported on what was shown in a viral video.

17.  Addressing the specific inaccuracies alleged by the complaint with regards to the second article, the publication said it was not inaccurate to state that some meeting participants had been placed in a virtual meeting room, where the meeting minutes – which it provided – stated that Mr Tolver “was therefore removed from the meeting and placed into a virtual waiting room”. It also said that it could not be said to be inaccurate to report that there was laughter after a request to remain civil, where a video of the meeting – which it provided – showed both the request and the laughter. With this in mind, it did not accept that the article could be inaccurate on these points as suggested by the complainant.

18. The publication also did not consider that the second article inaccurately reported that it had been the complainant who shouted during the meeting, and noted that the specific clip was shown in the video which accompanied the article.

19. Turning next to the alleged inaccuracy which the complainant said arose from quoting both Ms Weaver and Ms Samson in the second and third articles, the publication did not accept that it was a breach of Clause 1 for the publication to include their opinions about the complainants, and noted that the opinions were clearly attributed Ms Weaver and Ms Samson. The publication said, therefore, that the article correctly distinguished between comment and fact, and there was therefore no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. Addressing the complainant’s Clause 2 and Clause 10 concerns, it noted that the video was both publicly available and viral 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.

21. 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.

22. The complainant said that the publication could not rely on the published minutes of the meeting to support its position that the video was available to the public, as the minutes were inaccurate. While he accepted that the minutes stated that a recording of the meeting could be made available on request, he noted 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.

23. The complainant also said that he contacted the publication by telephone, and had left a message requesting a call back to discuss the alleged inaccuracies in the article. He further noted that he was present at the meeting, and could therefore say with certainty that he had been removed from the meeting altogether – rather than being placed in a virtual meeting room – and that he had been watching television and laughing during the meeting, rather than laughing directly at a councillor.

24. The complainant further noted that it was not a matter of opinion that his son and fellow councillors had been evicted illegally. It was fact, based on the Local Government Act which – although it has no provision for dealing with disruptive behaviour – he said makes clear that a chair should preside over any meeting, and, as the person who evicted the councillors was not a chair, doing so was illegal, and the article should have referenced this.

25. The publication said that, although it did not accept that the articles breached the Editors’ Code, it would be happy to amend the articles to make clear that the complainant had not shouted during the meeting, as a gesture of goodwill.

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

26. The Committee noted first that it was not in dispute that the one-minute-and-thirty-seconds 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.

27. While the Committee understood that the complainant had concerns that the article 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.

28. 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 articles inaccurate. The Committee noted that none of the participants had faced any criminal or civil prosecution at the time of the articles’ 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 articles; they were simply reporting on a widely available viral video, and were not a report of any legal proceedings connected to the meeting, nor did they 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 articles rendered it inaccurate in breach of Clause 1.

29. The Committee did not consider that the publication had failed to take care over the accuracy of the second article in reporting that one of the councillors had been “removed […] from the Zoom call and placed […] in a virtual waiting room”, where the minutes of the meeting specifically referenced the removed councillors having been placed “in a waiting room”. Moreover, 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 actions will mean that an individual is excluded from a meeting.  The Committee also noted that neither party disputed that there had been laughter during the meeting, as reported by the second article. The article did not specify what triggered the laughter, and was therefore not inaccurate in the manner suggested by the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

30. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate for the second article to report that “vice-chairman Aled Brewerton, joined by an older unnamed man, proceeded to yell at Ms Weaver to ‘read the standing orders’”, as he had not shouted during the meeting. The Committee was satisfied that this was not inaccurate, where it was not in dispute that the complainant’s son Aled had shouted “read the standing orders” during the meeting, and where the complainant was shown sitting next to his son when this happened during the video. The Committee noted that the sentence could be read as suggesting that the complainant and his son both shouted, but also noted that the video accompanying the article showed this portion of the meeting, and clearly showed that it was only Aled who shouted. Therefore, the Committee did not consider that the slight ambiguity of the sentence raised a significant inaccuracy in breach of Clause 1. Nonetheless, it welcomed the publication’s offer to amend this sentence in the article to make it clear that the complainant had not shouted.

31. 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 reported were clearly presented as comment, and attributed to the individuals responsible for them. In the article, the quotes from Jackie and the councillor 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 Jackie 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 to those held by Jackie and the councillor, both on the legality of the meeting itself and on the role of Jackie and her position (or lack thereof) within the council. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

32. Clause 1 states that a fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for. There was a dispute of fact between the publication and the complainant as to whether the complainant had contacted it to request a reply; the complainant said that he had contacted the publication, and the publication maintained that it had no record of such contact. The Committee was not in a position to resolve this discrepancy; however, it noted that the ‘right to reply’ applies to cases only where an article includes significant inaccuracies. The Committee did not find that the article contained any significant inaccuracies, so no right to reply was established.

33. The terms of Clause 2 make clear that, when considering 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. Furthermore, 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.

34. The complainant had not alleged that the publication, or anyone working on its behalf, engaged in in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit; the complainant had also not said that he had been approached by a journalist working for the publication who persisted in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing him or his son once asked to desist. For this reason, the Committee found that there was no breach of Clause 3.

35. 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.

36. 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 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.

37. 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)

38. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

39. N/A


Date complaint received: 02/08/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 09/02/2022