Ruling

02369-18 Hewitt v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      7th June 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02369-18 Hewitt v The Daily Telegraph

Summary of complaint

1. Guy Hewitt complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “The stench of economic decay is overwhelming Barbados,” published on  15 March 2018.

2. The article was an opinion piece, reporting on the journalist’s recent trip to Barbados, where she had previously lived. It reported that there was an ongoing problem with the sewage system in Barbados, which was “plighting the entire south coast of the island,” and claimed that “Barbados stinks. It really does.” It stated that local schools and post offices had been forced to close, and that local businesses and restaurants were suffering as a result of “foul effluvium [bubbling] up from the manhole covers… and out on to the island’s pristine beaches 24 hours a day.” It claimed that this was having a negative effect on tourism, on which the island relies, and reported that “local newspapers and Bajans openly accuse government ministers of financial impropriety.”

3. It reported that “the American, Canadian and British foreign offices have put up advisory health warnings for tourists” and that due to the islands reliance on tourism, “this has the makings of a serious economic and social crisis.” It stated that the island’s fiscal deficit was soaring, foreign direct investment had plummeted and that “the situation is so bad that it is widely believed Barbados has no option to resort to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).” The article was also published online with the same headline.

4. The complainant was the High Commissioner for Barbados to the UK. He said that the article was inaccurate, as it exaggerated the sewage problem on the island and made unsubstantiated claims about alleged government corruption and a decline in tourist numbers. He said that while there had been a breach of the island’s sewage system, this affected only one mile of coastline, not the full south coast, as claimed in the article. He also said that there was no evidence to support the article’s claim that this sewage breach had caused visitors to “come down with violent bouts of gastroenteritis” as stated in the article.

5. He also said that the article was inaccurate, as the number of tourists visiting Barbados had risen in 2017, and an increase was expected in 2018. He said that Barbados had recently been awarded “Best Destination” at an international travel trade fair and had the highest ranking for destination satisfaction amongst travellers. He said that there was no evidence of corruption in Barbados, as claimed in the article, and that Barbados was ranked number 25 by Transparency International, which tracks corruption in public life around the world. The complainant also said that while he did accept that “violence is creeping into schools, infrastructure is breaking down and crime in on the rise,” as reported in the article, these represented normal social problems, which the government was working to address.

6. The complainant did not accept that the article’s characterisation of the economic situation in Barbados was accurate. He said that the article’s claim that it was “widely believed Barbados has no option but to resort to the International Monetary Fund” was unsubstantiated and inaccurate. He also expressed concern that the article was substantially based on claims made by a single, politically partisan local news source, which he said made the article inaccurate.

7. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code. It said that the article was an opinion piece, and was easily recognisable as such. Although the newspaper recognised that the complainant disagreed with the journalist’s views, the journalist had spoken to a large number of tourists and residents about the problems outlined in the article on a recent trip to Barbados, and maintained the article was accurate. The newspaper accepted that the sewage leak directly affected 1 to 2 miles of the seven mile south coast of the island. However, it said that residents and local news sources reported that it had had an effect on businesses along the entire south coast, and provided comments from travellers on review sites who claimed that they usually holidayed on the south coast, but would no longer do so due to the ongoing sewage issues. It also argued that there was an obvious risk of effluent overflowing from manholes entering the sea, and therefore possibly causing a direct effect along the whole coast. In these circumstances, the newspaper said that it was accurate to say that the sewage problem, which had been ongoing for 2 years, “blighted” the entire south coast.

8. It provided a large number of articles by local publications, condemning the “catastrophic failure” of the southern sewage system on the island, and provided a statement from the government of Barbados had itself recognised the “potential public health issues” caused by the sewage leak. It also said that the reporter was aware of friends and contacts living in the area who had gastroenteritis problems as a result.

9. It said that the article had accurately reported that there was a possibility that this problem may affect the number of tourists visiting the island, and provided a statement from the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association, which warned that the effect upon tourism would be disastrous if the sewage problem was not resolved, and calling on the government to treat the matter as a “national crisis”. It said that local residents who the reporter had spoken to, had raised concerns about alleged government corruption, and provided copies of local news reports which reported on perceived corruption within the country. It also provided copies of an IMF report on economic issues in Barbados and an article from a local newspaper which stated that The Barbados Banker’s Association had called on the government to secure funding from the IMF to boost foreign reserves, which it said was at its lowest levels in 22 years.  Regardless, to try and resolve the complaint the newspaper offered to publish the following clarification, in the business section where the article had first appeared, and as a footnote to the online article:

Barbados Sewage

A 15 March article referred to a sewage problem “blighting the entire south coast” of Barbados. We wish to clarify that raw sewage effluent has been reported along a two-mile stretch of the island’s coastline, popular with tourists, between Hastings and Dover Beach.

Relevant Code provisions

10. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate- an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

Findings of the Committee

11. The presentation and tone of the article made clear that it was the reporter’s account and observations of Barbados based on her recent visit to the country. It was accepted that there had been an ongoing problem with the sewage on the south of the island from 2016. The newspaper had provided evidence to show that the effect of the sewage was affecting businesses, and traveller’s experiences along the 7 mile coast. In these circumstances, it had taken care over the accuracy of the claim that the sewage problem had “blighted” the entire south coast. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i).

12. While the area where sewage was spilling onto the streets covered only 2 miles, the issue had been ongoing for two years, and the newspaper had shown that this was causing concern along the coast, not just the directly affected area. In these circumstances it was not inaccurate for the article to state that the issue was “blighting the entire south coast.” There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

13. The British Foreign Office had issued a warning relating to the possible health concerns due to the raw sewage in the south of the island. The journalist had also spoken to a number of people who had contracted gastroenteritis, and the government had also recognised the potential for the spread of disease. In these circumstances the newspaper had taken care over the accuracy of the claim that tourists were being affected by gastroenteritis and reporting this did not represent a significant inaccuracy. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

14.  The newspaper had relied on the reporter’s experience in Barbados, the opinions of residents and tourists she had spoken to, as well as a number of articles written by local publications as a basis for the broader claims made in the article. The newspaper had provided a statement from the Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association, warning that the effect of the ongoing sewage issue on tourism could be “disastrous.” In these circumstances, the newspaper was entitled to report that the sewage incident was having a negative effect on tourism. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

15. Local media reports supported the newspaper’s position that there was “perceived corruption” in Barbados. While the complainant was concerned that the article had reported on claims made by one, partisan news source, the article had made clear that these concerns came from local media and residents, and had accurately reported these concerns.  The newspaper was entitled to report these claims, and doing so did not represent a breach of Clause 1.Also, the country’s Banker’s Association had called for the government to agree a loan with the IMF, this supported the article’s claim that it was widely believed that Barbados had no option but to agree a loan with the IMF. Reporting this was not inaccurate in breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

16.  The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

17. N/A

Date complaint received: 20/03/2018
Date decision issued: 21/05/2018