Ruling

02441-22 Dimond v Sittingbourne News Extra

    • Date complaint received

      23rd February 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02441-22 Dimond v Sittingbourne News Extra

Summary of Complaint

1. Ronald Dimond complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Sittingbourne News Extra breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Legion branch suspended amid probe into finances”, published on 3 November 2021.

2. The article reported that “Sittingbourne’s Royal British Legion (RBL) branch ha[d] been suspended leaving Swale council to step in and to save the town’s Remembrance Day service”. It said that the event had been put in “jeopardy” after the branch had been placed into “’temporary county administration’ due to a row over its bank accounts”. The article included a number of quotes from a named local councillor about the matter, who “was vice-chairman of Sittingbourne and Milton RBL”. The article included further comments from the councillor, including one where he had said: “It’s madness. I don’t know how much is in it but it isn’t even a lot of money. I don’t think there’s anything untoward but members ought to know what the account is being used for. They are very unhappy. I am concerned they will not return when the branch is reactivated”. The article went on to report that the branch had been suspended after an order to close a members’ account was ignored; it reported that the councillor had said: “As far as I can tell, it’s down to the stubbornness, intransigence and selfishness of one of the signatories. It is very annoying.”

3. The article then went on to state that it was “understood” that the members’ account in question was set up “more than 40 years ago” alongside the main branch account and that “[u]nder new rules, branches are now only permitted to have one account bearing the British Legion name”. The article reported that it “understood the branch was instructed to close the members’ account and transfer the money to the main account. In a compromise, the branch voted to change the name of the controversial account but even then one of two signatories refused to comply”. It concluded with a quote from branch President Ronald Dimond, the complainant, who said: “All I can tell you is that I had cause to contact RBL head office for their advice and I am currently awaiting their reply”.

4. The article also appeared online in a similar format as the print article, under the headline “Royal British Legion suspends Sittingbourne branch in bank account probe ahead of Remembrance Sunday”, on 29 October 2021. The online article described Swale council as having “stepped in at the last minute to organise the annual event”. However, this version of the article did not originally have the complainant’s comment included at the end. Rather, the comment was added after the complainant contacted the publication on 1 November 2021.

5. The online version of the article also included further information that was not in the print article. It stated that “[a]n audit of the branch accounts is underway with county officials consulting with the bank” and that “[a] national RBL spokesman confirmed the branch had been taken into ‘temporary county administration’ while a review was conducted but refused to give any more details”. It also included a further quote from the councillor, who said that “I raised the matter when I was chairman and said we couldn’t continue to have both accounts. I stood down as chairman because of increased council work and then Covid came along. Now questions are being asked”

6. The online article also included a screenshot of the RBL Sittingbourne and Milton branch website, which showed an update stating that the branch had been taken into County Administration due to “recent events within the Branch” and that “this [was] a temporary measure to enable County to complete a full review”.

7. The complainant – the President of the Sittingbourne and Milton RBL Branch, and one of the two custodians and signatories of the members’ bank account – first contacted the newspaper directly, to make it aware of his concerns on 29 October. At that time he told the publication that he considered the original online article to be inaccurate, however he did not specify which aspects of the article were inaccurate. The publication asked the complainant for more information on the matter prior to the print article being published. The complainant explained that, as Branch President, he had cause to contact the RBL head office for their advice on a situation that had arisen within the branch and was awaiting their response.

8. The online article had been updated in response to that dialogue, with the following sentence being added to the end of the online article: “Branch president Ron Dimond said: ‘All I can tell you is that as branch president I had cause to contact Royal British Legion head office for their advice on a situation that had arisen within the branch and I am currently awaiting their reply’”. After the online article was updated and the print article had been published, the complainant got in contact with the publication and said that he was ready to speak with them about the matter and agreed to an in-person interview in February 2022, along with another member of the branch’s committee. A follow-up article was subsequently drafted by the publication, however the complainant and his fellow committee member later decided they did not want this to be published. The complainant then decided to write a ‘Letter for the Editor’ for publication in response to the article. The publication attempted to address the complainant’s concerns and they corresponded over a number of emails and a final version of the letter was agreed upon and published on 23 March 2022.

9. The complainant did not consider the action taken by the publication was sufficient to address his concerns, and contacted IPSO.

10. The complainant said that both articles contained a number of inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. He said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that Swale council “stepped in at the last minute to organise the annual event in Central Avenue after the Legion’s Sittingbourne and Milton branch was closed down in a row over two bank accounts.” He said that the council did not step in at the last minute; the branch had been placed into temporary administration six weeks before the article was published and that it was the responsibility of the local Civic Authority to organise the event. He added that RBL Head Office had previously issued their own guidelines reminding branch officials that they could not be event organisers and that this was the responsibility of the local Civic Authority.

11. The complainant further said that the branch was not closed down in a row over two bank accounts and said that he was in fact not aware of any official reason being given for the closure. He said that it was also inaccurate for the article to claim that an order to close the members’ account had been ignored, as no person at RBL head office had issued an order to close the account or transfer the money to the main account as it had no authority to do so.

12. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate to describe the councillor as someone who “was” branch vice-chairman, as the use of the past tense indicated that he was no longer in this position. He said that the councillor was still branch vice-chairman as far as he was aware. He also said that it was inaccurate to claim that the members’ account had been set up alongside the main branch more than 40 years ago as the account in question was set up in 2010.

13. The complainant said that a number of quotes given by the councillor were inaccurate. He said it was inaccurate for the councillor to have said: “It’s madness. I don’t know how much is in it but it isn’t even a lot of money. I don’t think that there’s anything untoward but members ought to know what the account is being used for. They are very unhappy. I am concerned they will not return when the branch is reactivated” as he considered this to be disingenuous as the councillor did not know how much money was in the account and all members were aware of what it was being used for. The complainant added that the councillor’s following quote was also inaccurate as there was no record of his having previously raised the subject: “I raised the matter when I was chairman and said we couldn’t continue to have both accounts. I stood down as chairman because of increased council work and then Covid came along. Now questions are being asked”.

14. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate to report that “[i]n a compromise, the branch voted to change the name of the controversial account but even then one of the two signatories refused to comply”, and to report the councillor’s comments regarding the reason why the vote had not succeeded: “As far as I can tell, it’s down to the stubbornness, intransigence and selfishness of one of the signatories. It is very annoying”. He said that this was the case as no such vote had taken place to change the name of the account. The complainant had said that there had been suggestions that they should change the name of the account, but this could not be done because the two alternative names suggested were inadmissible and not acceptable to the bank. He also said that any new name must be approved by the members in a meeting, which could not take place due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

15. The complainant also raised concerns with further information in the article. He said that while the article stated that “[u]nder new rules, branches are now only permitted to have one account bearing the British Legion name”, the branch only had one account bearing the British Legion name. The complainant suggested that the article was misleading in its suggestion that there were two accounts bearing the British Legion name. The complainant also said that the statement that “[a]n audit of the branch accounts is underway with county officials consulting with the bank” had no relevance to the online article. He also that the article inaccurately reported that a “national RBL spokesman confirmed the branch had been taken into ‘temporary county administration’ while a review was conducted but refused to give any more details” because – if the RBL spokesperson refused to give any more details – the article should not have been published as it was just “guesswork”.

16. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It said that the main source of the article was a local councillor and former parliamentary candidate who was at the centre of the branch, and that it had no reason to question the accuracy of his account. It also said that it had tried to engage with the complainant after being contacted by him after the online article was published, and that it had tried to establish if there were any inaccuracies within the article and what action it could take to address the complainant’s concerns.

17.  The publication said that it had taken care over the accuracy of the article prior to publication: it had attempted to contact officers at the branch, including the chairman, but it received no response to its emails. It also said that it emailed the press officer at the Kent RBL and had left a voicemail for them, but also received no response. The publication provided copies of the emails containing these approaches, to demonstrate the care it had taken over the accuracy of the article.

18. The publication also provided a letter written jointly by the complainant and one of the branch committee members, which it had published in print in response to the article on 23 March 2022. The letter assured members that there were no problems with funds in either of the accounts but clarified that there were “matters concerning each [account] that have to be reconciled”. The letter went on to state that “RBL HO have said that we can no longer use the name or the initials of the RBL in the name of the account”.

19. In relation to the claim regarding the Remembrance Day service, it said that the councillor had told it that Swale Council had had to step in and that it had no reason to doubt his honesty. It also added that the publication had received a press release from the council – as opposed to the RBL branch itself – about the event and that all the contact details regarding the event were for council officers. The publication also provided a screenshot of the press release Swale Council sent regarding the Remembrance Day service, which stated that the Civic Service of Remembrance would be delivered by Swale Borough Council. It did not, therefore, consider that it could be inaccurate to report that the Council had had to “step in” to arrange the service.

20. In regard to the claim that the branch was closed down over the two bank accounts, the publication said that this claim had also come from the councillor. It noted that the branch’s website appeared to support this claim, as it said the branch had been taken into County Administration due to “recent events within the Branch”. It said that the councillor had also informed it that the branch had been instructed to close the members’ account and transfer the money to the main account. It also added that – after speaking with the complainant after the initial print and online articles were published – he had informed the publication that his understanding was it was regarding a name change of the account. It also added that the complainant had been in touch with the publication after the online article was originally published and said that it was inaccurate, however he did not get into specifics regarding what was incorrect within the article.

21. The publication said that the councillor had informed it that he was previously branch vice-chairman and that it would have no reason to question this information. It also said that, where the councillor was vice-chairman until the branch was suspended, this description was factually correct. It further said that the councillor had told the publication that the members’ account had been set up alongside the main account 40 years ago and that the branch had voted to change the name, but one of the signatories did not comply. It said that this information was only contradicted in February 2022 when the complainant provided a letter to be published in the newspaper and was interviewed for a follow-up article, which he later decided against. It said that the complainant appeared to be correct that no vote had taken place as there had been no meetings; it was unable to vote on this matter and instead the decision had been recommended by executive officers who came up with an alternative name.

22. In regard to the comments given by the councillor, the publication said that these were accurately quoted from the councillor, who was an individual involved in the branch who had knowledge of the issues. It said that these were not the views of the publication and were the thoughts and comments of the councillor, which were clearly distinguished as such through the use of quotation marks.

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.

Findings of the Committee

23. The Committee first considered the complainant’s concerns that it was inaccurate for the article to claim that Swale Council had “stepped in at the last minute” to organise the Remembrance Day event. The complainant did not dispute that the council had organised the event and had accepted that the branch had been placed into temporary administration six weeks before the article. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that it was the responsibility of the local Civic Authority to organise the event, and noted that the publication had said that the councillor had told it that Swale Council had had to step in. The Committee considered that the publication had taken care over this claim; it had relied on information from a source closely involved with the branch. In addition, where the event was organised by the council, and without the assistance of the RBL branch, the Committee did not consider it was significantly inaccurate or misleading to state that Swale Council had “stepped in”. Further, while the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concerns with the phrase “last minute” given that the branch had been placed into temporary administration six weeks before, it did not consider this amounted to a significant inaccuracy within the context of the article, and where it was not in dispute that Swale Council had organised the event. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

24. The publication said that the councillor had informed it that the branch had been closed in response to issues over the two bank accounts, and that it had subsequently contacted the chairman at the branch and the press officer at Kent RBL for comment to verify the information. The Committee therefore considered that the publication had taken care over the accuracy of this information; it had relied on a source who was directly involved with the branch and had approached a number of other relevant individuals for comment regarding the matter but had received no response. Further, the Committee noted that the complainant was not aware of the reason why the branch had been placed under ‘temporary county administration’ and was speculating when he claimed that it was not connected to the bank accounts. The actions of the publication demonstrated due care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information and there was no breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point. In addition, where the complainant was not aware of the true position, the Committee did not identify an inaccuracy that required correction under Clause 1 (ii).

25. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concerns that the article had described the councillor as someone who “was” branch vice-chairman, as opposed to “is”, which he considered indicated that he no longer held the position. The Committee noted that at the time the article was published the branch was under County administration and therefore no meetings or activities were occurring within the branch. There was therefore a level of ambiguity of the status of the branch’s officers in any case. Further, the publication had said that the councillor had described himself in these terms. For these reasons, the Committee considered that it was not inaccurate or misleading for the article to state that he “was vice-chairman”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

26. The complainant had said that the article inaccurately stated that the members’ account had been set up alongside the main account over 40 years ago, whereas he said it had been set up more recently in 2010. The publication said that this information had been provided by the councillor, which it was entitled to rely on. The Committee did not consider that the difference between reporting that the account had been set up 40 years ago or whether it had been set up over ten years ago amounted to a significant inaccuracy in the context of the article, where the focus of the article was on the temporary suspension of the branch and this was only a passing reference and its age did not affect the key elements of the story. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

27. The complainant had considered that several comments attributed to the councillor were inaccurate: “It’s madness. I don’t know how much is in it but it isn’t even a lot of money. I don’t think that there’s anything untoward but members ought to know what the account is being used for. They are very unhappy. I am concerned they will not return when the branch is reactivated”; and “I raised the matter when I was chairman and said we couldn’t continue to have both accounts. I stood down as chairman because of increased council work and then Covid came along. Now questions are being asked”. In relation to the quotes in question, the Committee noted that these were clearly distinguished as the councillor’s opinions. The Committee noted that the complainant considered the first quote to be disingenuous as opposed to inaccurate, and the comment was clearly distinguished as conjecture. In relation to the second quote, the Committee noted that the complainant had said that there was no record of the councillor having raised the matter, however the complainant was not in a position to know whether the councillor had ever raised it an informal manner as opposed to on the record. The quotes were clearly distinguished as comment, and the publication was entitled to report the councillor’s own recollections and opinions. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

28. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concerns that it was inaccurate for the article to have claimed that “[i]n a compromise, the branch voted to change the name of the controversial account but even then one of the two signatories refused to comply”. The complainant had said that a vote had not taken place to change the name of the account, but there had been suggestions that the account name should be changed. He said this could not be done as the two alternative names were inadmissible and any new name must be approved by the members in a meeting, which had not taken place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Committee noted that the publication had said that the complainant appeared to be correct as there had been no meetings and that in fact the suggestion had been recommended by executive officers of the branch. However, the Committee did not consider that there was a meaningful difference between executive officers at the branch suggesting a name change that was not then actioned and members of the branch voting to change the name but that decision not being actioned for different reasons. The key points were not in dispute: that it had been suggested that the account name should be changed, but that this had not been agreed upon. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

29. The complainant had also raised a number of other concerns with the article. In regard to the following section, “[u]nder new rules, branches are now only permitted to have one account bearing the British Legion name”, while the complainant said that the branch only had one account bearing the British Legion name, he did not dispute the accuracy of the section identified. The Committee noted the complainant’s concerns and that he said that only one account bore the British Legion name, however, he did not provide any further information or evidence to clarify his position, and the Committee was unable to identify an inaccuracy regarding this point. Further, while the complainant considered that it was irrelevant to mention that an audit of the branch accounts was underway, he also did not dispute that this information was accurate. The Committee noted that the complainant considered the article should not have been published, given that a spokesperson from the RBL head office had refused to give any more details. The Committee noted that it is at the editorial discretion of publications what the focus of its articles are. For these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

Conclusion(s)

30. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

31. N/A


Date complaint received: 11/04/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 21/02/2023


Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Reviewer recommended, on the ground of fairness, that on the complainant be given sight of two documents which were not originally passed to him due to an administrative error.