Ruling

02488-22 The Duke of Northumberland v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      21st November 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02488-22 The Duke of Northumberland v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. The Duke of Northumberland complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Duke accused of £600,000 rent demand for rail line”, published on 17 December 2021.

2. The article reported on a public inquiry relating to a proposal for a train line “intended to serve deprived and cut-off communities in northeastern England”, which it stated the complainant was “allegedly threatening to block”. The article explained that the proposed train line would cross land subject to “wayleave” rules, which allow building or access to land in exchange for money, sometimes in the form of rent. The article quoted a lawyer representing Northumberland County Council, the promoter of the scheme, who was reported to have said: “This has culminated in the Duke of Northumberland twice threatening to terminate the wayleaves in a dispute over rent, including after this application was made, with an extraordinary demand for more than £600,000 in rent”. The article stated that “Representatives of the duke deny that he is trying to block the train line and says he is ‘fully supportive’ of it” and that Northumberland Estates had also denied allegations that it was blocking the proposed line. The article contained a statement from the Estate which said: “We are and always have been fully supportive of the project and have already agreed the access and land requirements for the rail line and new facilities with the county council. Unfortunately, we have a separate and a long running dispute with Network Rail, who are attempting to claim private property rights without appropriate consultation and compensation. This disagreement is with Network Rail alone, who have been intransigent for decades, and is the only element of dispute for us.” The article also contained quotes from members of the public who had accused the complainant “of being ‘money-grabbing’ and dubbed [him] ‘Scrooge McDuke’”, as well as longer quote from a named business manager: “[f]or the duke to be holding out for more than half a million in rent every year is an absolute disgrace. It’s money-grabbing, plain and simple”.

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline “Duke of Northumberland accused of £600,000 rent demand for rail line”.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that neither he, nor the Northumberland Estates, had ever demanded any money in return for allowing the development of the passenger train line to go ahead, or for passenger trains to pass through land owned by the Estate. He also said that this was not the position of Northumberland County Council at the planning inquiry. The complainant therefore said it was inaccurate to report  that he had been accused of demanding an annual rent of £600,000 in relation to the proposed rail line. The complainant said that the sums which might become payable under the wayleave agreement were not considered  by the Council as having the potential to stop the scheme, nor was it the Council’s position that the new passenger service would be unable to run unless the obligation to make payment  under the wayleave agreement was removed. The complainant said he had objected to the removal of his right to receive payment under the wayleave agreement  and that during the planning inquiry, the Estate had offered an undertaking not to exercise powers of re-entry or forfeiture in the case of late or non-payment of rent.

5. The complainant said the Estate had always been supportive of the scheme for the new passenger railway line, and that a sum of £590,376 (reported in the article as £600,000) was being sought by the Estate from Network Rail in relation to the operation of freight services on the line; this was a separate matter.  The complainant said that payment of this sum was not a condition of the proposed passenger line going ahead. He said that it was appropriate for the publication both to correct the article and to provide an apology.

6. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said it had received the report of the inquiry proceedings from what it described as an independent and reputable news agency. It said that as nothing in the copy gave it cause to doubt the accuracy of the information, it did not take any further steps to verify the information and it was entitled to rely on the agency report. The publication said the matter reported in the article was of significant and continuing public interest and noted that the Estate’s position on the matter was included in the article, which it said clarified the complainant’s position that the Estate was supportive of the scheme; that it denied “blocking” it; and that the dispute with Network Rail was separate.

7. The publication did, however, accept that the original version of the article contained some inaccuracies. It said that the agency reporter had misunderstood the Council’s submission at the public inquiry and accepted that the £600,000 figure referred to a dispute involving the complainant and a separate rail project. However, it said that this conflation did not make the article significantly inaccurate. The publication said that, at the public inquiry, the Estate had objected to the inclusion of draft order Article 34 – which would have replaced the rent payable to the Estate under the wayleave agreement with the payment of a lump sum in compensation – and that the effect of Article 34, if adopted, would be that the Estate would not receive a continuing financial benefit from the scheme. The publication said, therefore, that whilst there had been no express demand for rent at the inquiry, the complainant’s defence of his right to receive an increase in rent and the right to block the line if this was not received, could accurately be characterised as an implicit demand. The publication said that, whilst there was no definitive figure of the rent which would be payable under the wayleave agreement, it had calculated the value to the Estate of removing Article 34, and that according to its calculations the sum would be several hundred thousands of pounds a year, which it said was not significantly different from the reported figure of £600,000; it provided details of how it had arrived at this figure. The publication said that the inclusion of the Network Rail dispute was relevant as it demonstrated that the Estate had, in the past, shown that it was prepared to close access in order to enforce wayleave rights. The publication said it did not consider that readers would have understood the article to mean that the complainant had threatened to block the train line unless he was paid £600,000 in rent.

8. Whilst the publication did not consider that the article breached Clause 1, it amended the article. The new headline read: “Duke of Northumberland accused of ‘money-grabbing rent demand for rail line” and the article was amended to report that the complainant was: “allegedly entitled to block a new train line […] if the rent is not paid” and “allegedly demanding a six-figure sum in annual rent”. In addition, the quote from the named business manager had been changed to remove the reference to “half a million” and now stated that: “For the duke to be holding out for more in rent every year is an absolute disgrace. It’s money-grabbing, plain and simple”. The publication said the changes by themselves represented sufficient remedial action. However, it had offered to publish a clarification two months after the complainant raised his concerns, and added a clarification to the print version of the newspaper on page 32, and to the online version of the article on 11 April, three and a half months later. The publication said the clarification addressed the points raised by the complainant, and included an apology:

We reported (News, Dec 17) representations made by the Duke of Northumberland at a public inquiry into the proposed new passenger train line between Ashington and Newcastle: the Northumberland Line. The duke was objecting to the removal of his right to charge rent for the line to cross his land and to block the line in the event that rent is not paid. We wish to make clear that no demand for any sum in rent has been made by the duke for allowing the new line to cross his land and he has not threatened to block the line. We apologise for the inaccuracies.

9. The complainant said that the revised version of the article was still inaccurate and reiterated that no “demand” for rent had been made, and that an undertaking not to exercise powers of re-entry or forfeiture had been offered. The complainant also said that the publication’s calculations as to what the rent would be were not accurate. The complainant said that in circumstances where it was not true that he was demanding over half a million pounds in rent, the business manager’s comment had been given on a false basis and was inaccurate. He also said that it was misleading for the publication to change the quote unilaterally, and that the amended comment should no longer be published.

10. The publication said that the complainant had not explained the reasons behind his objection to Article 34, and that the most reasonable interpretation of the complainant’s position was so that he could require the payment of rent from the scheme, and to preserve his right to be able to threaten or take steps that could risk the operation of the railway. With regard to the quote, the publication said it had not spoken to the business manager directly, and that the original quote had been included in the agency report. It said it was not certain how the quote was obtained, but given the context, considered it likely that the basis for the quote was that the complainant was demanding £600,000 in rent. However, it maintained that where its calculation of the rent which the complainant could expect to receive suggested a figure within the region of “half a million”, it did not consider the quote to be significantly misleading, but deleted the reference to “half a million” once it became aware of the complainant’s position.

11. The publication said that the demand for increased rent and the threat to block the line were correctly presented as allegations in the article – not facts – and were correctly attributed to both the Council at the public inquiry and to concerned local residents. It also said they were balanced by the inclusion of statements on behalf of the complainant, which set out his position.

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

12. The article was a report of a public inquiry in relation to a proposal to reintroduce a passenger train service to a railway line which ran through the complainant’s land. It was accepted that, as part of this inquiry the Northumberland County Council had requested that the wayleave right enjoyed by the complainant be revised so that rent was not payable, but that compensation would be provided instead. During the inquiry, the complainant’s position was that the wayleave arrangements should not be revised in the way proposed, and that the right to receive rent should remain; however, the Estate had offered an undertaking not to exercise powers of re-entry or forfeiture in the case of late or non-payment of rent.

13. The Committee noted that the publication had not attended the inquiry itself, but had received the report from an agency. Newspapers are entitled to use reports provided by agencies, but in doing so they are nevertheless responsible for taking care to ensure that information contained in the published copy is not inaccurate, misleading or distorted.

14. Both versions of the article had reported that the complainant was accused of making a “rent demand” for the proposed passenger rail line – with the original version of the article reporting that the sum demanded was £600,000 and the revised version reporting that it was a six-figure sum. The Committee reviewed the documents that had been supplied in relation to the public inquiry, and in particular those that recorded the complainant’s position, namely that he objected to the right to receive rent under the wayleave agreement being removed. The publication had argued that seeking to preserve his right to receive rent could be accurately characterised as a “demand”, albeit one that was implicit. The Committee did not accept this. It considered that objecting to the removal of a pre-existing right to receive rent was significantly different to a demand for rent, and noted that the publication had not provided any evidence that the complainant had been accused of making a rent demand, either for £600,000 or a different six figure sum. The article had inaccurately reported that the complainant had made a rent demand and where the correct information was in the public domain, this amounted to a failure to take care under Clause 1(i).  Where  this inaccuracy was central to the article, this was a significant inaccuracy which required correction under Clause 1(ii).

15. The publication had made amendments to the online article. However, the complainant considered that the amended version remained in breach of Clause 1, as it still referred to a “demand” for rent; it did not consider the publication’s calculations as to what the rent would be to be accurate; and it still contained the quote from the named business manager, albeit with the reference to “more than half a million” having been deleted. As with the original version of the article, the reference to a “demand” for any figure remained inaccurate, and constituted a breach of Clause 1(i) requiring correction under Clause 1(ii).

16. With regard to the quote from the business manager, the publication had not been able to confirm how the quote had been obtained but, given the context, accepted that it was likely it had been given on the basis that the complainant was demanding £600,000 in rent. Where the quote had been given on a false premise, the Committee considered that it was misleading to include the original quote and the revised quote in the article – as whether the business manager would have held a similar opinion had he not been told that the complainant was demanding £600,000 in rent could not be determined. In publishing this quote, the publication had not taken sufficient care not to publish misleading information, and therefore amounted to a breach of Clause 1(i). Where the quote materially added to the impression that the complainant had made a demand for rent, which was not the position, this was significantly misleading and required correction under Clause 1(ii).

17. The publication had been made aware of the errors in the articles within a week of the articles’ publication, however, it took a further two months before it offered to publish a correction. With regards to the print article, a correction was published in the established corrections and clarifications column, which was duly prominent. However, whilst the correction clarified that “no demand for any sum in rent ha[d] been made”, it did not address the quote from the named business manager. In addition, where the publication had been made aware of the inaccuracies in the article within a week of its publication, a delay of two months before offering a correction was not duly prompt. The same correction was also published as a footnote to the online article and, as above, did not correct all the inaccuracies within the article, and the online article continued to contain inaccuracies which had not been corrected. On this basis, the article breached Clause 1(ii).

Conclusion(s)

18. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

19. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication; the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

20. The Committee had found that it was significantly inaccurate to report that the complainant had made a demand for rent, as well as reporting that this had been a six figure sum. It also considered that it was significantly misleading to include the business manager’s quote once it had been established that it was based on a false premise. The Committee had found a breach of Clause 1 (ii) given that the correction offered did not address all the inaccuracies and was not duly prompt. The appropriate remedy was, therefore, the publication of an upheld adjudication.

21. The headline of the adjudication must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against The Times and must refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed with IPSO in advance. The adjudication should be published on the same page as the original article, or further forward, in the print newspaper. It should also appear in full on the publication’s website with a link to the full adjudication (including the headline) appearing on the top half of the newspaper’s homepage, for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way.

22. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:

The Duke of Northumberland complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Duke accused of £600,000 rent demand for rail line”, published on 17 December 2021.

The complaint was upheld, and IPSO required The Times to publish this adjudication to remedy the breach of the Code.

The article reported on a public inquiry relating to a proposal for a passenger train line on the complainant’s land, which it stated the complainant was “allegedly threatening to block”. The article explained that the proposed train line would cross land subject to “wayleave” rules, which allow building or access to land in exchange for money, sometimes in the form of rent. It said the complainant had made “an extraordinary demand for more than £600,000 in rent” in order for the plan to go ahead. The article also contained a quote from a member of the public who said: “[f]or the duke to be holding out for more than half a million in rent every year is an absolute disgrace. It’s money-grabbing, plain and simple”.

The complainant said that the article was inaccurate as he had not demanded any money in return for allowing the development of the passenger train line to go ahead, or for passenger trains to pass through land owned by the Estate. He therefore said it was inaccurate to report that he had been accused of demanding an annual rent of £600,000 in relation to the proposed rail line. He also said it was misleading to include the quote from the member of public where it had been gained on the premise that a £600,000 demand for rent had been made.

IPSO noted that the complainant had objected to the right to receive rent under the wayleave agreement being removed. However, it found that objecting to the removal of a pre-existing right to receive rent was significantly different to a demand for rent and noted that the publication had not provided any evidence that the complainant had been accused of making a rent demand, either for £600,000 or a different sum. In addition, IPSO found it was significantly misleading to include a quote from a member of the public criticising the complainant gained from giving them this false information. Where the publication had not corrected all the information within the article and where the correction had only been offered two months after the original complaint, the publication had breached Clause 1(i) and Clause 1(ii).


Date complaint received: 14/04/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 31/10/2022