Ruling

02521-14 Three Rivers District Council v Watford Observer

    • Date complaint received

      20th March 2015

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

   Decision of the Complaints Committee 02521-14 Three Rivers District Council v Watford Observer

Summary of complaint 

1. Three Rivers District Council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Watford Observer had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Council needs to borrow to fund initiative” published on 21 November 2014 in print and 20 November 2014 online.

2. The article reported claims that Three Rivers District Council might need to borrow money to buy out home and business owners as part of a regeneration project in South Oxhey. These claims were attributed to “a council source” in print and to a “council official” in the original online version of the article.

3. The complainant said it was known that the source of the story was a councillor and a member of an opposition political party. The description of the source in the article was therefore misleading; it failed to distinguish the source from a non-political council officer or member of the administration. The attribution of the claim to a “council official” online was, in this sense, a particularly significant error.

4. The complainant said that the information published came from a leaked confidential report; publication had been potentially damaging to the outcome of the project.

5. The newspaper acknowledged that the term “council official” was misleading. This had been removed from the print copy before publication; however, unfortunately, had not been corrected online. The online article was initially amended to read “a councillor who did not wish to be named”; however, this was subsequently revised to refer instead to a “council source”. The newspaper offered to publish the following correction as a footnote:

This report originally used the words, “council official”, in describing the person expressing concern over the council’s financial policy on the South Oxhey Initiative. We have accepted these words are misleading and have replaced them with the words, “council source”.

6. The newspaper did not believe that the term “council source” was misleading where it was used to refer to either a councillor or council officer; it did not accept that it was required to state the political affiliation of the source to ensure accuracy. The newspaper did not therefore accept that the print version of the article required correction.

Relevant Code Provisions

7. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information including pictures.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.

Findings of the Committee

8. The newspaper had acknowledged that its source was a councillor rather than a council official. Attributing the claims it published to a council official in the online article gave a misleading impression of the source of the criticism of the council’s decision: it suggested that this came from a member of the council’s executive rather than a political figure. The Committee was mindful of the fact that readers might take the criticism more seriously if it came from a non-partisan source, as it was less likely to have party-political motives. The Committee did not consider that the choice of language in the online article demonstrated a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article; nonetheless, this had resulted in the publication of a statement which could have significantly misled readers. This required correction under Clause 1 (ii).  In the Committee’s view, the wording offered by the newspaper was sufficient to comply with its obligations under Clause 1 (ii); in order to avoid a breach of the Code, this must now be published.

9. The term “council source”, which appeared in the print edition, simply indicated that the source of the claims published was associated with the council. In the context of the article, this was not a misleading term to describe a councillor even if – as the complainant contended – that councillor had been a member of an opposition party.

Conclusions

10. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 15/12/2014

Date decision issued: 20/03/2015