Ruling

02615-18 Thurrock Council v Thurrock Independent

    • Date complaint received

      26th July 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02615-18 Thurrock Council v Thurrock Independent

Summary of complaint

1. Thurrock Council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Thurrock Independent breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “COUNCIL OF SECRECY & CONTEMPT”, published on 25 January 2018.

2. The article, which was described as “Page one comment”, said that the council “refuses to answer questions about its waste, incompetence and accountability”. It said that the newspaper had wanted to tell its readers how much money the council had “wasted through its shambolic and incompetent mismanagement of the borough’s pay parking system”. It also said it wanted to tell them why the council “has arbitrarily and apparently without consultation announced it is to extend contracts with [taxi companies] for getting…youngsters to and from school”; why “a family with a two-year-old have been housed in what are described as pitiful conditions”; and why the council’s CEO “took to the national media to dish the dirt on one of its former contract holders”.

3. The article said that there were other questions for the council to answer – which had been submitted to the council’s press officers. It said that the newspaper wanted to give the council the opportunity to respond to the stories above, but “despite having days to respond, it repeatedly declines to do so.” It said that the council “treats the media with contempt” and that its actions begged the question “what has this incompetent council got to hide?”.

4. The complainant said that, although the piece was marked as comment, it was misleading: the council had not refused to answer any of the enquiries made by the publication, despite the fact that some of these required lengthy responses. The council had not been made aware, through any formal channels, of the intention to run the piece, or that it was being based on media enquiries submitted that week. The enquiry regarding parking had already been addressed in a full statement more than a week previously; the housing query had been answered in time for the print deadline on Wednesday 24th January; and the accusation regarding the CEO was not a query for the council to answer, as it related to material published elsewhere. The article’s suggestion that a delay in responding indicated incompetence or ‘contempt’ was tenuous – a response can take time to be collated, and judgements need to be made regarding which enquiries merit responses.

5. The publication said that it had notified the council’s press officer by phone on the morning of 24th January of its intention to run the comment piece, and had provided a copy of the front page proposed, but did not receive a response. Had it received a response, this would have been included; because none was received, the article was flagged as “comment”. The publication also said that the council’s press office had confirmed on 23rd January that comments on the parking and taxi issues, and the CEO, were required before the print deadline.

6.The publication provided emails to and from the council in the period before the article was published. In respect of the parking story, it had asked a week before the article was published “how much this farce has cost the council”; this question was reiterated the day before the publication deadline of 1pm on 24th January. For the taxi story, the publication had asked, on the 22nd January, for “an explanation of the thinking behind the policy, a correction of my understanding if what has happened if I am wrong and a clear statement of policy to be undertaken by the council through the next few months”. With regard to the housing story, the publication had asked on 23rd January for “a council comment on the standard of care being provided by the…homeless hostel”, which it requested for the same day; a response had not been received until 13.54 on the day of publication – after the print deadline. Regarding the council’s CEO, the publication had stated on 22nd January that “it might be worth the council issuing a statement qualifying the situation”, and had asked “can you confirm that in disclosing the information [the CEO] has not inadvertently broken the terms of that agreement”.

7. The complainant denied that the council had received clear requests for comment on the points as they were presented in the article. It was not accurate to say that the council had “refused to answer questions”: answers had previously been provided, or questions had not been clearly asked. The fact that the editor had sent a copy of the proposed front page to a council press officer on the morning of publication did not represent a media enquiry, as it did not come through any of the agreed formal channels.

8. In respect of the parking issue, the complainant said that it had told the publication on 16 January that details of the contract were commercially sensitive, and would not be released; the publication’s further requests for comment did not change this position. With respect to the CEO, the complainant said that the publication had not asked a clear question of the council in its email of 22 January; the press officer had asked for clarification, which had not been provided, and no deadline had been given. The publication had also said that it was “Not bothered about the [CEO] stuff unless I get some releases from Labour”. In any event, the claim that the “council’s chief executive took to the national media to dish the dirt one of its former contract holders” was not the claim that had been made in the publication’s email requesting comment. On the housing point, the publication had not suggested at any point that the request for comment was for inclusion in that week’s paper, and this was not referenced by the editor when the press officer composed a list of issues requiring comment for that week’s edition.

9. The publication said that it had responded to the council’s request for clarification regarding the question on the CEO, and provided an email which provided extensive detail, and included the question “on what basis does [the CEO] feel qualified to make those remarks”.

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

10. The publication had communicated questions to the complainant in some form in relation to each of the points addressed in the article; in each case, the question had been presented at least 24 hours prior to the print deadline. There was no suggestion that the complainant was unaware of this deadline, and the council’s press officer had confirmed her understanding that comment was required for three of the issues referred to for this deadline. The request for comment on the fourth issue (housing) was clearly presented, and contained a clear deadline.

11. The publication had asked about the cost of the parking ‘fiasco’ on two occasions; no answer on this specific point had been received. On the taxi story, the question asked had been less clear-cut – an “explanation” had been asked for - but again, despite the press officer’s confirmation that a comment was required, none had been received. On the housing issue, a clear request for comment had been made the day prior to the deadline, and a clear answer had been received; however, this came after the print deadline. With respect to the CEO, the question had again been less clearly presented, but the publication had asked whether the CEO had broken the terms of an agreement, and no answer had been received on this point. While some of the questions asked appeared to be requests for information, rather than requests for comment, the council had not raised this as a concern with the publication, or raised a contemporary concern about the nature of the enquiries.

12. The Committee had some concerns about the way in which the publication communicated with the council. There was a large volume of correspondence, much of which was not relevant to the requests made; some of the questions asked were unclear, and, in some emails, questions were hidden within extensive commentary. Notwithstanding these concerns, the publication had not received responses to the questions it had asked in time for the print deadline. In these circumstances, it was entitled to characterise the council’s behaviour as a “refusal” to answer questions. There was no failure to take care over this claim, such as would breach Clause 1(i), and there was no significant inaccuracy such as would require correction under Clause 1(ii). Similarly, the characterisation of the complainant as a “council of secrecy & contempt” and the claim that it “treats the media with contempt” were plainly the publication’s own characterisations, presented within a comment piece, the basis for which was made clear. The publication was entitled to express its own editorial position, which was clearly flagged as such, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

13. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

14. N/A

Date complaint received: 26/03/2018

Date decision issued: 05/06/2018