Ruling

02828-18 Lovell v Worthing Herald

    • Date complaint received

      27th September 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02828-18 Lovell v Worthing Herald

Summary of complaint

1. Deborah Lovell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Worthing Herald breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Man arrested after six crews tackle blaze”, published on 28 March 2018

2. The article said that fire crews were called “to tackle a fire which had broken out in the loft of a two storey house”. It said that, subsequently, a man had been arrested on suspicion of cultivating cannabis, “after a number of plants believed to be cannabis were found in the property”. The article said that police said that the man had been “detained, questioned and accepted a caution”. It went on to say that “an investigation into the fire found it was of accidental ignition, a spokesman from the fire service confirmed”. The article was published in the same format online on the same day, and was headlined “Man arrested after Durrington house fire as ‘cannabis plants’ found”. 

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate, in breach of Clause 1(Accuracy): no plants had been found at her house, and the fire had started on the landing and spread to the loft, according to communications she had received from the fire service after the completion of its investigation. The complainant said that the man, her partner, had been cautioned in relation to an historic offence relating to the cultivation of cannabis eight years previously, which bore no relation to the house fire.

4. The publication denied that the article was inaccurate. It had been based on a statement issued by the police on the morning of publication, which stated that “A man was arrested on suspicion of cultivating cannabis following a fire…A number of plants believed to be cannabis were found in the property. [A man] was detained, questioned and accepted a caution”. On receiving the complaint, the publication had asked the police to confirm this information, and it had done so. The information regarding the location of the fire had come from an oral statement made by the county council on behalf of the fire service; the publication had a shorthand note of this conversation which stated that the fire was “in the loft space”. In response to the complaint, the publication had asked the council to check the fire service’s log of the incident; it had confirmed that the fire “did start in the loft”. The publication denied that it was misleading to omit that the offence for which the man was cautioned related to actions eight years prior; the police had in any case not referred to this in their statement. Notwithstanding the above, the publication said that it would be happy to amend the article, or issue a clarification, if the complainant were able to provide formal confirmation of the alleged inaccuracies.

5. The complainant said that she had complained to both the police and fire service that the information they had provided to the publication was inaccurate. During the course of IPSO’s investigation, she provided a response from the police which stated that its initial press statement had been misleading. The response said that the police had found twelve plant pots with plant stems which were unidentifiable; it went on to describe how “some dried plant was found in one of the pots which was identified to be cannabis, and [the man] confirmed this to be the case…which led to him receiving a caution”. The complainant said this supported her position that the article was inaccurate: no living cannabis plants had been found at the property, and only a single dead plant. She also provided a response from the fire service, in which it apologised to her for having released a statement prior to the completion of investigative work into the origin of the fire.

6. In response to the information the complainant provided, the publication received an additional statement from the county council and fire service confirming that the fire started on the first floor. In response to this statement, the publication removed the reference to the loft from the article, and added the following clarification:

Clarification: This article originally stated the fire had broken out in the loft of the property, as stated by the fire service at the time. West Sussex County Council made a further statement on Tuesday, June 26, 2018, regarding the fire. A spokeswoman said: “According to the log of the incident we would have said there was a fire in the roof space. Any briefing was given in good faith at the time. As it was a telephone briefing it is hard for us to know the exact wording of the information given at the time about the source of the fire. We can confirm that our fire investigator has since concluded that the fire started on the first floor and travelled in a concealed cavity to the roof space.”

7. In response to the police response to the complainant, the publication offered to amend the article headline to say ‘cannabis plant’ in the singular; to amend the text to state that the man had been arrested “after part of a dried cannabis plant was found in the property”; and to append the following clarification to the article in addition to the one above:

Additionally, this article originally stated that ‘a number of plants believed to be cannabis were found in the property’; this was based on a statement made by the police at the time, which the Herald reported accurately and in good faith. The police have since confirmed that twelve plant pots were found at the property, containing unidentifiable plant stems, but that only one of these pots contained dried cannabis plant. The owner of the property has also informed us that the offence for which the man was cautioned took place eight years prior to the fire.

8. The complainant said that this offer was unsatisfactory, because it did not include an apology.

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.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

9. The claim that the fire had started in the loft had been taken from an oral statement provided by the fire service, and the publication was able to provide a shorthand note of this conversation. The fire service had subsequently confirmed that this original statement was accurate. There was therefore no failure to take care over the accuracy of this claim, in breach of Clause 1(i). The complainant had subsequently provided a further communication from the fire service, apologising for this initial statement being issued, and the publication had obtained confirmation from the fire service that the fire had started on the first floor. However, the Committee did not consider that the exact origin of the fire was significant in the context of the article, and the original article had not therefore contained a significant inaccuracy that required correction under Clause 1(ii). The Committee nevertheless welcomed the steps the publication had taken to amend and clarify this point in the article.

10. The claim that “a number of plants believed to be cannabis were found in the property” had come from a police statement, which the police had subsequently confirmed to be accurate. Again, there was therefore no failure to take care over the accuracy of this claim, in breach of Clause 1(i). The complainant had subsequently obtained a more detailed account of the incident from the police, which had shown that one dried cannabis plant was found, along with twelve unidentified plant stems. In circumstances where the police had found dried cannabis plant matter, and the complainant’s partner had accepted a caution for an historic offence of cultivating cannabis, the exact number of plants found was not significant, and the article did not give rise to a significantly misleading impression that required correction under Clause 1(ii). This was particularly the case where the article stated that the plants were “believed to be” cannabis, rather than asserting this as definitively proven.

11. The complainant said that her partner had accepted a caution in relation to an attempt to cultivate cannabis eight years previously. The plant matter had only come to light at the time of the fire. As the initial police statement and subsequent official correspondence made no reference to the timing of the offence, there was no failure to take care over the omission of this information, and no breach of Clause 1(i). However, in the context of the story as a whole, the omission of the complainant’s position that the offence was of a historic nature had the potential to give a misleading impression of the events surrounding the fire, which required clarification to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). The publication had offered to publish, as a footnote to the online article, a clarification which made clear the complainant’s position on this point. This had been offered promptly once the publication had been made aware of the complainant’s position, and was of sufficient prominence, given that the police had not confirmed the complainant’s account of this offence in their statements on the matter. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii), and the relevant section of this clarification should now be published.

Conclusions

12. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

13. The publication had offered to publish a clarification to the online article which made clear the complainant’s conviction that her partner’s conviction had related to offences committed eight years previously. This was sufficient to address the misleading impression in the article, and had been offered with sufficient promptness and prominence; there was no breach of Clause 1(ii), and the relevant parts of the offered clarification should now be published.

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.

Date complaint received: 04/04/2018 

Date decision issued: 09/08/2018