Ruling

02966-21 Fellows v warringtonguardian.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      24th March 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02966-21 Fellows v warringtonguardian.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Geoff Fellows complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that warringtonguardian.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Penketh Parish Council: Cllr told to ‘shut up’ in meeting”, published on 17 March 2021.

2. The online article reported on a “war of words” that had “erupted” between the complainant and another member of Penketh Parish council, with allegations of “bullying […] and the findings of an audit”. The article quoted claims by the other councillor after the meeting that “[the complainant] was clearly very angry that a question had been asked about his non-payment of VAT” for the hire by his business of a parish-owned pool. The other councillor said that she was “simply following instruction from the auditor, who is deeply concerned about this issue”, adding that “over seven years” the “amount owed [by the complainant was] around £4,500 with interest”. The other councillor said that “the investigating auditor has insisted that [the complainant be] invoiced, and if he declines to pay, the parish council (Penketh taxpayers) must pay the sum to HMRC, with further investigations to follow.” The article included a statement from the complainant responding to these allegations: “The auditors have confirmed to me that the only information provided to the council has been the interim audit report, which does not include any amount owed, would not include interest and does not state it has been insisted someone be invoiced. If transactions are declared vatable, in this instance they are owed by the parish council to HMRC, along with six other groups who operate in the same way”.

3. The complainant said the claims made by the other councillor were inaccurate and damaging; the payment for the pool hire had been VAT inclusive and he did not owe any money for VAT. The interim audit report, which the other councillor had referred to, did not show that sums were due from him, and the allegations were published without verification by the newspaper. Whilst he acknowledged that the newspaper had provided him with the opportunity to respond to the claims made prior to publication, he said the newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of this claim in breach of Clause 1.

4. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code.  It said that the article sat within the context of an ongoing dispute within the parish council – a context its readers were well aware of.  It stated that in this instance, unusually, it had provided copies of the article before publication to both the complainant and the other councillor concerned to give them a full opportunity to comment on the dispute. Both had provided lengthy statements that could not be printed in full, but it had summarised them fairly and accurately. It said that it was entitled to report the allegations by the other councillor and had not presented them as fact. It added that the interim audit report, which it had sight of after publication, made reference to a business not paying VAT and stated that this business should be invoiced for this: “Income testing identified regular invoices to a business for pool hire. It would appear that VAT has not been charged on this income and we have not seen evidence that the leisure centre have obtained evidence that this business is an eligible body that can be considered exempt from VAT under HMRC guidelines”. It also noted that this report recommended that the parish council “should review this issue and ensure that all VAT output has been accounted for and remitted to HMRC”.  The newspaper said that prior to publication, the Clerk and Chairman of the council had confirmed the amount due and that the business in question was run by the complainant – a point supported, in the view of the publication, by the minutes of the council meeting. 

5. Whilst the newspaper did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code, it offered the complainant a further right to reply via a letter to the Editor, in order to resolve his complaint. The complainant provided wording that outlined his position. However, the newspaper did not consider that this wording was appropriate as it included additional claims not referenced within the article under complaint.

6. During the course of the investigation, the complainant provided IPSO with the minutes from the Parish council meeting and the interim audit report in addition to audio recordings of conversations prior to publication with the author of the audit report and a tax adviser, respectively. The former confirmed that he did not know how much VAT the complainant owed, with the calculations cited not included within his report to the council. The complainant said that these conversations demonstrated that the claims made by the councillor were false; he did not owe around £4,500 with interest for the non-payment of VAT, nor did the interim report support this. 

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

7. The Editors’ Code of Practice makes clear that the press has the right to publish comments made by individuals, as long as publications take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and distinguishes between comment, conjecture and fact.

8. The article reported on a disagreement that occurred at a parish council meeting, and included comments from a councillor who said that the dispute was partly over the complainant’s non-payment of VAT in his capacity as a private business owner. Neither the audit report cited by the councillor, nor the opinion of the auditor expressed in the call with the complainant, supported this claim. The audit report did not state that the complainant had not paid VAT over a number of years to the tune of £4,500, plus interest. Instead, it identified that the paperwork held by the council did not adequately evidence the VAT position to satisfy the requirement of HMRC and recommended that this be addressed. The publication of these unsubstantiated claims represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information in breach of Clause 1 (i).

9. Notwithstanding this, the Committee had regard to the context of the article: the claims represented a continuation of a dispute that had occurred at a parish council meeting. Much of the article was composed of the opposing councillor’s comments – made to the newspaper after the event – on the exchange, which she alleged arose from discussion of the complainant’s non-payment of VAT in connection to his private business, and the complainant’s response to her account of the exchange. The comments of each party had been clearly presented as such and attributed respectively to the councillor and the complainant; they had not been adopted as fact by the publication. Furthermore, the Committee noted the steps taken by the newspaper, both prior to and following publication, to put the complainant’s position on record. It had provided the full comments of the councillor to the complaint prior to publication; indeed, it had provided a full draft of the article to him when requesting his response. It had then included much of his response, and all of his comments in relation to the payment of VAT. In addition, it had following publication, and upon receipt of the complaint, offered the complainant a further right of reply. It was a matter of regret that the parties had not been able to agree an appropriate form of words for the complainant’s reply, but the Committee considered that a fair opportunity to reply had been offered by the newspaper under the terms of Clause 1. There was no breach of Clause 1 (iii).

10. However, these were serious claims. The complainant was a councillor, who at the time of publication was seeking re-election, and these allegations suggested misconduct on his behalf. Though the Committee recognised that the complainant had been afforded an opportunity to reply to these allegations, this did not address the serious and unsubstantiated claim that he did not pay VAT. As such, a clarification was required to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii). In the absence of any offered clarification, there was a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusion(s)

11. The complaint was upheld in part under Clause 1. 

Remedial Action Required

12. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1 (i) and Clause 1 (ii), 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 an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

13. In coming to a view on the appropriate remedy in this case, the Committee considered the seriousness and extent of the breach of the Code. It noted the steps that had taken by the publication – both prior to and following publication – to provide the complainant with an opportunity to respond to the allegations made against him. In addition to the wider context of the article, it noted that the unsubstantiated claim against the complainant had been limited to the text of the article. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a clarification.

14. The Committee then considered the placement of this clarification. This should be added to the foot of the online article. The wording of the clarification should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.


Date complaint received: 23/03/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 08/03/2022