Ruling

03055-22 Lane v walesonline.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      6th October 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 03055-22 Lane v walesonline.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Jeff Lane complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that walesonline.co.uk (Reach PLC) breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Huge area of native Gower woodland destroyed in 'worst offence of its kind seen for 30 years'”, published on 20 April 2022.

2. The article was a court report detailing a man’s conviction for “breaching section 17 of the Forestry Act, along with noncompliance with an enforcement notice to restock trees which he had previously felled in 2019”. It said he had “felled more than eight hectares of native and wet woodland […] without holding an appropriate licence”. It reported that after a “warning notice was issued to restore the site” and the man was “advised not to carry out further felling”, a 2020 aerial photograph established that a further 457 cubic metres of woodland had been felled. The article contained two images of the land side by side – one showing significantly fewer trees, and another marked with “2015”. The two images were captioned “Images taken five years apart showing the disappearance of a large area of native woodland”. The article also reported that it was understood the man was appealing the conviction.

3. The complainant, the man convicted, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that the notice he had been sent had been addressed to a different farm including the particulars of that land, rather than the land he owned, and therefore it was inaccurate to report he had received a notice. The complainant also disputed that he did not have an appropriate licence to fell the trees as he had a felling licence which ran until 2023.

4. The complainant also said that the inclusion of the side-by-side images was misleading as he had only bought the land in 2017, whereas the image depicted the land in 2015. He said that the land had not looked as it did in the published 2015 image at any point after he bought it. He also believed it had been taken at a time of year when the foliage was at its most full, and had concerns the photograph had been manipulated. The complainant said that the article had referred to the land as a “forest”, “ancient woodland” and “wetland” whereas the deed he had signed described it as “agricultural land”. He also said he had only removed dead, decaying and fallen trees and that he had not made any financial gain from felling the trees.

5. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the information in the article under complaint had been heard in court and provided a press release issued by Natural Resource Wales (NRW) to support this. The publication said that it was entitled to rely on the press release, and by doing so it had taken care not to publish information which was inaccurate, misleading or distorted and that that whilst the complainant may have disagreed with his conviction, it had accurately reported his conviction and what was heard in court. In addition, it noted that the article made clear that the complainant was appealing the decision.

6. Of the remaining points, the publication said that it did not consider the use of the photograph to be misleading where it was clearly indicated that the photograph was taken in 2015, and the same photo had been included in the press release. It also noted that the article did not use the terms “ancient woodland” or “forest”. It said it was entitled to use “woodland” and “native and wet woodland” and use the term “forestry” as these were taken from the press release, and it did not consider them to be a misleading description of the land.

7. The complainant accepted that he had been found guilty of "noncompliance with an enforcement notice to restock trees", although he did not agree that he had was guilty of this, and noted it had been decided he was to have a retrial at the Crown Court. The complainant was passed the press release as supplied by the publication, and whilst he disputed his conviction, he did not state that the press release misrepresented what had been said in court.

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

8. The Committee made clear that newspapers are responsible for accurately reporting what is heard in court; they are not responsible for the accuracy of what is heard by the court. In this instance, whilst the complainant disagreed with the outcome of his trial, but accepted that the article accurately reported his conviction, it was not inaccurate for the newspaper to report this. The Committee also noted that the article made clear that the decision was subject to an appeal. It was, therefore, not inaccurate to report that he had been convicted of not complying with the notice, or for felling trees without the appropriate licence. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

9. The Committee then turned to the complainant’s concerns about the use of the 2015 photograph. The Committee noted that the more recent 2020 image used in the article had been provided by the NRW in their press release about the complainant’s conviction and it was not in dispute that the 2020 image showed the area of the felling for which the complainant had been convicted. The Committee accepted the complainant’s concern that the earlier image was taken up to two years before his ownership however it also noted that the complainant accepted that its appearance would vary over time and with seasonal changes in any case.  In the Committee’s view it was not misleading for the publication to provide a comparative photograph which showed, in general terms, how that same area had looked when more fully populated with trees and at a reasonably recent point in time. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

10. The terms used in the press release relating to “woodland”, “native and wet woodland” and “forestry” had been accurately reported from the press release, which the complainant had seen but had not disputed. In addition, the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that he had only removed the dead, decaying and fallen trees and that he had not made any financial gain from felling the trees; however, this did not render the article an inaccurate account of what was heard in court. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

Conclusion(s)

11. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

12. N/A


Date complaint received: 20/04/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 20/09/2022