Ruling

03333-19 Coombes v Daily Post

    • Date complaint received

      1st August 2019

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 03333-19 Coombes v Daily Post

Summary of complaint

1. Philip Coombes complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Post breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Pensioner who reported neighbour plum tree felling breached order”, published on 29 March 2019.

2. The article reported that the complainant had been convicted of breaching a restraining order after reporting a named neighbour to Denbighshire County Council over the cutting down of a plum tree. The article reported that the judge imposed a new restraining order on him, that he was fined £1000, with a £100 surcharge, and that he should pay this sum within 14 days or face six months in prison. It also reported that the new restraining order banned him from entering his neighbour’s farm or blocking its access lane, and from posting anything online about his neighbour, his neighbour’s farm or any business run by his neighbour and his partner. The article included a photograph of the complainant leaving court.

3. The article appeared online with the headline “Pensioner who complained about neighbour ‘felling Denbigh plum tree’ breached restraining order” on 28 March 2019. It was substantially the same as the article which appeared in print.

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate, as the judge had given him 6 months to pay his fine, and if this was not paid, he would be jailed for 14 days for each of the his convictions – a maximum of 56 days. He said that the new restraining order did allow him to contact his neighbour, but only via a solicitor, and that he could in fact enter the farm access road, but only to check the drains. Finally, he said that he did not report the man named in the article, but instead he reported the owner of the farm where the plum tree stood, and he did not report this person to Denbighshire County Council, but to a Tree Conservation Officer at Conwy County Council.

5. The complainant also said that the photograph of him entering court was taken without his knowledge or consent, in breach of Clause 2 (Privacy). The complainant said that the newspaper should have had regard for the fact that he was recovering from surgery and was considered vulnerable. He said that the publication of the article in these circumstances breached Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 12 (Discrimination), and he requested that the Committee make findings on these Clauses.

6. The publication accepted that the article misreported the conditions for the payment of the fine. When it was contacted directly by the complainant, it published the following wording in its Corrections and Clarifications column on page 2, five days after the publication of the original article – which it noted appeared on page 20. It also amended the online version to reflect the correct position and added the wording as a footnote.

“In the Daily Post story ‘Pensioner who reported neighbour’s plum tree felling breached order’ (March 29, 2019) it was incorrectly reported that Philip Coombes, of Llansannan, had been ordered to pay a £1000 fine and £100 costs within two weeks or face six months in jail. The story should have stated that Mr Coombes had been given six months to pay the sum or face two weeks in jail.”

7. The publication provided the reporter’s shorthand notes of the prosecution’s case, which it said set out that the man named in the article had been visited by an employee of Conwy County Council after he had cut down the plum tree, following the complainant’s report. As such, it did not accept that the article was inaccurate to state that “the defendant has reported that [named man] had cut down a protected tree”. Furthermore, it said that the reporter had made notes of the new restraining order, which prohibits the complainant from going onto the access lane of the farm at all, or on to the farm land, or to block the access lane. On receipt of the complaint, the reporter contacted the Crown Court, which confirmed the accuracy of the reporting of the restraining order. However, the publication did accept that the complainant had reported the issue to Conwy County Council, and not Denbighshire County Council. Although it said that this was not a significant inaccuracy, it offered to publish the following correction on this point, on page 2 of the print edition and as a footnote to the online article:

“Our article 'Pensioner who reported neighbour plum tree felling breached order' (29 March 2019) reported that Philip John Coombes complained to Denbighshire council that [a named man] cut down a protected Denbigh tree. We are happy to clarify that in fact this was reported to Conwy County Council.”

8. The publication did not accept that the photograph raised any breach of the Code. It said that the photograph of the complainant was taken in a public space where he did not have any reasonable expectation of privacy, and it was an established practice for photographs to be taken outside court.

Relevant Code Provisions

9. 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.

Clause 2 (Privacy)*

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Clause 3 (Harassment)*

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

10. The article had inaccurately reported the time available to the complainant to pay his fine and the length of his custodial sentence if he failed to pay The newspaper accepted that this was due to a human error and in these circumstances, there was a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i). The error was significant in the context of an article which was reporting on the complainant’s conviction; it inaccurately reported the potential custodial sentence as being more than three times longer than what was imposed by the judge, whilst inaccurately reporting that the complainant had only two weeks to pay the fine, rather than 6 months. As such, a correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

11. The correction which was printed was offered 5 days after the publication of the original article, and so was sufficiently prompt. It appeared on page 2 in the established corrections and clarifications column in print, and as a footnote to the online version; where the original article appeared on page 20, this was sufficiently prominent. The wording of the correction made the error clear, and clearly set out the correct position. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

12. It was not misleading to report that the complainant had reported the man named in the article to the council when this was heard by the court.  This did not give rise to any misleading impression as to what was accepted by the court. Similarly, the Crown Court had confirmed the accuracy of the article’s reporting of the new restraining order, and so there was no inaccuracy or misleading impression requiring correction. Finally, where the basis of the complainant’s conviction was his reporting of a person to a local council, the Committee did not consider that the inaccuracy regarding which council the complainant contacted was significantly misleading as to the complainant’s conviction or the course of events accepted by the court. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of these points in breach of Clause 1(i) and no requirement for a correction under Clause 1(ii).

13. The photograph of the complainant was taken outside court, which was a public place. Furthermore, the photograph only showed the complainant’s likeness, and the fact that he was attending court; it did not reveal any private information about him. In these circumstances, the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over the information which was included in the photograph, and the newspaper did not need his consent to take and publish the photograph. There was no breach of Clause 2.

14. Clause 3 generally relates to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process, and is designed to protect individuals from repeated unwanted contacts from journalists. In this case, the complainant said that the publication of the article caused him distress, however, this did not engage the terms of Clause 3. Similarly, Clause 12 relates to the inclusion in an article of prejudicial or pejorative references to a specific individual’s protected characteristic; the fact that the complainant considered himself to be vulnerable did not mean that the newspaper could not report on his case, and he did not identify any prejudicial or pejorative reference relating to him within the article. This meant that the terms of Clause 12 were not engaged.

Conclusions

15. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial action required

16. The publication had promptly amended the online headline and published corrections which made clear the inaccuracy and set out the correct position. This was sufficient to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii), and no further remedial action was required.

Date complaint received by IPSO: 16/04/2019

Date decision issued: 18/06/2019