Ruling

03343-15 Johnson v Mid Devon Advertiser

    • Date complaint received

      19th June 2015

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 03343-15 Johnson v Mid Devon Advertiser

Summary of complaint 

1. Keith Johnson complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Mid Devon Advertiser had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “2,500 sign campaign group’s petition”, published on 1 May 2015. 

2. The article reported that an “NHS day of action” at Newton Abbot, coordinated by campaign group 38 Degrees, had taken the number of signatures on a “Save our NHS” petition up to 2,500. 

3. The complainant, one of the local organisers of the “NHS day of action”, said the newspaper had published inaccurate statements made by a Conservative candidate in the general election, which misrepresented the event. He expressed concern that the comments, which formed more than half of the article, had strongly implied that their campaign had sought to criticise the NHS, rather than to defend it from privatisation. He said the inaccuracy had given the impression that the event organisers had deliberately deceived their supporters with regards to the aims of the campaign. 

4. The complainant noted that the article had stated that the activists had planned to “rate election candidates’ pledges on the NHS using an online tool”. He said the online aspect of the 38 Degrees campaign recorded candidates’ responses to questions on the NHS; it had not formed part of the petition. 

5. The complainant also considered that the article had falsely claimed that the event had been organised by the Green Party, and was therefore party-political. He did not consider that this was a point for the Green Party to complain about; it was 38 Degrees that had been affected by the inaccurate reporting. 

6. The complainant said in order for it to produce a balanced, accurate article, the newspaper should have sought the comment of the event organisers before publication. 

7. The newspaper said it had published an article publicising the NHS Day of Action the day before the event. The article had included extensive quotations from a member of 38 Degrees, and had made clear that the event concerned NHS privatization and funding freezes. To its knowledge, it had never been stated explicitly that the event had been organised by 38 Degrees alone, or in tandem with any other group. 

8. The newspaper said there were six candidates for the Teignbridge parliamentary seat, and the Conservative candidate was the only one not to attend the NHS Day of Action. The newspaper said it approached the Conservative candidate for comment in an effort to produce a balanced report, as it considered that she should be given the opportunity to explain her absence. It said the comments represented the candidate’s opinion, and were attributed to her using quotation marks. The candidate had previously had talks with 38 Degrees, and it therefore considered that she had a reasonable understanding of the event. It said there was no reason for it to believe that she had made an error in her description of the event, and so it had not considered it necessary to check the accuracy of her comments. 

9. The newspaper noted that the Green Party candidate had attended the event, and it had not received a complaint from them with regards to the Conservative candidate’s claim. It did not consider that the statement that the event had been a joint venture between the Green Party and 38 Degrees had any significant or misleading effect on the public. However, in light of the complainant’s concerns, the newspaper offered to publish the following paragraph in a forthcoming edition: 

A popular petition resulting in 2,500 signatures, collected as part of an NHS day of action, was solely organised by 38 Degrees and was not a joint enterprise with the Green Party as we incorrectly published in a story on May 1. We apologise for any confusion caused by this error. 

Relevant Code Provisions

10. Clause 1 (Accuracy) 

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures. 

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance. 

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) 

A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for. 

Findings of the Committee

11. The article had stated that the organisers of the event were “concerned about privatisation and funding freezes”. It had also included a photograph of the event’s supporters wearing “I love the NHS” t-shirts, and holding a sign saying “Save our NHS”. As such, the article had not suggested, as the complainant had contended, that the event was critical of the NHS. 

12. Although the newspaper had reported comments made by a Conservative candidate, in which she said she did not want to attend an event “criticising” the NHS, the comments appeared in quotation marks and clearly represented the candidate’s opinion. Taken in their full context, the Committee did not consider that the publication of her comments was significantly misleading. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in this regard. 

13. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the event was organised by 38 Degrees alone, and not by the Green Party as suggested by the candidate quoted in the article. The article, however, had also stated that the event was “coordinated by the 38 Degrees group”. Given that the Green Party candidate had attended the event and that the statement had appeared in quotation marks, the Committee did not consider that the publication of the Conservative candidate’s assertion had been significantly misleading. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification on this point. 

14. The Committee did not consider that the online aspect of the campaign was a significant point that would require correction under the terms of Clause 1. The complaint under Clause 1 was not upheld. 

15. The complainant had also framed his concerns under Clause 2. The terms of Clause 2, however, do not require that newspapers seek comment before publication. Rather, they provide people with a fair opportunity to respond to published inaccuracies. The Committee had not established the existence of inaccuracies that would engage the terms of this Clause. 

Conclusions

16. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial Action Required

N/A 

Date complaint received: 04/05/2015

Date decision issued: 19/06/2015