Ruling

03409-18 Magurn v Newbury Weekly News

    • Date complaint received

      9th August 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 03409-18 Magurn v Newbury Weekly News

Summary of complaint

1. Phil Magurn complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Newbury Weekly News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “Lies told to get planning row businessman arrested,” published on 19 April 2018.

2. The article reported that a police report had revealed that “angry villagers [had] framed” a businessman in a neighbourhood dispute. It stated that the businessman had been awarded compensation for his wrongful arrest “after the force conceded [the businessman] was arrested and handcuffed after villagers made false allegations of assault against him.” It stated that the incident had occurred in 2016, after villagers had lost a two year planning battle. It went on to report that the police report into the incident stated “[The officer] agreed it later transpired via mobile phone footage that the complainants against [the businessman] had been less than honest in their accounts and had lied to police with a view of getting him into trouble.” It stated that following the incident, two people had been issued with fixed penalty notices for wasting police time, and went on to report that one resident had been “allowed to defy it because the officer in the case allowed it to ‘time out’.” It included a statement from the businessman, who said that he had previously invited the concerned neighbours to his property to discuss their concerns, however they had “collectively refused this.”

3. The complainant was one of the residents who had been issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice in relation to this incident. He said that the article was inaccurate, as it had reported claims, made about the residents behaviour by an individual police officer in the police report, as fact. He said that it had not been proven that the residents had acted dishonestly, and said that in the absence of criminal proceedings, the newspaper should have further investigated the truth of these comments. He said that by reporting the officer’s characterisation of the residents as fact, the newspaper had failed to accurately distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. He also said that the newspaper should have gone to residents for comment, prior to publication.

4. He said that it was inaccurate for the article to state that he had been allowed to “defy” the Fixed Penalty Notice. He said that he had elected not to pay the fine, as he believed it had been issued incorrectly and wished for the matter to go to court.  He also said that the article was inaccurate, as at one point it referred to the incident having taken place last summer, when in fact, it had taken place in 2016. Further, he said residents had not refused the businessman’s offer to meet and discuss this matter, as they had been willing to meet with him, but at a different venue.

5. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that the article reported on the official Thames Valley Police report, which the newspaper was entitled to do. It provided a copy of the report and said that it had accurately reported the findings and the police’s characterisation of the residents’ behaviour. In the report, under the heading “Complainant’s Account (Summary)” it stated, “The complainant alleges that he was arrested following an allegation that he had damaged a hedgerow and assaulted two people during a dispute back in June 2016. It transpired that CCTC footage revealed that no assault had actually taken place and the two offenders were issued with PND notices for wasting Police time.”

6. Under the heading, “Appeal Investigation,” the report stated, “[the businessman] was conveyed to Newbury Police station and during interview stated that the complaint against him was malicious and a total fabrication of the truth. This was later supported by mobile phone footage taken at the time of the alleged offences by a member of the Anchor Vans staff and subsequently provided to Thames Valley Police.” It went on to state that, when the police officer was interviewed under caution, “[the officer] agreed that it had later transpired via mobile phone footage that the complainants against [the businessman] had been less than honest in their accounts and had lied to Police with a view of getting him in trouble.” The newspaper said that while this police investigation had focused on the alleged unlawful arrest of the businessman, it had accepted as fact that the allegations made by residents had been false. In these circumstances, the newspaper said it had accurately reported the report’s findings.

7. The newspaper said that the absence of a court case did not preclude it from reporting on the report. It said that the residents were not named in either in the report or the article, and there was no obligation on it to approach the complainant for comment prior to publication. It said that the report showed that the complainant had not paid the fine, and, because the police officer failed to complete the summons file within the required timescale, the complainant was allowed to “escape punishment for the wasting of Police time.” In these circumstances, the newspaper said it was entitled to report that he had been allowed to defy the notice.

Relevant Code Provisions

8. 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

9. The police report showed that it was accepted by the investigating police force that the initial allegations made against the businessman, which led to his arrest, had been shown to be without basis and therefore no charges were brought against the businessman. The police report explicitly referred to it being agreed, by the police officer in a subsequent police interview, that the residents had been “less than honest” and had “lied to Police.” The article had made clear that it was reporting on the police report, and there was no obligation on the newspaper to approach the residents involved for comment, prior to publication. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of this information, and there was no failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

10. The complainant had been issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice, which he did not pay. A police error meant that no further action was taken, when the matter should have been referred to court. In these circumstances, the newspaper was entitled to characterise the police’s actions as allowing the complainant to “defy” the Notice. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

11. The article reported that the residents had lost the two year planning battle in 2016. Referring, once, to the incident having taken place “last summer”, when it was in fact in 2016, did not represent a significant inaccuracy requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1. Also, the newspaper was entitled to report the businessman’s claim that he had invited residents to the property, but they had refused. Not reporting that residents refused this request due to the location, and had suggested a different venue, did not make the article inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

12. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

13. N/A

Date complaint received: 09/05/2018
Date decision issued: 20/07/2018