Ruling

Resolution Statement 03472-18 Coleman v Folkestone and Hythe Express

    • Date complaint received

      13th September 2018

    • Outcome

      Resolved - IPSO mediation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Resolution Statement 03472-18 Coleman v Folkestone and Hythe Express

Summary of complaint

1. John Coleman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Folkestone and Hythe Express breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Council pays hundreds of thousands to silence staff”, published on 9 May 2018.

2. The article reported that a Freedom of Information request had revealed that “’Hush money’ totalling more than £630,000 has been paid to silence ex-council staff in five years”. It said that “gagging orders – officially known as settlement agreements – are usually struck up when an employee leaves facing redundancy or workplace issues”. The article said that under these agreements workers are asked to “sign on the line in return for cash to keep them for speaking publicly”. It said that the council refused to explain what each “gagging order” was for, and went on to give the views of local councillors on the matter. The article included a breakout box giving a council statement on the matter, stating that “’the council does not use the term “gagging order”. The appropriate term is “settlement agreement”, a legally binding agreement between an employer and employee used to set out the mutually  agreed terms and conditions reached when a contract of employment is to be terminated or a dispute is to be resolved’”. The article appeared in substantially the same format online under the headline “Folkestone and Hythe District Council's £630,000 'hush money' pay-off”.

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) because it suggested that the full sum of the settlement agreements was “hush money”, when this was not the case. He also said that the figures provided by the publication did not match the council’s published accounts.

4. The publication denied that the article was inaccurate. It said that it had asked the council for “a breakdown of all gagging orders placed on staff” for the specified period. The data the article referred to was provided in response to this request, and had been reported accurately. The publication said that settlement agreements involved the employee agreeing not to sue their employer; this was a form of ‘payment for silence’. It was not therefore misleading for the article to describe the payments as “hush money”.

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.

Mediated outcome

5. The complaint was not resolved through direct correspondence between the parties. IPSO therefore began an investigation into the matter.

6. During IPSO’s investigation, the publication offered to publish the following clarification as an online footnote and on page 2 of the newspaper:

Following an article in the Folkestone and Hythe Express on Wednesday, July 9 ('Council pays hundreds of thousands to silence staff') we wish to clarify the use of the terms 'gagging order' and 'settlement agreement'. Our story stated that Folkestone and Hythe District Council paid £630,000 for 29 gagging orders on staff from 2013 to 2017.

The orders formed an undisclosed part of the amount of settlement agreements - a legal agreement made between an employee and an employer under which a staff member accepts a severance payment for not suing the employer - rather than the entire sum. A specific breakdown of money paid under confidentiality clauses was not given in the details provided to us under the Freedom of Information Act; however, we understand that the full amounts could include redundancy and other payments which do not carry a ‘gagging’ restriction. We are happy to make this clear.

7. The complainant said this would resolve the matter to his satisfaction.

 

8. As the complaint was successfully mediated, the Complaints Committee did not make a determination as to whether there had been any breach of the Code.

Date complaint received: 14/05/2018

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 23/07/2018