Ruling

03959-18 Roberts v Barry and District News

    • Date complaint received

      7th February 2019

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee Roberts v 03959-18 Barry and District News

Summary of complaint

1. David Roberts complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Barry and District News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Council clerk’s suspension is costing public”, published on 15 March, and an article headlined “Community council clash”, published on 12 April 2018.

2. The first article reported on concerns raised over a community council’s handling of “a long-running investigation into allegations surrounding the conduct of the council clerk [the complainant]”. It reported that the council had voted to suspend the complainant in September 2017 “after concerns were raised about his performance”, and went on to say that the publication understood that a subsequent audit claimed “to have found evidence on a PC and memory stick of inappropriate activities being carried out by the clerk”. The article then went on to list allegations made against the complainant: namely, that he was accused of having used a council printer to crate flyers for an unrelated event; of undertaking work for other organisations during work hours; and that he had been dismissed from a previous role without informing the council. It also said that the investigation was said to have “uncovered…a number of inappropriate ‘adult’ images from his work computer”, and that invoices had been created on the complainant’s computer which omitted relevant details.

3. The article went on to describe how in a vote the previous month, the community council had “narrowly voted not to notify the police of the investigation’s findings”. It recorded the votes and responses of councillors at this meeting, including one who drew attention to the complainant being “left in limbo” while the investigation continued. It also highlighted concerns that the complainant’s suspension had cost the council thousands of pounds. The article stated that the complainant had “submitted grievances against a number of community councillors following his suspension”, but said that these investigations were “understood to have concluded with no action taken”.

4. The article reported that the publication had tried to contact the complainant with full details of the allegations made against him by the audit report, but had received no response by the time of going to press.

5. This article appeared online on the same day in substantially the same format under the headline “Sully and Lavernock Community Council clerk suspended on full pay for six months”.

6. The second article reported on a further meeting of the community council during which members of the public had “clashed” with councillors over their handling of the complainant’s suspension. It reported that the complainant was “currently the subject of an external investigation”, and repeated some of the allegations about the complainant’s conduct presented in the first article.

7. This article appeared online on the same day in substantially the same format, under the headline “Residents pile pressure on under-fire Sully and Lavernock Community Council at heated meeting”.

8. The complainant said that the articles were inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) because they reported on allegations which he said were unfounded, and in relation to which he had not been provided with any supporting evidence by the council. He said he had not seen the audit report the article referred to, but the Chair of the community council had written to him stating that the information published was inaccurate. During the course of the investigation, he provided a further report on the allegations, undertaken by a consultancy, which he said had found that there was no case to answer on several of the allegations raised, including in relation to the downloading of inappropriate images, and him undertaking work for other bodies on council time.

9. The complainant said that he had been contacted by the publication in relation to the allegations the afternoon before the first article was published; he said that this did not give him long enough to respond to the allegations put to him. 

10. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate for the first article to state that he had submitted grievances against councillors following his suspension, and that no action had been taken. He said that grievances had been taken out against three councillors before his suspension (and again following his suspension); in two cases, since the articles were published, these grievances had been upheld. He provided a copy of the report provided to him in April 2018 detailing the outcome of these grievances.

11. The complainant also said that the articles breached Clause 2 (Privacy) because they were based on information shared during a ‘private’ section of a council meeting, from which journalists were excluded.

12. The publication denied any breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). It said that it had accurately reported allegations made against the complainant by a third party at a meeting of the council’s Personnel Working Group in February, and from the audit report, and had not presented them as fact; indeed, it did not know whether they were true or not, but it was entitled to report that they had been made, where it presented them correctly as accusations. It provided the minutes of the Group meeting, and a briefing note made in relation to the audit, in support of this claim. The publication also said that it had made efforts to contact the complainant, by phone and by email, prior to the publication of the first article; the complainant had not responded. The complainant had provided a copy of the email he was sent, which listed the allegations the article made against him.

13. With respect to the nature of the complainant’s grievances against certain councillors, the publication said that this was a peripheral matter to the substance of the first article. It was accurate to report that the complainant had lodged grievances after his suspension, notwithstanding that he had also lodged some beforehand. It accepted that there was a minor inaccuracy in the report, in that one grievance, which had originally been closed, had been reopened at the time of publication, but the outcome of this process was not given to the complainant until after publication. The publication denied that this was a significant inaccuracy requiring correction, but offered to publish the following clarification in print and online:

David Roberts – Clarification

In March we published a story about the suspension of former town clerk David Roberts from his post as town clerk at Sully and Lavernock Community Council on allegations of misconduct. We mentioned incidentally that Mr Roberts had also lodged grievances against certain councillors which we said had been closed without action. In fact one of the grievances had been reopened. We are sorry for the omission. After publication, there was a finding in favour of Mr Roberts and a recommendation that councillors should undergo training.

14. The publication also denied any breach of Clause 2 (Privacy). It said that it was debatable whether there was a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to matters of public administration and the business of a council; in any event, the publication had weighed any such expectation against the public interest in reporting the matter, and considered that the nature of the events reported on – a lengthy and expensive dispute involving a key council officer - carried a public interest which outweighed any possible expectation of privacy.

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.

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. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

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

Findings of the Committee

15. The first article was an accurate report of allegations that had been made about the complainant at a meeting of the council’s Personnel Working Group, as evidenced by the minutes provided by the publication. The allegations regarding inappropriate content and the use of the council computer for unrelated work were also raised in the briefing note provided in relation to the audit. The publication was entitled to report on these allegations, and had accurately presented them as such; they were not adopted as fact. In addition, the publication had taken steps to put the allegations, in full, to the complainant, who had chosen not to respond to this approach. The fact that a subsequent consultancy report had found that there was ‘no case to answer’ on several of the allegations made did not make the contemporaneous report inaccurate. There was no failure to take care over the presentation of the allegations, and no misleading impression was created of their status such as would require correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

16. The article had reported that the complainant had “submitted grievances against a number of community councillors following his suspension”, but said that these investigations were “understood to have concluded with no action taken”. It appeared that this was an accurate account of matters at the time of publication; in April 2018, the complainant had received confirmation that one grievance, raised following his suspension, had been upheld against two councillors, having been reopened after an initial closure. Given that this outcome was not available to the newspaper at the time of publication, there was no failure to take care over this information. While the reopened grievance would have been under consideration at the time of publication, the Committee did not consider that failing to report this gave rise to any misleading impression requiring correction. Consequently, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. The allegations against the complainant had been made at a meeting of the council’s Personnel Working Group. This did not appear to be a meeting which was open to the public, and it appeared that the Council considered such matters confidential; in these circumstances, there was the potential for a reasonable expectation of privacy to attach to information disclosed about an individual at such a meeting. However, in this instance, the allegations related to misconduct in a public office, including in the dispensation of public funds and time – a matter of potentially serious public concern. There was therefore a clear justification for revealing the information reported on, and doing so did not represent a breach of Clause 2 (Privacy).

Conclusion

12. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

13. N/A

Date complaint received: 11/06/2018

Date decision issued: 22/01/2019