Ruling

04973-15 Dennett v Isle of Wight County Press

    • Date complaint received

      12th January 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 3 Harassment, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04973-15 Dennett v Isle of Wight County Press

Summary of complaint

1. Carole Dennett complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Isle of Wight County Press breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Privacy) and Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in a series of articles: “Isle of Wight Conservative campaign condemned by Tory agent”, published on 27 April 2015; “Explosive claims in ex-agent’s letter”, published on 1 May 2015; “Andrew Turner – Conservative”, published on 1 May 2015; “Carole Dennett and the questions they will not answer”, published on 24 July 2015; and “Hard task of public office”, published on 31 July 2015.

2. The complainant is the former partner of Andrew Turner, MP for the Isle of Wight. They were in a relationship for 23 years, which ended in December 2014. The complainant said that she had found the press coverage during their relationship to be intrusive, and had hoped that it would end once they had separated. She considered the continued publication of articles which referred to her to be an intrusion into her private life. While she still works in Mr Turner’s office as a parliamentary assistant – a role which she also had while they were in a relationship – she did not believe that this justified the publication of information which she considered to be private. She also raised concerns that the content of some of the articles was inaccurate, and collectively constituted harassment.

3. The article of 27 April was published just prior to the 2015 General Election, and after Mr Turner’s election agent had attempted to resign. The election agent had written a letter to Mr Turner outlining the reasons why he no longer wanted to continue, including raising a number of concerns about the complainant’s role in the constituency office and election campaign. The complainant said that the article, which was based on the election agent’s letter, contained untrue allegations about her: she did not play a “dominant role” in the election campaign; she had not refused to confirm whether a payment she had made to the campaign was a donation or a loan; and she had not failed to arrange with Royal Mail that election literature would be distributed in time. The complainant said that the article, which linked to the letter in full, breached Clause 1.

4. On 1 May the newspaper published a comment article based on the election agent’s letter. This article repeated the allegations against the complainant, and she was concerned that the article failed to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. She also said that the references to her finances - specifically her having made a loan to the campaign fund through a bank account she shared with Mr Turner, and having made a personal donation to the fund - represented an intrusion into her privacy.

5. The second article of 1 May was a “whimsical look” at the local election candidates, including Mr Turner. It said that there was a “deafening crescendo of allegations about Carole, his ex-fiancée, and her continuing control over his life.” The complainant said that she had never had “control of” her former partner’s life, either before or after their separation; there was no evidence to support this allegation. The article breached Clause 1 and Clause 3.

6. The article of 24 July was published following correspondence between the Editor and the complainant, in which he requested details of her role in the office, and her salary. The article stated that she had refused to disclose this information to the newspaper. The complainant said that the article gave the impression that she and Mr Turner had been working together to conceal information from the newspaper; this was untrue and a breach of Clause 1. It also said that she had refused to confirm whether she was still working for Mr Turner, when in fact she had confirmed that she had stayed on in her role. It was further untrue to say that she had referred the matter to IPSO, when she had simply sought some advice. The complainant said that there was no public interest in trying to determine if she was drawing a higher salary than before; the enquiries and the article were an intrusion into her privacy. It also constituted harassment.

7. The last article, published on 31 July, was a comment piece about wrongdoing in public office, and the need for people whose salaries are paid by the taxpayer to be “above suspicion”. The complainant said that it contained allegations about her which were untrue and intruded into her privacy. The article mentioned a meeting with a Government minister which Mr Turner had attended, and said that some names had been redacted from the minutes of the meeting. It suggested that the complainant had attended the meeting, but was being “coy” about whether or not she was there. The complainant said that the Department of Transport had redacted the names when it had released the minutes in response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request; she had had no part in the redaction and had not acted “coyly”. The complainant said that the article gave the misleading and unpleasant impression that she had been involved in covering up wrongdoing.

8. The complainant said that the effect of the articles as a whole - which were damaging and implied wrongdoing, with no evidence to support the allegations - amounted to harassment, in breach of Clause 4.

9. The newspaper said that there was never any intention to intrude into the complainant’s privacy or harass her. It had never suggested that the complainant had done anything improper, but when an MP’s office refuses to answer questions about the status of a hugely influential person, the newspaper would not be doing its job properly if they did not pursue the matter. It said that the complainant had always been Mr Turner’s spokesperson, and maintained that she had played a major role in his office.

10. In response to the complaint about the article of 27 April, the newspaper said that it was a matter of great public interest that a candidate’s election agent had asked for his position to be revoked just before the General Election. It said that the complainant had been offered the opportunity to respond to the allegations against her in a letter for publication, but had chosen not to avail of this opportunity.

11. The newspaper said that the allegations in the comment article of 1 May were clearly distinguished as one individual’s claims, in line with the requirements of Clause 1 (iii). The denial from Mr Turner’s spokesperson was included. The newspaper said that the complainant was embroiled in a public row between the local Conservative candidate and his election agent; it would have been perverse for the local newspaper not to report it. While the newspaper understood that the complainant had found the allegations about her upsetting, it said that the Editor would not be doing his job if he gave into pressure not to publish matters of clear public interest.

12. The second article of 1 May had been clearly distinguished as the author’s comment. It said the evidence given at an employment tribunal in which the complainant had been involved in 2004 had suggested a strong control both over the office, and over Mr Turner. The newspaper said that it was the impression in the local community that this control endured. She had regularly briefed the Editor’s predecessor on matters involving the MP, and a recent press query from the newspaper had been referred to her for a response.

13. The newspaper said that it had enquired about the complainant’s current job in the office as she had previously had a very high-profile role, and it was fair to ascertain what her future role would be. While the complainant had confirmed that she was still working in the office, on a “not for publication” basis, the newspaper said that it needed on-the-record confirmation in order to publish. Additionally, it wanted to know if there was any impact on the amount of taxpayer funding the office would receive, but the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) would not release the salary details the newspaper wanted. The enquiries and article of 24 July were legitimate and did not breach the Editors’ Code.

14. The newspaper said that the 31 July article posed entirely reasonable questions about the complainant’s attendance at a meeting in Westminster, especially given her claims that she was now working in a low-key role in the office. It was relevant to bigger questions about the complainant’s precise role in the constituency office: whether she now performing a low-level role, or if she had returned to her former role as Mr Turner’s “right-hand woman”. The newspaper said that the local community had a right to know this information.

15. The newspaper suggested that the complainant could meet with the Editor in order to discuss an appropriate way forward, and said that perhaps she could do an interview in which she discussed her role in Mr Turner’s office. The complainant declined to meet with the Editor under these circumstances.

Relevant Code Provisions

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.

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

Clause 3 (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.

Clause 4 (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 their property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

Findings of the Committee

17. The highly critical letter written by Mr Turner’s election agent just before the General Election was clearly a matter of significant public interest. The newspaper was entitled to report the fact of the letter, and to explain the reasons the election agent had given for wanting his position to be revoked. The allegations against the complainant had been presented as claims made by the election agent, and not as established fact. The article had also included a denial of the allegations: “Mr Turner’s spokeswoman, Denise Dorley-Brown, has today…denied several of Mr Walter’s allegations – including his claims Ms Dennett was the ‘de facto boss’ and the freepost deadline for campaign literature has been missed. When asked if it was correct Ms Dennett continued to play a key role in managing the campaign, Mrs Dorley-Brown said: ‘It is entirely incorrect. She has no formal role in the campaign team and has not attended any meetings of the team or been involved in any decisions taken, although she has helped with a few issues at the request of the campaign manager and chairman of the association.’” In this context, the reporting of the allegations about the complainant in the article of 27 April did not represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the story, and nor did the Committee identify any significant inaccuracies which would require correction under Clause 1.

18. The first article of 1 May (“Explosive claims in ex-agent’s letter”) was a legitimate comment on the execution of Mr Turner’s election campaign, which repeated some of the allegations from the former election agent’s letter, and again included extensive denial. The article did not breach Clause 1. The newspaper was also entitled to report concerns about the way in which a local candidate’s election campaign had been funded; to do so did not intrude into the complainant’s private life.The second article of 1 May was plainly distinguished as the author’s opinion of the candidates, and she was entitled to report what she apparently perceived to be local concerns that the complainant exercised some control over her former partner. The reference did not raise a breach of Clause 1. The article also did not include any information which would be considered private under the Code. There was no breach of Clause 3.

19. The editorial of 24 July was the Editor’s response to what he perceived to be a refusal to answer questions about the complainant’s role in the office, and whether she was now earning more than she did when she was in a relationship with Mr Turner; he believed that the public had a right to know this information. It was clearly distinguished as his own opinion, and did not include any information about the complainant which could be considered private. The Committee did not agree that the article gave a misleading impression of “collusion” between the complainant and her former partner. While it was inaccurate to say that there had been an “actual referral” to IPSO, when the complainant had simply sought advice, this was not a significant inaccuracy and did not require correction under the Code. Furthermore, there was no suggestion that anyone working for the newspaper had engaged in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit; the comment piece did not represent harassment of the complainant. The article did not breach the Code.

20. The Committee was satisfied that the article of 31 July did not suggest that the complainant had been involved in wrongdoing. Rather, it said that there was some confusion about the role she was playing in Mr Turner’s office, and said that she should provide more information about her role there. It also did not make a specific claim that she had redacted the minutes from the Government meeting herself. The article was not inaccurate or misleading, and did not raise a breach of Clause 1. The comments about the complainant also did not include any private information about her; there was no breach of Clause 3.

21. The terms of Clause 4 generally relate to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process, and not to the publication of a number of articles about the same individual. The concern that the effect of the articles as a whole amounted to harassment did not raise a breach of Clause 4.

Conclusions

22. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 20/10/2015
Date decision issued: 12/01/2016