Ruling

04995-21 Gaukroger v Isle of Wight County Press

    • Date complaint received

      9th December 2021

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 04995-21 Gaukroger v Isle of Wight County Press

Summary of Complaint

1. Michael Gaukroger complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Isle of Wight County Press breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “’Cheaper to replace than take to a vet’”, published on 7th May 2021, and an article headlined “Good news for budgies”, published on 14th May 2021.

2. The first article reported on concerns from members of the public regarding the welfare of budgies housed in an aviary in Ventnor Park. The article stated that the “[v]olunteer group Ventnor Enhancement Fund [VEF] took over and refurbished the aviary in 2013, and added 15 budgies the following year”. It reported that the complainant “is part of Ventnor Enhancement Fund but cares for [the budgies] voluntarily in his own time” and went on to name him. The article detailed the concerns of a girl whose mother had written to the complainant expressing concern about the budgies’ welfare and included extracts from the complainant’s response. The article quoted the complainant as having said that, “[he was] afraid the truth of the matter is that it is cheaper to replace a budgie than take it to a vet. It is not as though the budgies have any sentimental value to anyone — unlike a domestic pet”. The article reported that the girl was “upset” with this response and so wrote to the publication stating that “For the last few years I have been monitoring the budgies in the park aviary after I was made aware that the treatment they were receiving was appalling. I discovered this after I reported a bird with an injured wing. She was removed from the park and I assumed she had been taken to a vet, I was wrong. They have no regard for the wellbeing of these birds. I have seen budgies with overgrown beaks, feather loss and skin conditions, curved and chewed off tails and twisted legs. None of them deserve any of this.” The article also included a statement from another member of the public who said that “Could it be high time to rehome the birds? I am apprehensive to call it an aviary, they have no room to fly”. Finally, the article reported that the complainant “outlined the care the budgies receive, and told [the publication]: ‘When budgies very occasionally fall ill, we don’t let them suffer’”. The article stated that “the [publication] has asked him to clarify the meaning of this statement, and whether the birds are registered with a veterinary practice, but have yet to receive a response“. The article also reported the complainant as having “said VEF do not consider the aviary too small, and it was ‘very upsetting’ to receive ‘unfounded’ criticism”.

3. The article also appeared online in a similar format under the headline “Concerns raised over Ventnor Park budgies”. The online article included an additional image of a budgie on the floor of the aviary. It had also been updated so that it reported that the complainant “is part of Ventnor Enhancement Fund and cares for [the budgies] voluntarily”.

4. The second article was a follow-up piece that reported “IT’S GOOD news for the budgies in Ventnor Park. Skippers Sanctuary, formerly Wild Bird Aid, visited the birds in liaison with Friends of the Animals on Wednesday and the charities are going to help Ventnor Enhancement Fund (VEF) care for the birds”. The article said that the budgies were “taken out of the aviary while they await an appointment at the vets next week — giving the sanctuary more time to assess their behaviour and health” and that it was expected only “two or three of the birds will require veterinary treatment, for minor issues.” The article asserted that “[t]he move came after an article in last week’s [newspaper], which raised concerns about the birds”. The article also included a quote from a statement made by the representative of the sanctuary who had inspected the aviary. The article reported that she had said that she “was pleasantly surprised by the condition of the budgies. All are able to fly and feed, and show normal healthy behaviour. The aviary itself, while an older style, actually serves the budgies well… Some minor issues with the aviary have been raised, and will be tweaked. Skippers has offered to house the budgies in the colder months”. The article continued by including a quote from a VEF spokesperson who said that they ”were extremely concerned by the distressing article, and were delighted to receive an immediate offer of assistance”.

5. A longer version of the article was also published online under the headline “Good news for Ventnor's budgies as charities offer help”. It included a longer statement from VEF as well as the response of the girl who had initially written to the publication and had been mentioned in the first article. The article reported that she said the first “article must have made everyone aware of the condition of these poor birds. The fact they are getting to see a vet is beyond wonderful”.

6.  The complainant said that the first article contained a number of inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. He said the use of the word "but" (in the reference to him caring for the birds in his spare time) implied that he looked after the birds independently of the Ventnor Enhancement Fund (VEF). He said the correct position was that VEF were responsible for the welfare of the budgies and different members are involved in their care. The complainant also said the child who was quoted in the article was inaccurate regarding the timing of seeing a bird with an injured wing, and in describing the condition of the birds. He explained the bird with the injured wing was reported at the end of May 2019, less than two years before the article was published, rendering the girl’s statement that she had been watching the birds for a “few” years inaccurate. He also explained that there has only ever been one bird with an overgrown beak, one bird with feather loss and one bird with a disabled leg, and that the article inaccurately suggested that there had been multiple birds “with overgrown beaks, feather loss and skin conditions, curved and chewed off tails and twisted legs". The complainant also said it was misleading to quote a resident of Ventnor regarding the size of the aviary without including the view of an expert regarding whether it was an appropriate size. The complainant also said the first article breached Clause 1 because it did not include a statement provided by him where he explained that VEF “regularly consult [with] an independent expert, who also keep[s] budgies, and have met him at Ventnor Park aviary on several occasions" despite including the sentence directly after, in which he had stated that “When budgies very occasionally fall ill, we don’t let them suffer”.

7. He also said that the article had further breached Clause 1 because he had not been given a reasonable opportunity to respond to the newspaper’s request for comment before publication, due to being contacted on a bank holiday and with a short deadline, and so had not been given the chance to reply to the claims made about him and the aviary. He also said that it had not been taken into account that he would need to consult with other members of VEF before providing a response and that this would take additional time. Finally, the complainant said the first article breached Clause 1 because it was biased against VEF. He said it was biased as it did not allow him time to address the condition of each bird in response to the claims made about their condition that the description of the budgies’ care was also biased against VEF.

8. The complainant said the online version of this first article also breached Clause 1 because it contained an image of a budgie on the floor without highlighting that this budgie was disabled. An email from VEF sent before the publication of the first article stated that “in the past it was necessary to add a sign inside the aviary stating that one of our birds was disabled” as the organisation had received numerous concerned enquiries from members of the public about the budgie.

9. The complainant said the second article breached Clause 1 because it was misleading as it was implying that the action of removing the birds was forced, when, in reality, VEF could not turn down a free veterinary inspection of the birds in order to prove that the birds were in good health.

10. The complainant also said that the online version of the second article breached Clause 1 because it quoted the girl who said that “The County Press article must have made everyone aware of the condition of these poor birds”. The complainant said that this was inaccurate because the report about the condition of the aviary and the budgies had stated that they “show normal, healthy budgie behaviour" and "nothing requiring urgent treatment". The complainant was also concerned that the article had not included the quote of the inspector from the sanctuary who had said that he had done a “good job looking after the budgies”.

11. The complainant said the first article also breached Clause 2. Firstly, he said it reported his name, identifying him unnecessarily, and secondly that it published excerpts from emails sent as part of his correspondence with the mother of the girl mentioned in the article that he had considered private. In correspondence with the newspaper prior to the publication of the first article, the complainant had referred to his email exchange with the mother of the girl as “private” and that he “object[ed] to the contents being published”. The complainant said he had made clear that he objected to being named as, in an email to the publication, he explained that he “cannot always speak for [VEF] because it is impractical to frequently seek the views of [its] members. [VEF] haven’t held… monthly meetings for 14 months because of Covid-19. The views expressed here and in previous emails to others are [his] own”.

12. The publication said it did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the use of either “but” or “and” was acceptable as, in his correspondence with the journalist, the complainant had said that “As the person who feeds the budgies, checks their health and maintains the aviary, I know that they are well looked-after. Another member of VEF provides assistance with cleaning out, disinfecting etc.” In his email to the mother of the girl mentioned in the article, he had said “Ultimately I am responsible for the birds’ well-being so feeding them myself overcomes the worry that somebody else might forget to do it. It also provides me with the opportunity to ensure they are in good health”. In relation to how long the girl mentioned had been monitoring the budgies, the publication said the length of time – whether two years or “a few” – was not significant as it did not materially affect the content of the article. In terms of whether it was inaccurate to report the girl’s claim that she had “seen budgies with overgrown beaks, feather loss and skin conditions, curved and chewed off tails and twisted legs”, the publication stated that the quote was clearly attributed to the person as a description of what she had observed. It was presented in quote marks as her own observations. The girl had also provided photos that showed two birds with overgrown beaks. The journalist had also visited the aviary and noticed a different bird with missing tail feather. In addition, in an email from the complainant to the girl, the complainant had said “a small number of our budgies developed tumours called Lipomas”, and the use of the plural indicated that there were multiple birds with this issue.

13. Finally, the publication had given the complainant a full right of reply before publication and had not received a response. The publication stated it was not inaccurate to include the opinion of someone on the size of the aviary. It said that it was fair comment and had been balanced by the inclusion of the position of VEF on this issue. The publication also said it did not accept that omitting parts of the complainant’s statement made the article significantly inaccurate or misleading. It stated that the two email responses it received from the complainant were each over 500 words and had to be edited down in line with normal newspaper practice. Despite this, the publication said it had given the complainant a “good hearing” as approximately a third of the article had comprised his statement. Furthermore, the publication asserted that the focus of the article was the lack of veterinary treatment and that this was distinct from “consulting with experts”. It stated that the complainant had not answered the specific question regarding veterinary treatment and the article had not claimed that VEF had not sought expert care meaning this part of the complainant’s statement was not necessary to counter specific claims.

14. Regarding the chance for the complainant to respond to the claims made, the publication stated that it had approached the complainant for comment and a chance to rebut the concerns raised by the members of the public named in the articles. The publication stated it had contacted the complainant on the bank holiday Monday but had not imposed a 14:00 deadline until two days later. It said if the complainant had requested more time to respond, this would have been granted. The publication stated the need for VEF as a whole to be consulted was considered as its original email giving a right to reply was sent to the organisation’s general email as well as to the complainant. However, the response came from the complainant only and no one else from VEF had been copied into this communication and, as a result, the publication took this to mean that the complainant would be handling the matter himself. When no further replies were received in response to the publication’s questions, it was assumed that the complainant had no further comment to provide. The publication also stated that the complainant had not raised any further issues during the newsgathering process for the follow-up article when the publication was contacting another member of VEF.

15. The publication also did not accept that the coverage of the aviary was biased. It said that roughly a third of the first article had covered the complainant’s position and that the second, follow-up article was a positive story about charities getting involved. The publication stated that the article had included a lot of positives about the budgies, despite there being concerns on which the story could have focused.

16. The publication also did not accept that the image of the budgie on the floor without reference to the fact it was disabled was inaccurate or misleading. It argued that the caption had simply described the bird as “One of the budgies on the floor of the aviary” and that this was not misleading. The journalist was not aware that the budgie was disabled, and the picture had simply been to demonstrate the concerns people had when viewing the birds.

17. The publication did not accept that the second article breached Clause 1. It did not agree that the article suggested that the removal of the birds from the aviary had been “forced”. It said it had welcomed the opportunity to write a more positive second article. The publication said the article had made clear that the budgies being “taken out of the aviary” was a temporary measure whilst “they await an appointment at the vets next week” and that VEF had accepted the offer of the charity to do so

18. The publication also did not accept that the online version of the second article had breached the Code. It stated that the comment that “[t]he [publication] article must have made everyone aware of the condition of these poor birds” had been clearly attributed to the girl featured in the article. It also argued that the first article had raised awareness of the deficiencies in the budgies’ care, such as them not being registered with a vet and the absence of a heater. The publication stated that two charities had come forward to help, one of which had a close relationship with it, so the publication put the charity in touch with VEF. As such, it asserted, it was not inaccurate or misleading for this second online article to include a quote that acknowledged the impact of the first article. Finally, the publication stated it had received contact from other concerned members of the public other than the girl featured.

19. The publication also did not accept that the first article had breached Clause 2. The publication stated that it considered from the complainant’s correspondence it had received leading up to publication, that the complainant was taking ownership of the issue as chair of VEF. It argued it was important to name the complainant so that other members of VEF would not be associated with his comments which it saw as “controversial”. On the second point, the publication said they had also taken legal advice before publishing the emails the complainant had sent to the girl’s mother, the outcome of which was that there was sufficient public interest to justify their publication. It stated that the birds were effectively community property and were on public display in the park and, as people donate money to VEF, they would be horrified to learn that no money was being put towards a vet when required. In addition, the correspondence was between a concerned visitor and the complainant in his capacity as bird monitor and, as such, that this did not represent a private relationship. This meant the expectation of privacy was reduced or even eliminated. The publication also stated that it had no record of the complainant asking not to be named and highlighted that the complainant had emphasised that the views were his own, which it understood as him stating he wanted to be identified personally, rather than as a representative of VEF.

20. The complainant said that the images in the first online article showing budgies with overgrown beaks was actually the same budgie photographed twice. He stated that the vet, who visited the budgie after the publication of the first article, had only trimmed the beak of a single budgie.

21. Regarding the need to for him to contact other members of VEF before responding, the complainant said the nature of the questions raised in the journalist’s second email went beyond what could be answered by a standard response. He stated it should have been clear that consultation with other members was required before answering.

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 their private and family life, home, physical and mental 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.

Public Interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

(1.) The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

· Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.

· Protecting public health or safety.

· Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

· Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.

· Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.

· Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.

· Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

(2.) There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

(3.) The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

(4.) Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

(5.) An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.

Findings of the Committee

22.  The Committee turned first to the complaint about the first article. The complainant said it was inaccurate to report that he was part of Ventnor Enhancement Fund (VEF) “but cares for [the birds] voluntarily in his own time”. It was not disputed that VEF was responsible for the aviary, which was stated twice in the article, or that the complainant was a volunteer who, in his own words, “feeds the budgies, checks their health and maintains the aviary”.  The description in the article was, therefore, not inaccurate . There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

23. In regard to the report of the date on which the girl quoted  in the article had first seen the budgie with an injured wing, the Committee noted that the article had clearly attributed her account to her, quoting from her correspondence to the publication: “For the last few years I have been monitoring the budgies in the park aviary” and that she had started doing this after she “reported a bird with an injured wing”. Whilst the complainant said that the girl could not have been monitoring the birds for more than two years, the Committee considered that the difference between a “few years” and two years was not significant; there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

24. Regarding the reference in the article to the number of birds with overgrown beaks and feather loss, the publication had taken care in reporting the claims by looking at photographs, reviewing emails from the complainant, which  had referred to multiple birds, and by visiting the aviary.  The claim had been put to the complainant in an email prior to publication and was clearly attributed to the girl in the article, appearing as a quotation so readers would be aware it reflected her own position of the situation.  The newspaper had taken sufficient care over the publication of this claim and as such, there was no breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point.

25. The Committee noted that the criticism reported in the article relating to the size of the aviary had been attributed to a named “Ventnor resident” and that it was made clear that it was her opinion that the birds had “no room to fly”. The article had also included a statement from VEF rebutting this suggestion, stating that it did “not consider the aviary too small”, thereby including the organisation’s response to the criticism . There was no breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point.

26. The Committee considered the complainant’s concern that the omission of part of the statement he had provided for publication had made the article misleading. The focus of the article had been the concern which had been expressed by some about the care the budgies were receiving and that they were not being taken to the vet. The complainant explained that an expert had frequently been consulted in relation to the budgies’ welfare – a point made by him to the newspaper prior to publication but not included in the article. The question for the Committee was whether the article was misleading as a consequence of this omission. The Committee noted that, prior to publication, the complainant had been asked whether the budgies were registered with a vet but that he had not answered the specific question. Whilst the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position regarding the value of the advice provided by the expert who had been consulted, the article was reporting on the specific concern that the budgies were not receiving treatment from a vet and the complainant had not suggested that the expert was a qualified vet. Where the article was reporting on the specific concern as to whether the budgies were seen by a vet, the omission of the complainant’s statement about the involvement of the expert  did not render the article significantly inaccurate or misleading. As noted above, the publication had contacted the complainant prior to publication to ask about veterinary care specifically. While the complainant did not consider that the newspaper had afforded him sufficient time to respond to the inquiry by imposing a short deadline, the Committee noted that the claim had been put to the complainant twice and he had not requested an extension to the deadline. The Committee was therefore satisfied that the publication had taken sufficient care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, and concluded that there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

27. The image of the budgie in the online article was accompanied by a caption that stated that the photo showed “one of the budgies on the floor of the aviary”. The caption did not make any specific claim about the health of the bird, and the article included no reference to concerns having been raised over the presence of the bird on the floor. As such, there was no need for the article to explain that this bird was disabled. There was no breach of Clause 1.

28. The second article reported that the birds had been “taken out of the aviary while they await an appointment at the vets next week” and the online article had made clear that the birds had been taken out “temporarily”. It was not in dispute that the birds had been removed from the aviary for this reason and the article had included a quote from a spokesperson for VEF who had said the organisation was “extremely concerned by the distressing article, and were delighted to receive an immediate offer of assistance”. There was nothing in the article to suggest the birds had been forcibly removed from the aviary, which made clear that the birds had been removed for a specific reason – to await their appointment with the vet – and at no point suggested that this action had been taken against the wishes of VEF. Furthermore, VEF had issued a comment on this development, expressing their “delight” with the assistance offered, which the newspaper had included in the article. The Committee did not agree that the position had been misrepresented in the article. As such, there was no breach of Clause 1.

29. In considering the report of the comment made by the girl that the first “article must have made everyone aware of the condition of these poor birds”, which was included in the online version of the second article, the Committee noted that the comment had been clearly attributed to her. The comment was presented as conjecture on the part of the girl, who supposed that the first article “must have” raised awareness. The reference to the birds as “poor” reflected her own view on the condition of the birds. The article had also reported the findings from a report by the sanctuary and that the inspector had been “pleasantly surprised by the condition of the budgies. All are able to fly and feed, and show normal healthy budgie behaviour” and that the aviary “actually serves the budgies well”. As such, readers would be able to consider the view of the girl in the context of the sanctuary’s findings. For these reasons, the Committee did not consider the newspaper had failed to take sufficient care over the publication of the comment and there was, therefore no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

30. Regarding the complainant’s concern that the articles were biased against VEF, the Committee noted that the Editors’ Code does not address issues of bias. The requirement of Clause 1 (i)  is that the publication takes care to not publish significantly inaccurate or misleading information; provided a publication does not breach the terms of the Code, allegations of bias alone do not engage the terms of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.

31. The Committee considered the privacy element of the complaint. It acknowledged the complainant’s point that he considered his correspondence with the girl’s mother as private. However, he was responding to questions that concerned his role within a community organisation and centring around what could be described as a public service: the care and welfare of birds kept in a public park in the full view of and for the enjoyment of the wider community. The expectation of privacy in these circumstances, therefore, was reduced. The correspondence did not reveal information about the complainant that could be considered private and did not relate in any way to his private or family life. The Committee concluded that the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over the correspondence and the publication of extracts from it did not intrude into his private life. There was no breach of Clause 2 of the Code on this point.

32. Finally, the Committee considered the complainant’s concern that he was identified by name in the article. The complainant had at no juncture requested anonymity when corresponding with the newspaper and had explicitly stated that he was corresponding in a personal capacity rather than on behalf of VEF.  The publication had reasonably understood this to be an indication that the complainant wanted his comments to be attributed to him, rather than to VEF. The Committee did not consider that, in these circumstances, the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy over his identity as the author of the comments which were included in the article. Furthermore, the Committee did not consider he had a reasonable expectation of privacy over his role as carer for the birds: this was not a private activity, but rather one which he undertook for the benefit of the community. The identification of the complainant as the carer of the birds did not intrude into his private life and the publication of his name in the article did not raise a breach of Clause 2.

Conclusions

33. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

34. N/A


Date complaint received: 14/05/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 18/11/2021