Ruling

05546-15 Flower v Bournemouth Echo

    • Date complaint received

      9th December 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

·      Decision of the Complaints Committee 05546-15 Flower v Bournemouth Echo

Summary of complaint

1. Spencer Flower complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Bournemouth Echo had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) and Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “’Unsuitable’ plans given green light”, published on 23 June 2015, and an article headlined “Councils learning from conviction”, published on 9 July 2015.

2. The first article reported that planning approval for a local housing development had been granted despite seven of thirteen councillors failing to attend a vote on it at a council meeting. It named the complainant as one of those who had not attended, and included his photograph. The online version, although substantively the same, was headlined “Residents 'devastated' after proposals to build 650 new homes in Wimborne approved”. It included the complainant’s photograph with the caption “Former leader of Dorset County Council Cllr Spencer Flower at his home in Verwood”.

3. The second article reported that, following the complainant’s conviction under the Localism Act 2011, a council had issued advice to its members on adhering to the Disclosable Pecuniary Interest regulations. The article stated that the complainant had taken part in a vote on a local housing matter without “letting on” that he was a non-executive director of a housing charity, which qualified as a “disclosable” interest. It said that he had been convicted and fined £930. The piece was also published online, with the headline “Councils learning from landmark conviction of Spencer Flower”.

4. The complainant expressed concern that the first article had given the misleading impression that he had chosen not to attend the meeting to vote on the proposed development. He said it had failed to report that he had booked a holiday before notice of the meeting had been given. Given that he was one of seven who had not attended, he questioned why his photograph had been singled out for publication. He said the caption on the online version further implied that he had been at home during the meeting.

5. With regards to the second article, the complainant said that it was accepted in court that he had made no attempt to conceal his interest in the housing charity as he had previously recorded it on the council’s Register of Interests. He said the judge had stated that his position at the housing charity was not a “pecuniary interest”, as defined by the Localism Act 2011. However, as he had previously declared it, it was “live” and so he had been found guilty. He said he had been given a six-month conditional discharge and was ordered to pay costs; this was not a conviction, and he was not “fined”, as reported.

6. The complainant said that the newspaper had failed to give him an opportunity to comment before the articles were published in breach of Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply), and he had no wish to be interviewed by the newspaper for a follow-up article. He also considered that the newspaper’s “misleading” coverage constituted harassment in breach of Clause 4 (Harassment).

7. With regards to the first article, the newspaper considered that there was a public interest in reporting the voting performance of a local councillor, particularly in relation to a vital planning issue. It said the article had been neutral in tone and had not implied any reason for the complainant’s non-attendance at the meeting. It did not consider that it was misleading to omit that he had been on a pre-booked holiday at the time.

8. It noted that the complainant’s photograph had been used because he was relevant to the story, and because he was a prominent political figure locally who had been involved when the planning strategy for the development had been brought in. Despite this position, as a gesture of good will, the newspaper offered to publish a statement making clear the complainant’s reasons for his absence.

9. The newspaper said that it had accurately reported that the complainant had been convicted under the Localism Act 2011: he had been found guilty of voting illegally, and had been given a conditional discharge upon conviction. It accepted, however, that the complainant had not been fined, but had been ordered to pay costs. It amended the online article accordingly and offered to publish a correction. It did not consider that this represented a significant inaccuracy that warranted correction under the terms of Clause 1.

10. The newspaper considered that the article would have been more complete had it made clear that the complainant had disclosed his interest in the charity on the council’s Register of Interests the previous year, and it offered to address this point in a correction. It did not consider, however, that the omission of this detail had created a misleading impression because the complainant’s conviction related to his decision to use his vote regardless of the interest that he had declared. It considered that this was made clear in the article.

11. The suggested wording, though not accepted by the complainant as a resolution to the complaint, was published on page 13 and online on 5 September 2015. It read:

Councillor Spencer Flower

In a story on 9 July headed “Councils learning from conviction”, we reported on the conviction of Cllr Flower, former Dorset County Council leader, for an offence under the Localism Act 2011 by voting on a matter in which he had a disclosable interest. Cllr Flower points out that he was not fined £930, as mistakenly reported, but he was ordered to pay costs of that amount. We should also clarify that Cllr Flower had in fact disclosed his interest in Synergy Housing in the Council’s register of interests in the year before and was under no further obligation to disclose it at the meeting, though he should not have voted. We are sorry for the error and the omission.

In an earlier story on 23 June under the heading “Unsuitable plans given green light”, we mentioned Cllr Flower’s non-attendance at a controversial vote on plans for 650 new homes in Wimborne. Cllr Flower tells us that he had instead taken a holiday booked before notice of the meeting was issued.

12. The newspaper said it had offered the complainant an opportunity to express his concerns in a letter for publication and a published statement; there was no breach of Clause 2. It also said that the editor would pass on to the relevant reporter the complainant’s request to be contacted before stories about him are published. In addition, it offered to publish an interview with the complainant.

13. The newspaper denied that it had engaged in harassment in breach of Clause 4.

Relevant Code Provisions

14. 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. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.

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

Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply)

A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for.

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.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Findings of the Committee

15. The Committee noted that the complainant had not declared his interest at the council meeting, before proceeding to vote. He had been found guilty of an offence under the Localism Act 2011 in court, and had been given a conditional discharge. The newspaper had therefore accurately reported that the complainant had been “convicted”. However, the complainant had not been fined, as reported; he had been ordered to pay costs. The Committee considered that this inaccuracy had given a significantly misleading impression of the view taken by the court of the seriousness of the complainant’s offence. On this point, the newspaper had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i). A correction was therefore required to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

16. It was not in dispute that the complainant had been prosecuted under the Localism Act 2011, and had been found guilty of taking part in a vote despite having conflicting interest. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that he had not concealed this interest because he had previously registered it on the council’s Register of Interests. However, given that the complainant had proceeded to vote despite his disclosed interest, the newspaper’s statement that he had attended the meeting without “letting on” about his conflict did not represent a significant inaccuracy that warranted correction under the Code.

17. It was accepted that the complainant had not attended the council meeting in which a vote was held on a proposed housing development. The article had not speculated on the reasons for the complainant’s absence. It had merely listed him as one of seven councillors who had failed to attend. The omission of the complainant’s reasons for not attending was not misleading.

18. The newspaper had been entitled to select the complainant’s photograph to illustrate the piece. Given that he was one of the reported non-attendees, he was relevant to the story. Furthermore, the caption on the image online merely stated that the photograph had been taken at the complainant’s home. It had not given the misleading impression that it was an image of the complainant taken at his home at the time of the planning meeting. There was no breach of the Code on these points.

19. During correspondence with the complainant, the newspaper had promptly corrected the only significant inaccuracy established in the online article, and offered to publish a correction in print and online, which clearly stated that the complainant had not been fined, but had been ordered to pay costs. The Committee considered that the wording proposed by the newspaper sufficiently addressed the misleading impression given by the original article. It also welcomed that the wording also addressed many of the complainant’s other points of concern. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

20. Under the terms of Clause 2, newspapers are not obliged to seek comment before an article’s publication. Rather, Clause 2 provides for a fair opportunity to respond to published inaccuracies. In this instance, the newspaper had offered the complainant an opportunity to reply in the form of a correction and a letter to the editor. The complaint under Clause 2 was not upheld.

21. Clause 4 generally relates to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. Generally, publishing a number of articles on one issue or from one viewpoint does not constitute harassment. The complaint under Clause 4 was not upheld

Conclusions

22. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

23. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

24. The newspaper had promptly amended the article on its website, and published a correction in print and online, which corrected the inaccuracy. No further action was required.

Date complaint received: 07/09/2015
Date complaint concluded: 09/12/2015