Ruling

05820-19 Brian v Rotherham Advertiser

    • Date complaint received

      26th March 2020

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 05820-19 Brian v Rotherham Advertiser

Summary of Complaint

1. Joe Brian complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Rotherham Advertiser breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Dearne Valley parents say head was 'unprofessional' after playground ban”, published on 19 September 2019.

2. The article reported a parent’s claims that a head teacher was unprofessional after banning two parents from the school grounds after comments made on twitter by those parents. It also reported that the head teacher “stopped [one of the parent’s] 11-year-old daughter from attending a school trip - despite a doctor's note saying she was fit to attend.”

3. The article appeared online under the same headline and was substantially the same as the print article.

4. The complainant, the head teacher named in the article, said the article was inaccurate: he had not stopped the pupil attending the school trip. Instead, he said that the decision had been taken by the residential centre in line with its sickness policy, and this decision was not affected by the child’s doctor’s note. The complainant had been contacted by the newspaper before publication and had said that there was “no truth” in the claims, and that he had “just emailed the parent a letter from [the residential centre] which makes that clear – maybe she will let you see it”. During IPSO’s investigation he provided a copy of this; in it, the centre said it took “full responsibility” for the decision. The complainant was also concerned that the journalist was allegedly friends with the subject of the article.

5. The complainant said that his correspondence with the publication’s staff constituted harassment in breach of Clause 3. He said that the tone and content of the emails, particularly that of the editor, had been rude and that the editor had asked the complainant whether he and his wife were qualified teachers.

6. The newspaper did not accept any breach of the Code. It said that whilst it may have been the residential centre that sent the letter saying that the child could not attend, it was the complainant who had passed on the medical information that led to this decision. It said that therefore reporting that the complainant had stopped the child attending was not misleading. Furthermore, it had contacted the complainant on several occasions before the article was published asking if he “would like to make any comment”, “make a statement” or if he “wish[ed] to respond” regarding the allegations that he stopped the pupil going on a trip. The complainant denied the original allegations sent by the publication and had declined to comment, other than by saying “There is no truth in what you have written” and that “I’m sure any decent journalist would be reading what was written for themselves.”

7. The publication provided several email chains between themselves and the complainant. The reporter had sent an email asking for a comment from the complainant. The publication, whilst acknowledging that the email exchange “had not gone well” and had been at points “childish”, did not accept that any publication staff who emailed the complainant had engaged in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit. It noted that he had continued to engage and had not requested that the publication desist, so there was no failure of the publication staff to respect a request to desist.

8. Given the complainant’s comments following publication, the newspaper offered to publish a correction on page two.

In regard to the story headlined “Dearne Valley parents say head was ‘unprofessional’ after playground ban” that appeared online on July 19, 2019 and in the Weekender dated July 18, 2019, headed “Parents say head was unprofessional”, in which parents claimed Mr Joe Brian stopped a child attending an event at a residential centre by passing on incorrect information or not providing the centre with the facts. We would like to make it clear that Mr Brian’s position is that he provided the residential centre with the correct information.

Prior to publication, Mr Brian was offered several opportunities to comment on the claims of the parents or to provide evidence to counter their allegations but declined on each occasion.

9. The complainant said that this proposed wording did not resolve his complaint.

Relevant Code Provisions

10. 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.

11. Clause 3 (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 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

12. The article had reported, as fact, that the complainant had stopped one of his pupils from attending a school trip. Before publication, the complainant had made the newspaper aware of a letter which he said disproved the claim. Given that the newspaper was aware that the complainant denied the claim and that he had identified documentary evidence which he said supported his position, to report that the complainant had “stopped” the child attending the trip, without making it clear that this was the view of the child’s parent, represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the information. There was a breach of Clause 1.

13. Although the Committee noted that the article had made it clear that the complainant denied the allegation, reporting that he had “stopped” the child attending the trip, without explaining that this was the parent’s view given that he had passed the doctor’s note to the residential centre, amounted a significant inaccuracy which required correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii). The publication had offered to print a correction on page two. However, the proposed wording did not make sufficiently clear that it was the residential centre, as opposed to the complainant, who had taken the decision that the child could not attend the trip. Therefore, it did not adequately correct the inaccuracy, and there was a breach of Clause 1(ii).

14. It was a matter of regret that the exchange of emails between the complainant and the publication had become heated and that the publication’s manner did not meet the standards of professionalism expected. However, the complainant had continued to engage with the publication’s staff and made no request that they desist from contacting him. Although the Editor had become discourteous in his correspondence with the complainant, this did not go so far so as to constitute harassment, intimidation or persistent pursuit. Therefore there was no breach of Clause 3.

15. The Committee noted the complainant’s general concern that the article was based on information provided by a former member of the newspaper’s staff. However, the selection of material for publication is a matter of editorial discretion; the newspaper was entitled to report the information which it had received, as long as it did so in accordance with the terms of the Code. This point did not raise a breach of the Code.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

17. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication, the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

18.  The newspaper had been entitled to report the parent’s claims, provided that they were clearly signalled as such. Where matters are reported as fact, care needs to be taken not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. In this case, such care had not been taken, as a letter from the residential centre to the parent showed that it took responsibility for the decision to stop the child attending the trip, rather than the complainant. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction which made clear that the complainant had not stopped the child attending the trip.

19. The original article appeared on page 2 and the correction would need to be published on that page, or further forward, and as a footnote correction to the online article. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

 

Date complaint received: 31/07/2019

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/02/2020