Ruling

06279-17 Marr v Milngavie & Bearsden Herald

    • Date complaint received

      12th October 2017

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 06279-17 Marr v Milngavie & Bearsden Herald

Summary of complaint

1. Malcolm Marr complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Milngavie & Bearsden Herald breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Residents fight to save Canniesburn Woods”, published on 15 March 2017.

2. The article reported the opposition from a group of local residents to a planning application that had been granted, which would change an area of land, purchased by the complainant, from public woodland to a private garden. It included comments made by the residents that the council had not been transparent throughout the planning process; that it did not advertise the planning application in the local newspaper as required; and that the land was bought at a reduced price at a public auction, which was not advertised locally. The article included a picture of the residents on the land, in which part of the exterior of the complainant’s house was visible in the background.

3. The article reported that a chief officer of the council, along with two councillors from the planning board, sat on the board of a company of which the complainant was a former director. It reported that the chief officer recommended the approval of the planning application and that the two councillors voted to approve it. The article included a resident’s comment that an interest should have been declared, and also the chief officer’s comment that “due planning process was applied” when considering the application.

4. The complainant said that the correct procedures had been followed during the sale of the land. He said that it was advertised both locally and nationally, therefore it was available to anyone for purchase, and that the newspaper could not have been aware of the value of the land. The complainant said that the article gave the misleading impression that the decision-making process was corrupt, because it implied that he had a relationship with the two councillors. He also said that the article was biased, particularly because the newspaper did not contact him or the auction house for comment prior to publication, in breach of Clause 1 and Clause 12.

5. The complainant said that the photograph represented an intrusion into his private life as his house was visible in the background, and because it was taken on private land without his knowledge or consent. 

6. The newspaper said that the article merely reported that local residents had proposed to challenge the council’s decision to grant the planning application, and that it did not intend to suggest corruption or that the complainant had acted with impropriety. It said that it was the planning authority’s responsibility to advertise the application and to notify local residents, not the responsibility of the complainant.

7. The newspaper said that it had given the council a copy of the article prior to publication, requesting its comment, and that it reported the council’s response in full. The newspaper said that it did not contact the complainant because the article did not make any criticism of him, however it said that his right of reply remained open.

8. The newspaper said that after receiving the complaint, it contacted its source who accepted that as the land was sold at auction, by definition it was sold at the market rate. As such, it offered to publish the following clarification on page three of the newspaper:

In our edition of March 23 on page 5 we carried a story entitled 'Residents fight to save woods'. The story highlighted concerns by a group of local people about a planning application for a change of use of land at Canniesburn Woods. In the story we said the group claimed the land was bought at reduced price at public auction. We now accept that if the land was sold at a public auction it was sold at market value. We apologise for this and for any distress caused to those involved. 

9. The newspaper said that whilst it was not aware exactly when the photograph was taken, the land had been considered a public space for many years by local residents; it said that it understood that there were no fences, signs or other restrictions in place and noted the public’s “right to roam”. Whilst the newspaper did not accept that there had been a breach of Clause 2, it removed the online article.

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.

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. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.

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

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

11. The terms of Clause 1 do not require newspapers to seek comment from the subject of an article prior to publication but in some circumstances, this may be necessary to ensure the accuracy of the information published. The article reported on the residents’ criticisms of the council, therefore in this instance it was necessary to provide it with an opportunity to comment on the claims. The newspaper had given a draft of the article to the council in advance of publication and asked for its response, which it had included in the published article. This demonstrated that care had been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information published and there was no breach of Clause 1 (i).

12. The article reported criticisms made by residents that the land was sold at a reduced price at a public auction. In circumstances where the nature of the sale was made clear, and where this claim was directly attributed to the residents, the Committee did not consider that it was significantly misleading to report the residents’ claim that the land was sold at a reduced price. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

13. The article reported criticisms made by residents that the council had not been transparent and that it had not followed the required planning process. The newspaper was entitled to report the claims being made by the group of residents and it did not present these as fact. In circumstances where the claims were clearly attributed to the residents and the council’s denial of the claims was included, the Committee did not consider that the article was significantly misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

14. The complainant said that the article gave the misleading impression that the council’s decision-making process was corrupt. It was not disputed that the complainant had previously sat on the same board as the two councillors and the chief officer of the council. The newspaper was entitled to report the connection between the complainant and the members of the committee who approved the planning application, particularly as this provided the basis for the position of one resident that “an interest should have been declared”. The publication of this information was not misleading in circumstances where the article included the council’s position that the proper planning process had been followed. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

15. The image showed the group of residents standing on a small area of the woodland, which was freely accessible. Only part of the exterior of the complainant’s house was visible in the image and the Committee did not consider that the image revealed any private information about the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 2.

16. The article did not make a prejudicial or pejorative reference to the complainant in regards to any of the characteristics protected under Clause 12; there was no breach of Clause 12.

Conclusions

17. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

18. N/A

Date complaint received:16/04/2017

Date decision issued: 21/09/2017