Ruling

06956-15 Michette v Suffolk Free Press

    • Date complaint received

      9th February 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 06956-15 Michette v Suffolk Free Press

Summary of complaint

1. Richard Michette complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Suffolk Free Press breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Parish councillor given verbal warning by police”, published on 22 October 2015.

2. The article reported that the complainant, a parish councillor, had been involved in a confrontation with a member of the public at a parish meeting. It stated that both parties had claimed to have been assaulted during the dispute, and both had been given verbal warnings by police. The article was also published online.

3. The complainant said that the newspaper had created a significantly misleading impression of the incident at the parish meeting, and had made no attempt to contact him for his version of events before publication. The complainant said that as he had left the meeting, a member of the public had made a derogatory remark to him, and in response, he had pointed and said “you better watch out”. The complainant said that as he had walked away, the other party had assaulted him. The complainant reported the matter to the police, and requested for the other party to be given a verbal warning. The complainant said that the police had informed him that the other party had admitted his role in the incident, and had told him that he may have “provoked the incident” by pointing at the person. He said he had not been given a “verbal warning”, and he was unaware of any allegation of assault by the other party, as claimed in the article.

4. The complainant raised his concerns about the article directly with the newspaper. The complainant said that the newspaper initially informed him that the police had supplied the story, but the complainant said that he had contacted the police and they had denied giving any information to the press. When he informed the newspaper of this position, it said that the story had, in fact, come from two “unnamed sources”. As a resolution, the newspaper agreed to publish a letter from the complainant, and it removed the article from its website. The complainant was not satisfied with this response, and requested the publication of an article and an apology.

5. The newspaper said that it had accurately reported information provided by a number of sources. It had been told about the incident by an individual who had attended the meeting; it had noted that a report by another newspaper had corroborated the account; and it had sought confirmation of the details from the police. The newspaper provided the notes taken by the reporter during his conversation with the police, which said "two common assaults no injuries recorded for each party. Parish council member and member of the public. Verbal warning to both. No further police action." The newspaper considered that it had been necessary to name the complainant in order to distinguish him from other parish councillors at the meeting; a confidential source had confirmed that he had been the councillor involved.

6. The newspaper said that the article had not stated that the complainant had assaulted the other party; it had reported that both parties had made an allegation of assault and had “accepted police advice”. It believed that the publication of the complainant’s letter was a fair response to the complaint.

Relevant Code Provisions

7. 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 14 (Confidential sources)

Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.

Findings of the Committee

8. It was not in dispute that the complainant had been involved in the confrontation at the parish meeting. The newspaper had reported information provided by a confidential source who had witnessed the incident, and it had verified the story with the police. It had also provided the contemporaneous notes taken by the reporter, which indicated that the police had said that two allegations of assault had been made, and both parties had been issued with verbal warnings. In these circumstances, the newspaper had not been obliged to separately contact the complainant for comment before publication. There had been no failure to take care over the accuracy of the story in breach of Clause 1 (i).

9. The complainant maintained that he had not assaulted the other party, and had not been given a verbal warning by police. However, the article had not stated as fact that the complainant had assaulted the other party; it had stated that both individuals had claimed to have been assaulted. Furthermore, it was accepted that the police had told the complainant that his actions may have “provoked the incident”. The newspaper had been entitled to refer to this as a “verbal warning”; it had used the same terminology as the police. No significant inaccuracies were identified by the complaint; however, the Committee welcomed the publication of the complainant’s letter, which set out his version of the incident. The complaint under Clause 1 was not upheld.

Conclusions

10. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 26/10/2015
Date decision issued: 09/02/2016