Ruling

07847-21 Brooks v bournemouthecho.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      17th February 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 07847-21 Brooks v bournemouthecho.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Cllr Nigel Brooks complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that bournemouthecho.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following two articles:

- An article headlined “Anger over BCP development plans which left councillors in the dark”,   published on 21st June 2021.

- An article headlined “Standards board chairman Cllr Daniel Butt “upset” by Twitter posts”, published on 21st July 2021.

2. The first article reported that a meeting of Bournemouth, Christchurch, and Poole (BCP) Council had been called, following concerns raised by some councillors over a lack of consultation on plans for the future development of the local area. It reported that “development ‘opportunities’” for Christchurch had been contained within a “confidential memo” sent by the complainant to the Chair of the council and his deputy seven months prior. The article detailed ideas put forward by the complainant, who had been elected to the council as an independent before “join[ing] the Conservative administration […] as ‘lead member’ for high streets”. The article then noted the concerns raised by two named councillors at the conduct of the individuals involved and the degree of “meaningful engagement” with other council members and the public. One councillor stated: “It’s an appalling way to conduct important discussions about the future of the town, by two or three people from one political party. We had no idea this had been going on for months […] My concern is this small group of Conservatives will use this to bulldoze through their ideas without any proper consultation”. The article included comments from the complainant, who made clear that his ideas were opportunities which was “not the same as proposals”.

3. The second article reported on the concerns raised by the newly appointed Chair of the BCP Standards Board at the conduct of his fellow councillors. The article reported that the complainant, “Independent councillor Nigel Brooks[,] a paid ‘lead member’ of the Conservative administration[,] was elected vice chairman” of the Standards Board.

4. The complainant said the publication of the correspondence he had shared with the Chair and vice-Chair of the council had intruded into his privacy, in breach of Clause 2. This correspondence had been private and intended solely for the use of the individuals to whom it was addressed; the content of the email was not intended for public consumption and was published without his consent or permission.

5. The complainant also said that the first article included a number of inaccuracies, in breach of Clause 1. First, the article reported that the correspondence had been “confidential” when, in fact, the e-mail had been private. Second, while he accepted that he advised the Conservative-led administration and sat on the council’s Cabinet+ (formed in response to Covid-19) as ‘lead member’ for the high street, he said the article misrepresented his position: he remained an independent councillor and was not aligned to any one group or political party. This inaccuracy was repeated in the second article. Thirdly, the article gave the misimpression that “firm proposals” were to be pursued, when his e-mail had instead referred to “opportunities” and, in his view, outlined possible options to formulate a strategic approach to then be tested – a point he had further clarified in his comments to the newspaper prior to publication. In addition, he said that the term “anger” in the headline was unsupported by the text of the article, and its inclusion was inflammatory. Furthermore, he expressed concern that the article did not make clear that the reporter was themselves a councillor and member of a political party. Lastly, he said that the publication of both articles constituted harassment, in breach of Clause 3.

6. The publication denied any breach of Clause 2 (Privacy). It denied that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the communication that he shared with the Chair and his deputy. It was not marked as confidential, nor did it relate to a personal matter. Rather, it related to the complainant’s work as a councillor and a member of the Cabinet+. In addition, the contents of the e-mail had been raised by another councillor during a public meeting on 14 June (7 days before the article’s publication) and as such put in the public domain. The publication further argued that there was a clear public interest in the reporting the contents of the correspondence as it would protect the public from being misled by the actions and conduct of elected representatives.

7. The publication did not accept that the article breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code. First, it did not consider that its use of the word “confidential” in the first article was significantly misleading, particularly in circumstances where the article made clear that its contents was not intended for publication. Second, it did not accept that the two articles under complaint misrepresented the complainant’s position within the council: he was directly appointed by the Leader of the council to his position as lead member for high streets; he attended Cabinet+ meetings, and was remunerated for his services. In any event, the publication said that both articles made clear that the complainant had been elected as an independent councillor. Third, the newspaper did not accept that the first article gave the misimpression that these “opportunities” were “proposals”. The article did not suggest that these “ideas” were being actively pursued.

8. Furthermore, the publication noted that the complainant had been offered the opportunity to respond prior to publication, with his rebuttal that “opportunities” were "not the same as proposals” having been included within the article. Finally, it argued that the article’s characterisation of the reaction to the correspondence was not inaccurate or misleading. It said that it was entitled to characterise the comments made by the other councillors in the way it did and had a sufficient basis to do so: there was a clear sense of anger in the comments included in the article.  The newspaper also strongly denied any suggestion of bias and political motivations for the publication of the articles under complaint, with the political affiliations of the reporter irrelevant. It noted that there was a clear distinction between political commentary and editorial new coverage, with the latter politically impartial.

9. The newspaper said that in relation to Clause 3, this generally related to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. It did not apply to the frequency that articles about a person were published, so the terms of Clause 3 were not engaged.

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 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. 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.

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.

*The Public Interest

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

There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

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

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.

Findings of the Committee

10. The Committee first had regard for the terms of Clause 2 (i), which specifically reference respect for an individual’s digital communications. The question for the Committee was, therefore, whether the article, in reporting the ideas set out by the complainant in his correspondence to the Chair and vice-Chair of the council, had reported information over which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. In this instance, the correspondence related to a political matter in the complainant’s capacity as a councillor and a member of the council’s Cabinet+. In such circumstances, the Committee did not consider that this amounted to private correspondence. Furthermore, the correspondence and its content had already been subject to discussion at a publicly accessible council meeting, meaning that the information had already been entered into the public domain prior to publication. With these points in mind, the Committee concluded that the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over this correspondence and reporting its contents did not intrude his privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2.

11. The Committee then turned to the concerns raised under Clause 1. Firstly, it considered whether the first article was inaccurate to report that the correspondence had been “confidential”, rather than “private”. Given that it was not in dispute that the complainant’s correspondence and its content had not been intended for publication and had been sent to only a few recipients, the Committee did not consider that the difference between these two terms was significant. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

12. The Committee next turned to address the alleged inaccuracy that the first article gave the impression that “firm proposals” were underway. The Committee noted that the article did not describe the development opportunities outlined by the complainant as “proposals”, instead referring to them variously as “opportunities”, “plans” and “ideas”. Furthermore, the article did not report that any action had been taken on the plans contained within the correspondence. In such circumstances, and where the article made clear the complainant’s position in relation to this, reporting that “his ideas were opportunities, which was ‘not the same as proposals’”,  the Committee did not consider that the article was inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

13. The complainant disputed that he was a “paid member of the Conservative administration”. Both articles made clear that he had been elected as an Independent Councillor and was a member of the Cabinet+ for the Conservative-led council and had been appointed to his position as lead member for high streets, for which he was remunerated for. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

14. Whilst the complainant disputed that the correspondence had prompted “anger” within the local area, the basis for this was set out in the text of the first article: critical comments which had been made by other local councillors, including by one who described it as an “appalling way to conduct important discussions on the future of the town.” While the Committee recognised that the complainant disagreed with this assessment, the newspaper was entitled to characterise the reaction as such. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

15. The Editors’ Code allows newspapers and magazines to be partisan, with the selection and presentation of material for publication a matter for Editors – provided that the Code has not otherwise been breached. In this instance, both articles under complaint were clearly news reports and distinguished as such; the actual or perceived political affiliations of the journalist did not render the articles inaccurate or misleading.

16. The Committee acknowledged that the publication of the second article had caused the complainant concern. However, the terms of Clause 3 are generally interpreted to refer to the conduct of reporters in preparation of an article. The publication of reports relating to the local council’s consideration of ideas for development of the local area did not constitute harassment, and there was no breach of Clause 3.

Conclusion(s)

17. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

18. N/A


Date complaint received: 20/07/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 26/01/2022

 

 

Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.