Ruling

07875-17 Finlay v Strathearn Herald

    • Date complaint received

      7th September 2017

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 07875-17 Finlay v Strathearn Herald

Summary of complaint

1. Craig Finlay complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Strathearn Herald breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an apology printed on 3 March 2017.

2. The apology related to an article that had been published in the newspaper two weeks previously. This article had reported that the complainant, chair of Crieff Community Council, had said that a “question of trust arose following a previous meeting where [a named councillor] had without consulting myself or the secretary, printed our draft minutes without permission and distributed them to the public, even though it clearly stated that these were not for public distribution until approved”. The newspaper’s subsequent published apology to this councillor referred to the complainant having made this statement, and said that “we have now established that this was an inaccurate statement and that permission was granted by the chair of the Crieff Community Council for the minutes to be distributed at the meeting in question”.

3. The complainant said that his statement had been correct, and that the effect of the newspaper’s apology had been to call him a liar. The complainant’s account was that the councillor concerned had proposed that the draft minutes be approved by ward councillors. The complainant said that in his role as Chair, he had commented that the minutes could not be approved as all other Community Councillors who had attended the previous meeting had since resigned. He said that at this point, the councillor concerned stated that the minutes could be approved, and began distributing copies of the draft minutes, which she had printed herself, to members of the public present. He said that the councillor did not ask his permission to do this, but that he did not want to create a “scene” by reprimanding her in front of other people.

4. The newspaper said that following publication of the article, it had been contacted by an individual acting on behalf of the councillor concerned, who had also been at the meeting. It said that this individual said that  the complainant clearly gave the councillor permission to hand out the minutes, that he told the meeting they had ten minutes to read them, and that the complainant was the first to accept a copy of the minutes from the councillor, before she handed them round all the people at the meeting. The newspaper said that the draft minutes had been distributed by the councillor, in the complainant’s presence, and without any dissent from either the complainant, or any member of the community council. It said that the lack of dissent in such a situation implies consent. It provided the minutes of this meeting, which stated that “It was proposed by [the councillor] that the September minutes could be approved by local councillors. [The councillor] then distributed draft minutes to each Community Councillor and the public in attendance”.  The newspaper said that it decided to print the apology to resolve the councillor’s complaint on the basis of this information.

Relevant Code provisions

5. 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.

Findings of the Committee

6. The apology published by the newspaper alleged that the complainant had made an inaccurate claim about the councillor’s conduct; a claim which he had cited as the reason why an “issue of trust” had arisen. The Committee recognised that this allegation was published as part of an apology, which had been made in order to resolve another complaint. Nevertheless, the apology was itself making a serious allegation about the complainant, and the Committee made clear that the newspaper was under an obligation to take care over the accuracy of this claim.

7. The Committee considered that the complainant’s lack of dissent at the councillor’s  distribution of the minutes did not provide an adequate basis for the apology’s unqualified claim that, contrary to his earlier accusation about the councillor’s conduct, he had in fact granted her permission to distribute the minutes. The Committee recognised that the newspaper had published the apology after the councillor’s representative, who had also attended the meeting, told it that the complainant had granted permission for distribution of the minutes. The councillor’s response showed that the complainant’s account was contested, and the Committee noted that it may well have been appropriate to make that clear in a published clarification and apology to the councillor concerned. However, the newspaper adopted the councillor’s denial as fact in the apology, and claimed, explicitly, that the complainant had made an inaccurate statement about her. The newspaper did so without taking additional steps to ascertain the correct position, beyond referring to the minutes of the meeting, which did not determine the issue either way. This represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, in breach of Clause 1 (i).

8. In response to the complaint, the newspaper was unable to demonstrate that the significant factual claim it had made about the complainant in the apology was accurate.  The newspaper had not offered to publish a correction making clear it was not in a position to establish that the complainant had made an inaccurate statement. The complaint was therefore upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusion

9. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

10. The newspaper had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information, and had not offered to correct the significant inaccuracy that was published as a consequence, in breach of Clause 1. The Committee concluded that the appropriate remedy was the publication of an adjudication. The apology subject to this complaint had been published on page 3 of the newspaper, and had not been published online. The Committee therefore required publication of an adjudication on page 3 of the newspaper, or further forward.  The headline of the adjudication must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against the Strathearn Herald, and refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed in advance.

11. The terms of the adjudication to be published are as follows:

Following an apology published by the Strathearn Herald on 3 March 2017, Craig Finlay complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the newspaper breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO upheld the complaint and has required the Strathearn Herald to publish this adjudication as a remedy to the breach.

In a previous edition of the newspaper, the complainant, Chair of Crieff Community Council, was reported as saying that a councillor had “printed our draft minutes without permission and distributed them to the public, even though it clearly stated that these were not for public distribution until approved”. Two weeks later, the newspaper printed an apology to this councillor, which said that the complainant’s claim was inaccurate, and that he had in fact granted permission for the minutes to be distributed.

The complainant said that his statement had been correct, and that the effect of the newspaper’s apology had been to call him a liar.

The newspaper said that it had published the apology after receiving a denial from an individual acting on behalf of councillor concerned, and having seen the minutes of the meeting in question. It said that these minutes recorded that the councillor had proposed distribution of the minutes before doing so, and did not record that any objection had been raised.

IPSO’s Complaints Committee decided that the complainant’s lack of dissent at the councillor’s distribution of the minutes did not provide an adequate basis for the claim that he had granted her permission to distribute the minutes, and that his previous statement had therefore been inaccurate. On receipt of the councillor’s denial, the newspaper adopted her position as fact in the apology, without taking additional steps to ascertain the correct position, beyond referring to the minutes of the meeting, which did not determine the issue either way. The Complaints Committee decided that this represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information. In response to the complaint, the newspaper had not offered to publish a correction, making clear that it had not been able to establish, as fact, that the complainant had made an inaccurate statement. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1, and the Committee required publication of this adjudication.

Date complaint received: 15/05/2017
Date decision issued: 07/08/2017