Ruling

10375-22 Jones v nottinghampost.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      16th March 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Findings of the Complaints Committee – 10375-22 Jones v nottinghampost.co.uk

Summary of Complaint


1. Neil Jones complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that nottinghampost.com breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “9 'criminal' plants that can lead to fines when grown in gardens”, published on 3 July 2022, as well as two tweets published on 4 July 2022.

2. The article – which appeared online only – reported on nine plants in the UK that it claimed could lead to fines when grown in an individual’s garden, with the headline describing them as “‘criminal’”. It claimed that “some [plants] are heavily regulated in the UK and, while it is usually not illegal to grow them in your own garden, controlling the spread of these plants is crucial to prevent further damage to neighbouring properties or wildland”. It further reported: “Some are heavily regulated in the UK, with fines dished out to anyone who fails to keep them under control”.

3. The article went on to report that “spotting prohibited plants growing on your property is easy to do when you know what to look for” and a heading in the article posed the question: “Which plants are considered criminal in the UK?” It then stated: “It is considered an offence by law to let any of the following plants grow outside in your garden.” This sentence was followed by a list of different plants including: spear thistle, common ragwort, broad-leaved dock, curled dock, Japanese knotweed, rhododendron ponticum, Himalayan balsam, giant hogweed and New Zealand pigmyweed. The spear thistle passage explained: “This enticing plant is considered to be highly invasive and poses a significant threat to other native UK species.”

4. The publication also posted two tweets on 4 July 2022. The first said “Not all plants are considered good for the environment 🌱” and contained a video summary of the article under complaint, titled “Nine plants that can lead to fines when grown in gardens”. The second tweet said: “Common Ragwort – While the yellow flowers may look inviting, this ‘beauty’ of a weed is actually poisonous to most mammals 📸 […]” . This tweet included an image of a yellow flower.

5. The complainant said that the article included several inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. First he said that it was not illegal to grow any of the plants listed in the article. Therefore, it was inaccurate for the article to state that “spotting prohibited plants growing on your property is easy to do when you know what to look for”; to pose the question “which plants are considered criminal in the UK?”; and to claim that “It is considered an offence by law to let any of the following plants grow outside in your garden".

6. The complainant noted that The Weeds Act 1959 contains no standalone restriction on growing the plants named in the Act, or allowing them to grow on private property – absent of a “control order”.  Such an  “order” would take the form of a written notice, issued by the relevant authority requiring the landowner to take action to prevent the growth and/or spread of specific plants named in the Act: Common ragwort, broad-leaved dock, curled dock, creeping thistle, and spear thistle. Without such an order, there could be no criminality. He further said that some “invasive species” are also listed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but the mere fact of someone having such a plant on their land was not a criminal offence for which they could be fined. The complainant said it was important to make sure issues related to the law were factually accurate, and that the alleged inaccuracies would have an environmental effect on wildflowers.

7. The complainant also said that the headline – “9 'criminal' plants that can lead to fines when grown in gardens” – was inaccurate, again as it was not “criminal” simply to have such a plant growing in a garden. In addition, he said the claim that “[s]ome [plants] are heavily regulated in the UK, with fines dished out to anyone who fails to keep them under control" was inaccurate as fines are not “dished out” to individuals who fail to control wildflowers and are in fact quite rare, occurring only when a “control order” asking an individual to keep the plant in question under control has been issued and not followed.

8. The complainant further believed that it was inaccurate to refer to spear thistle as a “highly invasive” plant “pos[ing] a significant threat to other native UK species” as it is a native wildflower and there is no evidence that it is a threat to other species. He said “invasive species” is a term used in English law for a problem species that is foreign to an area. He said that, therefore, characterising spear thistle as “invasive” was misleading.

9. In addition, the complainant said that the first tweet’s claim that “[n]ot all plants are considered good for the environment” was inaccurate, as plants do have environmental benefits – such as ragwort. He further said that the yellow flower pictured in the second tweet was not of a ragwort. The complainant said that the image appeared to show a marigold plant.

10. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. Firstly, it quoted the following section of the Weeds Act 1959 to show it had taken care over the accuracy of the article:

(1)Where the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (in this Act referred to as “the Minister”) is satisfied that there are injurious weeds to which this Act applies growing upon any land he may serve upon the occupier of the land a notice in writing requiring him, within the time specified in the notice, to take such action as may be necessary to prevent the weeds from spreading.

(2)This Act applies to the following injurious weeds, that is to say— spear thistle (cirsium vulgare), (Savi) Ten. creeping or field thistle (cirsium arvense (L.) Scop.), curled dock (rumex crispus L.), broad-leaved dock (rumex obtusifolius L.), and ragwort (senecio jacobaea L.); and to such additional injurious weeds as may be prescribed by the Minister by regulations.

11. The publication said that the headline was clarified by the text of the article which went on to report that: “Some [plants] are heavily regulated in the UK, with fines dished out to anyone who fails to keep them under control.” It said the claim that "it is considered an offence by law to let any of the following plants grow outside in your garden" was supported by government guidance, titled “Invasive non-native (alien) plant species: rules in England and Wales”. In this guidance, under a section titled “Penalties for breaking the law”, it stated that a person could be fined. The guidance also said, under a heading titled “Restrictions”, that “you must not allow them to reproduce, or grow or spread outside of their contained holding”. Furthermore, Section 2 of the Weeds Act stated that, where an individual "unreasonably fails to comply with the requirements of the notice, he shall be guilty of an offence and shall, on summary conviction be liable to a fine".

12. The publication did however accept that the following statement in the original version of the article included a typographical error: “It is considered an offence by law to let any of the following plants grow outside in your garden.” In light of this, the article was amended to remove the word “in” on 12 September. This amendment was accompanied by a footnote clarification:

Update: A previous version of this article stated that land owners can get prosecuted if they let 'invasive plants' grow in their garden. The government guidance states: "You must not plant in the wild, or cause to grow in the wild, invasive non-native plants. This can include moving contaminated soil or plant cuttings. If you find invasive non-native plants on your land, you must stop them from spreading and causing a nuisance or damage to other land or property. If you do not, you could be responsible for any damage they cause and may be prosecuted.”

13. In response to the complainant’s concern regarding the article’s description of spear thistle as “highly invasive and pos[ing] a significant threat to other native UK species", the publication said in government guidance it was listed as an 'injurious weed' which are “considered able to cause harm to agricultural pasture.” It further said the article did not refer to spear thistle as an “invasive species”, but in fact, stated it was “highly invasive”.

14. The publication also did not accept that the second tweet - which contained an image which the complainant believed was not ragwort, as the tweet claimed - was significantly inaccurate. It said that the complainant could not confirm for certain what the plant was and that he had said it was “probably corn marigold”. It further said that the tweet specified the name of the plant as common ragwort and in any event, the image looked very similar to common ragwort. Therefore, it did not accept that the image could be misleading as to the appearance of common ragwort. However, it did offer to remove the tweet as a gesture of goodwill.

15. In response to the publication’s comments, the complainant explained that there are two relevant pieces of legislation: he said that under Section 1 and 2 of the Weeds Act an individual can be ordered to control certain wildflowers and that if they fail to comply with this order they could be fined.

16. The complainant said that the newspaper had quoted irrelevant legislation in its defence, without the relevant context, as the weeds listed in the article were native species. He said it had quoted the paragraph in the government guidance which referred to invasive non-native species: “If you bought listed plants before 1 January 2021, you must keep them all in a 'contained holding' (a closed facility that they cannot escape or spread is not possible). You must not allow them to reproduce, or grow or spread outside of their contained holding.” The complainant said this referred to a change in law which made selling certain large numbers of plants illegal and this was not relevant to the plants referred to in the article. He further quoted the Weeds Act which said “Landowners do not have to remove listed plants growing wild from their land. However, they must not intentionally grow, cultivate or allow to reproduce wild listed plants” and: “If a listed plant is already growing on your land, including parks, estates open to the public or private gardens, then in the view of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the plants are not considered to be intentionally kept or cultivated”. For this reason, he said an individual was not committing an offence if there was a listed plant growing in their garden or land. He said an individual cannot intentionally plant listed species on their land, or intentionally cause existing listed plants to spread.

17. The complainant said the removal of the word “in” in the sentence “It is considered an offence by law to let any of the following plants grow outside in your garden” did not make any difference and that the phrase and article were still inaccurate.

18. On 1 December 2022, the publication offered further amendments in the interest of resolving the complaint. It said it would amend "Which plants are considered criminal in the UK?” to instead read “Which plants are considered 'criminal' in the UK?”. It also offered to amend "It is considered an offence by law to let any of the following plants grow outside in your garden" to: “Following the issue of a notice, it could be considered an offence by law to prevent the spread of the following plants in your garden". It also offered to publish the following clarification:

Update: A previous version of this article stated that it is considered an offence by law to let any of the listed plants grow outside in your garden. Government legislation states "Where a notice has been served under section one of this [Weeds] Act on the occupier of any land and that person unreasonably fails to comply with the requirements of the notice, he shall be guilty of an offence and shall, on summary conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding [F1level 3 on the standard scale] or, in the case of a second or subsequent offence, to a fine not exceeding [F1level 3 on the standard scale.]” Therefore, people who fail to comply with the notice to prevent these listed weeds from spreading, are liable to fines.

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.

Findings of the Committee

19. The Committee noted that the article stated at the outset that “it is usually not illegal to grow [these plants] in your own garden”. However it then went on to refer to the plants as “prohibited plants growing on your property” before stating “[w]hich plants are considered criminal in the UK?” and “[i]t is considered an offence by law to let any of the following plants grow outside in your garden". It was the Committee’s view that those latter, absolute statements about illegality were not qualified by the earlier section of the article and gave the impression that it was a criminal offence for someone to have the listed plants in their garden in any circumstances.

20. The publication said it had relied upon information from The Weeds Act and government guidance as the basis for the article’s claim. The Committee noted that guidance did not have the same status as legislation in terms of delineating legal activity from illegal activity. Therefore, the Committee noted the terms of the relevant legislation when deciding whether there had been a breach. On reviewing this legislation, the Committee noted that the Weeds Act did not state that allowing the plants listed in the act to grow inside or outside of an individual’s garden was illegal in all circumstances and in the way suggested by the article. For such a plant to be illegal, an individual would need to have received a notice, and then failed to comply with it; only then would the individual in question receive a fine. As such, the Committee considered that the publication had taken insufficient care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, in breach of Clause 1 (i), as the article had claimed – as fact – that it was “an offence by law to let any of the following plants grow outside in your garden” when this was not supported by the legislation upon which the article was based. This was a significant inaccuracy, where it related to circumstances in which an individual could receive a fine and misrepresented the law. As such, this required correcting under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code.

21. The Committee next considered whether the remedial action taken by the publication was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii). For remedial action to satisfy the terms of Clause 1 (ii), it must correct the original inaccuracy promptly and with due prominence. In this case, the Committee acknowledged that the first clarification had quoted government guidance which was relevant to non-native plants. The second clarification offered by the publication clearly set out the original inaccuracy and the correct position that people who failed to comply with a notice to prevent these listed weeds from spreading, were liable to fines. Turning to the prominence of the clarification offered, the Committee considered that a footnote clarification was sufficiently prominent in circumstances where the original inaccuracy had appeared in the body of the article.

22. The Committee then considered the promptness of the clarification offered as required by Clause 1 (ii). It noted that during direct correspondence between the complainant and publication, the publication had amended the article and published a footnote clarification on 12 September 2022, 11 days after IPSO had referred the complaint to the publication. Following this, during the investigation the complainant raised concerns about the existing clarification, to which the publication offered to amend. The Committee expressed concerns that the publication’s clarification had developed throughout the process, rather than an immediate offer which adequately put the correct position on record. However, where the publication had amended the article after receipt of the complaint, and where a duly prominent clarification was offered during IPSO’s process, on balance, the Committee found that the clarification had been offered promptly. The clarification was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii). There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

23. The Committee then considered the headline’s use of the term “criminal” separately. While the article was inconsistent in the way it had described the repercussions and legal status of the selected plants grown on an individual’s land, the Committee accepted that – in specific instances – the growth of these plants could result in a fine; provided the individual had failed to comply with a control order. It also noted that in the headline “criminal” had been contained in inverted commas, therefore distinguishing the claim as the publication’s characterisation. The headline was not therefore, in and of itself, inaccurate or misleading. As such, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

24. The article had stated “Some [plants] are heavily regulated in the UK, with fines dished out to anyone who fails to keep them under control"; the headline also referred to said “'criminal' plants that can lead to fines”. The complainant considered this inaccurate as fines are not “dished” out but quite rare. He argued that an individual would only incur a fine if they had failed to comply with the notice. The Committee noted the terms of The Weeds Act Section 1 and understood that an individual would only incur a fine if they had failed to comply with the notice. As such, it was not significantly inaccurate to state that “fines are dished out” where it is possible to get fines for failing to keep the plants highlighted under control – a position the complainant did not dispute. Further, the Committee did not consider the term “dished out” to be significantly inaccurate or misleading, where this was the newspaper’s characterisation of the issuing of fines: there is no specific agreed amount that “dished out” refers to, and this was clearly not a claim of fact about the number or frequency of such fines. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

25. The Committee then considered the complainant’s concern that it was inaccurate to refer to spear thistle as “highly invasive” and “a significant threat to other native UK species”. Where this plant was listed as an “injurious weed” which are “considered able to cause harm to agricultural pasture” the Committee did not consider it was significantly inaccurate or misleading to refer to it as an “highly invasive” and that it “pose[d] a threat to other native UK species” – particularly in circumstances where the article did not claim that spear thistle was not native to the UK. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

26. The first tweet claimed that “[n]ot all plants are considered good for the environment”, which the complainant said was inaccurate. The Committee noted that “good for the environment” could have several meanings. In the context of the article which described ways in which people may incur fines for not controlling the growth of these plants, and the fact that some of these plants may be harmful to other species, the Committee did not consider the tweet to be significantly inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

27. The Committee next turned to the second tweet which contained an image of a yellow flower which it labelled as common ragwort. Where the complainant was unable to say for definite which plant this depicted and where the pictured flower looked very similar to common ragwort, the tweet was not significantly inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusion(s)

28. The complaint was upheld in part under Clause 1 (i).

Remedial action required

29. The clarification which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.


Date complaint received: 06/07/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:22/02/2023