Ruling

10744-22 Gannon v Basildon Echo

    • Date complaint received

      1st June 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee –10744-22 Gannon v Basildon Echo

 

Summary of Complaint

1. Keith Gannon complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Basildon Echo breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the publication and preparation of an article headlined “Plan to evict man living in iconic venue”, published on 28 July 2022.

2. The article reported on a man – the complainant – who was living above a closed-down pub. It stated that he was “living in the former [pub name] without the legal right to do so, as owners look for legal permission to send bailiffs in to evict him” and that “[b]osses at Star Pubs and Bars, which owns the former pub […], have insisted they are committed to seeing the site re-open as a pub, however the man must be evicted and an operator found first”. It further quoted the leader of a local political party, who said: “I am not shocked or surprised to hear there is someone living in there [the pub] without the legal right to do so. We’ve got to get it open and there’s a danger this person is causing more delays to opening it back up.”

3. It further quoted another local councillor, who said: “Nobody wants to see anyone occupying a building when they do not have the legal right to.” The article then quoted a spokesman for Star Pubs and Bars who said: “We have been advised by our legal counsel that the current occupier of the second floor of the premises has no legal right to inhabit the property and we are asking the court to confirm this and instruct bailiffs to remove him.” The article included two images of the interior of the pub depicting patrons around the bar area.

4. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “[Pub name] in Southend sees plan to evict man living in iconic venue”. The article also appeared with an alternative online headline, “Man living illegally in boarded up pub as owners prepare to send in bailiffs”. The publication could not confirm exactly where this had appeared, however it was not in dispute that this had appeared as an online headline.

5. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as it claimed that he was “living in the [pub] without the legal right to do so” and that the “owners [were] look[ing] for legal permission to send bailiffs in to evict him”. The alternative online headline further stated, “[m]an living illegally in boarded up pub as owners prepare to send in bailiffs”. The complainant said that these claims were inaccurate as he lived in a dedicated self-contained residence on the third floor of the building – and paid rent to reside there – and had been invited by the leaseholder and the freeholder to take over the entire property.

6. The complainant said the pub company had no legal rights to the property, and that – prior to publication – he had informed the newspaper that the company had made no effort to evict the leaseholder, who was the only entity that could pursue any action against him. He said the pub company had never filed anything against him with the court and would require a court order against him to first be obtained and then not complied with or appealed prior to bailiffs attending the property. The complainant also said that the publication had made no immediate attempt to contact him prior to the publication of the article despite having his contact details.

7. He further said the publication had not obtained a copy of an eviction order, court order, or any evidence of court proceedings – because there were none. He said the pub company had made no effort whatsoever to evict the registered leaseholder. He said there was no evidence of any communication from the court or bailiffs, nor an explanation of what legal basis there was for the legal "advice" that was supposedly given and referred to in the article.

8. The complainant also supplied emails he had sent to the journalist on 10 February 2022, prior to the article being published, regarding another potential article. In the email, the complainant had said: “The lease also states [named individual] is not allowed to sublet, but [pub company] knew he was subletting the property to two different radio stations and a political party as well as the self-contained flat to me”. However, the complainant accepted that he had been subletting the property from an individual who did not have the right to sublet the property to him. He also said that the leaseholder breaching its lease with the freeholder did not mean he did not have the right to reside in the property.

9. He further said the article was inaccurate because it said that “[b]osses at Star Pubs and Bars which owns the former pub […] have insisted they are committed to seeing the site re-open as a pub, however the man must be evicted and an operator found first." The complainant said that he was an operator that they had found and invited into the property.

10. He also said the claim that "the pub shut down last April due to financial issues and has been boarded up since" was inaccurate, as the pub shut down in December 2020 and never re-opened its doors.

11. The complainant further added that the original headline "Man living illegally in boarded up pub as owners prepare to send in bailiffs" had been changed to "[Pub name] in [town] sees plan to evict man living in iconic venue" without any correction or retractions being published. The complainant had requested an apology but had not received one.

12. The complainant also complained under Clause 2 of the Editors’ Code that the article was intrusive. He said he had been previously identified by the newspaper in connection to the property and that, since publication of the article under complaint, he had been targeted and harassed in public, by text message, online, and in the comments of the article. The complainant said there was no public interest in a privately owned property, and it was not on any public protected register or the council’s list of historic buildings and had never been granted the status of “asset of community value” – therefore, there was no public interest in the disclosure of his private information.

13. The complainant also said that Clause 3 had been breached. He said he had made a request that the publication desist from contacting him after the article was published, however he received further phone calls from the publication after making this request.

14. The complainant recalled that, on the day of the article’s publication, he had had a 24-minute conversation with the journalist concerning the article. On the same day he then had a 25-minute call with the editor of the newspaper. He said on this call the editor had admitted mistakes had been made, and the complainant requested the publication delete the article, and stated that he did not want any more contact with the editor or the publication. He said that on the same day he then received two more calls from the journalist for 3 minutes and 33 minutes respectively. He then received another call less than a week later from the journalist. He said the content of these phone calls comprised the journalist asking him questions about his rent and whether he would comment for another piece which would tell his side of the story.

15. He further said the article had breached Clause 3 as he considered it to be a “hit piece”. He said approaching two politicians to comment on false rumours and then publish their comments was unjustified and a targeted attack on him.

16. The publication did not accept that there had been a breach of the Editors’ Code. It said it had been informed by a “well-placed source” that someone was living inside the pub after the tenants had left and the pub had closed. It contacted the brewery, which had said that the person living in the pub had no legal right to reside there and referred to the legal advice it had received. The publication said it was reasonable to rely on the brewery as the owner of the building and its legal counsel in the circumstances. It provided a screenshot of the email from a spokesperson at the pub company sent prior to the article’s publication, which said:

We have been advised by our legal counsel that the current occupier of the second floor of the premises has no legal right to inhabit the property and we are asking the court to confirm this and instruct bailiffs to remove him. Our long-term plans are to reopen the pub once we have recruited the right operator. We are currently exploring options for the reopening of the site.

17. The publication said that after the article was published, court proceedings were under way. It also supplied a screenshot of an email received from another spokesperson on behalf of the pub company which was “off the record”, sent three months after the article’s publication, which confirmed that “there is currently no lease agreement in place at [the pub]” and that the “previous lease agreement did not allow for the property to be sub-let.” The publication said that this meant that there was no longer any lease or tenancy agreement with the complainant and the previous leaseholder.

18. The publication also supplied an email, sent to the complainant one week prior to the article’s publication, from someone who appeared to work for the pub company. The email said: “I understand you are staying as a guest at the [pub]” and explained that the complainant’s grievances would need to be taken up with the lease holder. The publication argued that the email demonstrated that, at the time of publication, the complainant was only a guest rather than a tenant; therefore, he did not at the time of the article’s publication, have the right to reside at the property.

19. In support of its position that the article was accurate, the publication further provided to IPSO a court order, issued less than two weeks after the article’s publication, which listed the complainant as the defendant and Track Public Houses as the claimant. It said that the order made clear that a trial date was listed in relation to the ongoing occupation of the pub. It highlighted the court document cited orders from the district judge in December 2021, months before the article was published. While it did not know the terms of these orders, it said that this demonstrated that there were legal proceedings ongoing about the occupation of the property prior to the article’s publication.

20. The publication said it was confirmed on 6 April 2021 that the pub had closed its doors and was boarded up, although it accepted it may have been closed earlier.

21. The publication accepted that it had communicated with the complainant before the article about his plans for the pub as well as the various issues with the building in February 2022, however it had failed to make the connection that the “squatter” at the pub was the complainant. The publication said this did not make the article significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted in breach of Clause 1.

22. In regard to Clause 2, the publication said there had been “no undue intrusion” into the complainant’s private and family life, and that it had not identified the complainant or his family, nor taken pictures of the area of the pub he lived in. The publication further noted that the legal proceedings regarding possession of the property were in the public domain. Nevertheless, the publication said that the story of someone living in an iconic pub which was now closed was significant and in the public interest. It said that pubs closing down was a wide-spread concern following the Covid-19 pandemic because of the social impact of this on local communities. It also considered that complainant’s occupation of the pub may have been a barrier for its reopening.

23. Turning to the concerns raised under Clause 3, the publication disputed the complainant’s recollection of the contact he had had with it. It said that the complainant had initially agreed to work on a follow-up piece discussing his ambitions for the pub and that he agreed to do this with the journalist who wrote the article under complaint. This journalist therefore spoke to the complainant twice on 28 July, where – according to the publication – the journalist sensitively requested any evidence of a prior tenancy agreement, and asked the complainant to supply any court documents in relation to the upcoming court case to determine his residency at the pub. The complainant then refused to send any further documentation and claimed he did not want to be named in any follow-up piece. The journalist informed the complainant he would give him some space over the weekend. On 2 August, the journalist called the complainant to agree on the follow-up article. The complainant then made clear he was not interested in any further articles being printed. The publication said after this point there was no further contact between the reporter and the complainant.

24. On 2 August the publication received an email from the complainant which was also sent to staff at the newspaper’s publishers. This email said: “I have still had no written response from the editorial staff, which I am also demanding. A ‘we are looking into it’ from the author while allowing this to remain published is unacceptable.” Following this email, the publication removed the online article until the outcome of the court case was known; the article remained offline during IPSO’s investigation.

25. Taking the above into account, the publication said it did not consider that its interactions with the complainant constituted intimidation or harassment. It said it had attempted to resolve the complaint sensitively and directly with the complainant, and when it was clear the complainant did not wish to cooperate it ceased all communication.

26. The complainant’s account of his interaction with the publication changed upon viewing the publication’s comments during the IPSO investigation. The complainant said he had requested a detailed action plan in regard to the article to be submitted to him in writing on the phone on 28 July and again in writing on 2 August. He described further unwanted calls on 3 August, and said that it was on this day that he requested the publication did not contact him, however after that he received another phone call. The complainant reiterated that, at the time of the article’s publication, there was no public court case between him and the freeholder of the property. He said the freeholder did not enter into legal proceedings with him until after the newspaper published the article, and that he was not made aware of those proceedings until a month after the article’s publication. He also said that he had never been contacted by the freeholder or its legal representatives with a request to leave the property. The complainant also said that he had never agreed to help produce a new article for the newspaper, and also provided IPSO screenshots of his rent money to the leaseholder to show he was not a “squatter”, as well as a text conversation confirming the rent with the leaseholder.

Relevant Clause 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 their private and family life, home, physical and mental 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.

Findings of the Committee

27. While the article had, at one point, attributed the claim that the complainant was living illegally in the pub to the pub owners, it had also reported, as fact and without attributing the claim to the pub company, that the complainant was “living in the [closed pub] without the legal right to do so”. The alternative online headline also stated that a “[m]an [was] living illegally in [a] boarded up pub as owners prepare to send in bailiffs”. The pub company had stated, based on advice from its legal counsel but absent any final legal ruling, that “the current occupier of the second floor of the premises has no legal right to inhabit the property”. The publication was entitled to report the pub company’s position, provided it was distinguished as such, but it was not entitled to present this as fact in the absence of a legal finding or other conclusive proof of the complainant’s status. In such circumstances, where there had been no formal court findings to determine the legal status of the complainant occupying the flat at the time of publication, it was the Committee’s view that  the article had presented the pub company’s position as fact and inadequately set out the complainant’s position within the dispute. This represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading and distorted information and for this reason, there was a breach of Clause 1 (i).

28. Where the publication had reported the pub company’s position and had not conveyed the complainant’s position absent of a legal finding, there was a breach of Clause 1 (i). This breach was significant, where it reported – as fact – that the complainant had no legal right to reside in his home, which appeared not to have been established at the time of the article’s publication. Therefore, in line with Clause 1 (ii) a correction was required to promptly and prominently put the correct position on record. As no correction had been offered, this represented a further breach of Clause 1(ii).

29. The complainant also believed the article was inaccurate as it had stated that “[b]osses at Star Pubs and Bars, which owns the former pub […], have insisted they are committed to seeing the site re-open as a pub, however the man must be evicted and an operator found first”. He said that he had been invited by the leaseholder and the freeholder to take over the entire property. The Committee noted that this claim was clearly attributed to the pub company, and that the complainant did not dispute that it was the company’s position that it wished to evict him and find another operator. Where this was clearly distinguished as the pub company’s comment and the complainant did not dispute that the comment had been accurately reported, there was no breach of Clause 1.

30. The Committee next considered the article’s claim that "the pub shut down last April due to financial issues and has been boarded up since”. The complainant had said this was inaccurate as it had closed in December 2020. The Committee acknowledged that the pub may have ceased trading earlier than April 2021, however it was confirmed in April 2021 that the pub had closed its doors. In this instance, where it had been announced publicly it was closed in April 2021, the Committee did not consider it significantly inaccurate to state it had shut down “last April” and it was not in dispute that the pub had been closed for an extended period. There was no breach of Clause 1.

31. Turning to Clause 2, the Committee were sorry to learn that the complainant had experienced abusive behaviour since publication of the article, but its role was to determine whether information in the article had revealed anything private about the complainant or intruded into his private life; it could not make findings based on the behaviour of the general public. The article had only included images showing the outside of the pub and the interior of the pub itself, rather than the complainant’s living quarters. In addition, the article did not reveal any details about the complainant’s private and family life; it did not identify him as resident at the address to people who would not otherwise know this information.  For these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 2.

32. The complainant said the publication had breached Clause 3 as he had made a request for the journalist to desist from contacting him, after which he had received further phone calls. The complainant had initially stated that this request had been made on 28 July, later amending this to 3 August. The publication said that the complainant had made this request on 2 August, after which point the publication no longer contacted him. The Committee noted that there was a discrepancy between the complainant’s and publication’s account of their interactions, and that the complainant’s recollection of the interaction had changed.  Nevertheless, the Committee acknowledged that on 2 August the complainant had sent an email to newspaper publisher executives which said: “I have still had no written response from the editorial staff, which I am also demanding.” As such, where the complainant has contacted the publication and requested a “written response” after his request to cease contact, the Committee did not consider there to have been a meaningful request to desist: the complainant was still seeking to resolve his complaint directly with the publication and had contacted it to request that they contact him to address his concerns. There was no breach of Clause 3. 

33. The complainant also believed the article breached Clause 3 as it was an “unjustified and targeted attack” against him and his home. However, the Committee did not consider a single article, which did not name the complainant and simply reported on the position of the pub company regarding the complainant’s legal right to reside at the property, constituted harassment as defined by Clause 3.

Conclusions

34. The complaint was upheld in part under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

35. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1(i) and Clause 1 (ii), the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication; the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

36. The article was significantly misleading with regards to the circumstances of the complainant’s legal right to live in his home, where the article had adopted the pub company’s position as fact in both the alternative online headline and in the opening of the article. The Committee considered a correction to be the appropriate remedy to this breach, making clear it had failed to distinguish this specific claim as comment, and putting the correct position at the time of publication on record.

37. The Committee also recognised that the complainant had requested that the publication apologise. In this instance, while there had been a breach of Clause 1 (i), the Committee noted that the complainant had not been named. In such circumstances the Committee did not consider there was a requirement for the publication to publish an apology.

38. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. The print correction should be published in the publication’s regular Corrections and Clarifications column. Turning to the online remedial action, as the misleading information appeared in the alternative headline to the article as well as in the article itself, the correction should appear as a standalone correction linked from the homepage for 24 hours before being archived in the usual way.

39. The wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

 

Date complaint received:  28/07/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  15/05/2023


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.