Ruling

11861-15 West Sussex County Council v The Argus (Brighton)

    • Date complaint received

      31st March 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 11861-15 West Sussex County Council v The Argus (Brighton)

Summary of complaint

1. West Sussex County Council complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Argus breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in articles headlined “Shoreham memorial, the MP, the council and the curious case of the ban on local media…,”and “Authority selective on who attends service”, published in print and online on 19 November 2015.

2. The articles reported that local newspapers had been “banned” from covering a memorial service honouring the Shoreham Airshow victims, which would instead be covered by an agency reporter. The coverage reported that bereaved relatives had expressed concern at the arrangements, and that the council had “refused to respond when The Argus repeatedly asked why express wishes from some relatives had been ignored”. The newspaper understood that some families had chosen not to attend. The print and online articles were substantially the same.

3. The complainant said it was inaccurate to report that the media arrangements for the service had not been agreed with the families of those killed. The families had been consulted by the organising committee, who had arranged for an agency reporter to be present at the event, to provide copy for both local and national newspapers. The complainant said that, contrary to claims in the article, family members had not contacted the Council to request that The Argus be permitted to attend the service, and none had chosen not to attend. The council had explained to the newspaper that some families objected to its being present, and so it had arranged for an agency reporter to cover the service in an attempt to offer a compromise.

4. The complainant denied that The Argus had been asked to explain to the Council why it should be allowed to attend the service, as reported. The complainant also objected to the article’s inclusion of a comment from a family member expressing concern that nothing would be printed for later generations; a broadcaster and news agency were present at the service to record events. Further, the complainant said that the council had not been “slammed” for removing memorial ribbons from the Shoreham toll bridge as reported; an agreement had been made to move them to another location at a later date.

5. The newspaper defended the accuracy of its coverage. Its reporter had telephoned the council’s press office when the date of the service was announced to enquire about media arrangements and was asked to write to the council, explaining why it should attend. The newspaper provided a copy of its email explanation. After the arrangements were announced, the newspaper became aware that some family members were not happy, and had not been consulted about the arrangements. Some individuals wanted The Argus to attend. The reporter had raised this in an email to the council’s Head of Communications, who had responded “yes, we’ve had that feedback too”.

6. The newspaper had been told that a number of relatives had found out about the plan to remove memorial ribbons from the toll bridge via media campaigns. While some relatives may have been consulted about the decision to move them elsewhere, there was controversy about the issue at the time, and some families were upset. The newspaper provided a statement from one family member on this point.

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.

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

8. The Committee acknowledged that the article arose from particularly sensitive and tragic circumstances for all involved. The article had made clear that the organising committee had arranged for the service to be covered by an agency reporter, who would provide copy for both local and national newspapers, and that the committee had discussed this arrangement with some bereaved families. The article had not claimed that all families were dissatisfied with the arrangements, and the newspaper was entitled to report criticism expressed by some relatives, which the complainant had acknowledged had also been addressed to the council directly. The complainant was not in a position to deny that some family members had chosen not to attend the service as a consequence of the decision to exclude the newspaper. In the context of the full article, it was not misleading for the newspaper to report that it “understood” that some may not attend.

9. The arrangements for the service had provoked some concerns, and the newspaper was entitled to express its criticism. Following the reporter’s conversation with the council’s press officer, it had considered it necessary to write an email to the council, explaining its reasons for wanting to be present at the service. This email had been provided to IPSO.

10. The Committee expressed some concern that the newspaper had criticised the council for “refusing to offer an explanation”; the council had explained why it believed the best course of action was to arrange coverage from an agency reporter. However, in circumstances where the newspaper had criticised the council for declining to provide specific reasons for not allowing The Argus to be present, and where the article was clearly based on criticism expressed by some bereaved relatives, it did not consider this assertion to be significantly misleading so as to raise a breach of Clause 1.

11. The newspaper did not dispute the complainant’s contention that some families had been satisfied with a compromise reached on the issue of the removal of ribbons from the toll bridge, but the complainant had not denied that some families had not been involved, and remained upset. The reference to these concerns was not misleading.

12. The comment about there being nothing published for future generation was clearly presented as the view of one family member, and not the newspaper’s claim of fact. The article had made clear that an agency would be present at the service, but the criticism of the media coverage arrangements centred on the fact that no local newspaper would be present. This comment was therefore not misleading in breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

13. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 07/12/2016
Date decision issued: 31/03/2016