Ruling

12013-22 Moss v Surrey Comet

    • Date complaint received

      13th July 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 12013-22 Moss v Surrey Comet


Summary of Complaint

1. Derek Moss complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Surrey Comet breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in two articles: “Council proposes U-turn on homes”, published on 22 September 2022, and “Rent increase plan dropped”, published on 29 September 2022.

2. The first article (“Council proposes U-turn on homes”) reported that “Kingston Council’s place committee has been asked to approve recommendations to cancel the Community Benefit Society (CBS) which the authority had previously voted to create”. The article went on to give some background on the proposed CBS, reporting that a council committee “approved plans in January 2018 for the not-for-profit organisation to help homeless people or those at risk of becoming homeless into housing. This includes letting out homes needing revamping, which have become available on council estates, and giving cash to help people with rent or deposits for private rented homes.” It also stated that a “report to the council’s housing committee in 2018 said the society would acquire homes and let them at affordable rents and consider applications to give cash to eligible people on low incomes or benefits to pay for advance rent or deposits to secure private housing. It said any income generated above running costs could be used to fund rent or deposits.”

3. The first article closed with a comment from the council, which included the following: “Kingston currently has over 900 households living in temporary accommodation and around 3,700 on our housing register, waiting for social housing. To tackle this, we need to build the homes we need both now and in the future. The regeneration programme on the Cambridge Road Estate to provide 2,170 new homes on the Cambridge Road Estate is progressing, with phase one construction expected to begin in 2022.”

4. The second article under complaint (“Rent increase plan dropped”) reported that:

“P[lans] to increase rents for temporary tenants in empty council homes have officially been abandoned. The initiative was approved in 2018 under Kingston Council’s old Conservative administration - but councillors have been told no progress was made as the housing department’s priorities changed. Kingston Council’s place committee decided that empty homes held by the council would not be transferred to the Community Benefit Society (CBS) and rented out at market rates ‘considerably more than a social rent’.”

5. The articles also appeared online in substantially the same format. The first article was published online on 15 September 2022 under the headline “Kingston Council proposes U-turn on housing plans”; the second online article was published on 22 September 2022 under the headline “Kingston Council abandons rent increase for temporary tenants in empty council homes”.

6. The complainant said that both articles were inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. Turning to the first article, he said that it was not the case – as reported by the article – that the CBS’s plans would involve “letting out homes needing revamping, which have become available on council estates”. Rather, he said, any homes that became available would be let out as temporary accommodation, regardless of whether they needed “revamping” – and the homes would be let out at higher rates than identical housing stock which was designated as permanent accommodation. For this reason, the complainant also said that it was inaccurate for the article to refer to the rents on these properties as “affordable”. He then said that it was misleading to report that the CBS would “giv[e] cash to help people with rent or deposits for private rented homes”, as this implied that the CBS would have access to additional funding, rather than the gifted “cash” being obtained from rents from people in temporary accommodation.

7. The complainant also said that the quote from the council included in the first article was misleading. He said that, while the quote referred to 3,700 people on the council housing register, and used a local building project of an example of how it would meet that need, only 121 additional council-rent properties would become available as a result of this project.

8. After the publication of the first article, the complainant contacted the journalist who had written the article, with “evidence” he had compiled himself – this included responses to Freedom of Information requests, council minutes, and the complainant’s own research into the CBS plans. The complainant did not receive a response to this email.

9. Turning to the second article under complaint, the complainant said that this was misleading, inaccurate, and did not take into account the numerous documents he had sent to the journalist. He then said it was inaccurate to report that “rent increase plans [had been] dropped”, as the rents for temporary accommodation had been increased in April 2019 in line with the rent increases proposed by the CBS plans.

10. The publication did not accept that either of the articles were significantly inaccurate, distorted, or misleading in breach of Clause 1. To demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of the articles, as required by the Code, it provided several documents which it had relied upon as the basis of its reporting. These included: the original 2018 recommendation for the founding of the CBS; the minutes for the 2022 committee meeting at which the plans for the CBS were dropped; and the 2022 report to the committee, recommending that the CBS plans be dropped.

11. The 2018 recommendation set out the purpose and charitable objective of the proposed CBS; according to the report, this would “include arrangements for the provision of temporary accommodation resulting from the regeneration of Kingston Council Estates and provision of funding for advance rent/deposit to help secure private rented accommodation”.  It also said that the CBS would be intended “to acquire properties on various types of tenure, available for letting at submarket/affordable rents” and “to provide affordable (submarket) rented accommodation”.

12. The publication therefore considered that the articles were an accurate representation of the contents of both the 2022 meeting and report, as well as the original 2018 report setting out plans for the CBS. Regarding the complainant’s concerns that the article was inaccurate because the rent for temporary accommodation had still increased, the publication said that the "plans to increase rents" referred to in the second article were mentioned in the context of a meeting about the proposed CBS, and that these plans had indeed been dropped. It noted that an element of the original CBS plans were intended to enable rent charges to increase, and these were the plans that had been dropped. It did not, therefore, consider that the articles were inaccurate on this point in the manner suggested by the complainant.

13. Turning to the complainant’s concern that the first article had breached Clause 1 by reporting comments from the council, the publication said that this was clearly attributed to the council as their quote, and that it did not state as fact that all 2,170 new homes on Cambridge Road Estate would be available for people on the housing register or as council rented homes – therefore, it did not accept that the article was significantly inaccurate or misleading on this point.

14. While the publication did not accept that the articles breached the Code, as a gesture of goodwill and to resolve the complaint, it offered to amend the introduction of the online version of the second article so that it would read: “A South London council has officially abandoned plans to increase rents for temporary tenants in empty council homes through forming a community benefit society.” It also proposed to add the following clarification as a footnote, again as a gesture of goodwill:

“This story has been updated to make it clear that the meeting heard that rents for temporary accommodation had increased.

“Mr Derek Moss said during public questions that a Freedom of Information response on April 8, 2019 confirmed rents for temporary accommodation had been ‘doubled or tripled compared to the council rents, some time before that date.’

“He said: ‘They weren't increased in line with inflation, they were increased to the same rate proposed by the Community Benefit Society.’

“In response, Councillor Emily Davey said: ‘The rent increases were not linked to the Community Benefit Society as far as I am aware, they are based on the rent increase formula and in line with central government and their guidance.’

“She later added that information given to Mr Moss ’does not refer to any increase in rents,’ but included accommodation rented from the private sector. She said: ‘The evidence does not say and nowhere does it say that the council tripled rents, this is Mr Moss' interpretation.’

“Mr Moss was told he would be given further information by the council on rent and the minutes of the meeting state: ‘the average figures would be provided to the resident in writing from 2017 to the present day.’”

15. The complainant did not accept that the amendment and clarification as a resolution to his complaint. He also noted that, while the publication had referred to the original CBS report of 2018, this had not at any point used the phrase “homes needing revamping”, and would also include homes which were occupied as “temporary accommodation” at the time of the CBS implementation. The complainant also said that the plans were not limited to such homes. The complainant then said that, while the report may have referred to “submarket” rental rates, this did not make them “affordable”, particularly where the report provided showed that rents would be increased up to threefold in certain cases. Turning to the council’s quote, the complainant said that publication had an obligation to do more than simply publish the council’s “misleading statement” and said that the article should have also referred to the planning application for the proposed works referenced in the statement, as this planning application made clear that only an additional 92 social rent properties would result from the project.

16. The publication did not accept that its reference to revamping was significantly inaccurate, and quoted the following portion of the 2018 report to support its position:

“Initially the CBS will be actively involved in the temporary lettings of properties on estates/areas already designated for regeneration i.e. Cambridge Road Estate (CRE), with the intention being that in future the CBS could be similarly involved in the temporary letting of properties on other regeneration projects in the Borough, and could also act in relation to the letting of properties procured using Right to Buy receipts.”

Therefore, where the report specifically referred to areas designated for regeneration, it considered that there was no significant difference between what the report said and the article’s description of “letting out homes needing revamping”.

17. While the publication maintained its position that the articles did not breach the Code, it offered further amendments to resolve the complaint: it proposed to amend the reference to “revamping“ in the first article to instead refer to “homes on sites designated for regeneration”; to amend the phrase “affordable” in the same article to instead read “submarket”; in the second article, to amend "The CBS was created in January 2018 to help homeless people, or those at risk of becoming homeless, into temporary homes made empty during estate revamps” so that it would instead read, "The CBS was proposed in January 2018 to help homeless people, or those at risk of becoming homeless, into temporary homes designated for regeneration according to a report to the council’s housing committee in 2018”; and to amend the headline of the second article to read “Kingston Council abandons rent increase for temporary tenants in empty council homes by forming a community benefit society”.  It also offered to add a prominent note to the start of both online versions of the articles. The notes would include the previous wording offered by the publication, with the below additional wording:

First article

“This story has been updated to more closely reflect the wording of a quoted council document in relation to ‘homes designated for regeneration’ and ‘submarket rents’.”

Second article

“This story and its headline have been updated to make clear the meeting heard that rents for temporary accommodation had increased, even though plans to form a community benefit society and raise rents did not go ahead. The story has also been updated to show where information is from a 2018 council report and to more closely reflect the wording of the quoted report in relation to ‘homes designated for regeneration’”.

18. With regard to the print version of the articles, the publication it proposed to publish the following wording on page 3 of the newspaper:

“We would like to clarify an article published on page 3 of our edition on September 29, 2022, with the headline 'Rent increase plan dropped'. The story suggested that any rent increase for temporary residents in empty council homes had been abandoned by Kingston Council and that there had not been a rent increase. We are happy to clarify that it was agreed by all parties at the meeting of Kingston Council's place committee that rent had increased, even though plans to form a community benefit society and raise rents did not go ahead. The story, as well as an article published on page 3 on September 22 with the headline 'Council proposes U-turn on homes', stated that council plans to help the homeless included temporarily letting out homes needing revamping. In fact, the properties concerned were in areas designated for regeneration and did not necessarily require improvement. The article published on September 22 also did not make clear that money would be raised by charging people in temporary accommodation higher rents than secure tenants. We are happy to clarify these points.”

19. The complainant did not accept the amendments proposed by the publication to be sufficient to resolve his complaint.

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.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

20. The Committee first noted that, generally, content in newspapers is presented in a way which would be understood by a general reader without specialist knowledge. This may involve paraphrasing official documents, or using alternative words and phrases to those used in such documents, to ensure that articles are as clear and understandable as possible. Unless doing so distorts the information presented, it is not generally a breach of Clause 1 to report on official information and documents in this way. For this reason, the Committee did not consider that the first article breached Clause 1 by simplifying the phrase “the provision of temporary accommodation resulting from the regeneration of Kingston Council Estates” to “letting out homes needing revamping, which have become available on council estates” – this was a plain-English characterisation of the specialist terminology used in the council report. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

21. Where the 2018 CBS report said that it would “include arrangements for the […] provision of funding for advance rent/deposit to help secure private rented accommodation” there was a clear basis for the article reporting that the approved CBS plans would involve “giving cash to help people with rent or deposits for private rented homes”. The publication was also entitled to state that a “report to the council’s housing committee in 2018 said the society would acquire homes and let them at affordable rents”, where the report in question stated that the CBS would be intended “to acquire properties on various types of tenure, available for letting at submarket/affordable rents” and “to provide affordable (submarket) rented accommodation”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

22. While the complainant disagreed with the council’s position that a new building project would “tackle” the numbers of people on the housing waiting list, this was clearly the position of the council – clearly attributed to it – and the publication was entitled to report it. The complainant had expressed concern that publishing this statement without further context – for instance, the additional number of social rent properties which would become available as a result of the project – rendered the article misleading. However, in the context of a report about plans to shelve a different council initiative, the Committee did not consider that the omission of further information about a separate building project rendered the article significantly inaccurate, distorted, or misleading in breach of Clause 1.

23. After the publication of the first article under complaint, the complainant had contacted the publication with information about the CBS; he considered that not including this further information in the second article represented a breach of Clause 1. Newspapers have the right to choose which pieces of information they publish, as long as this does not lead to a breach of the Code. The Committee further noted that the information provided by the complainant related to his own dealings with the council and his views on the CBS plans – including Freedom of Information requests and a judicial decision arising from the complainant’s legal action – and it did not consider that omitting this information rendered the second article – a report of a council meeting at which the CBS plans were dropped – significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted.

24. The complainant had also said that the second article breached Clause 1 as it reported that “plans to increase rents for temporary tenants in empty council homes have officially been abandoned.” He said that this was not the case as, while the CBS plans had been dropped, rents had still been increased – the council had simply done so using another method. The Committee carefully considered the article in the round and, in doing so, noted that the clear focus of the article was on the CBS plans which had been “dropped”, as opposed to an analysis of the rates of council rents in general. In this context, the Committee did not consider the article to be inaccurate or misleading in the manner suggested by the complainant; the article did not claim that council rents had not been increased at any point in the four years since the CBS had been proposed, and it was not in dispute that plans to increase rents – via the CBS – had indeed been dropped at the meeting. There was no breach of Clause 1.

25. Notwithstanding that there was no breach of Clause 1, the Committee welcomed the amendments and clarifications which the publication had proposed in an attempt to resolve the complaint and make the articles as clear as possible.

Conclusions

26. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

27. N/A

 

Date complaint received:  20/10/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  09/05/2023

 

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.