Ruling

12574-22 Hibbert v birminghammail.co.uk (Birmingham Live)

    • Date complaint received

      14th December 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 12574-22 Hibbert v birminghammail.co.uk (Birmingham Live)


Summary of Complaint

1. Cllr Celia Hibbert complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that birminghammail.co.uk (Birmingham Live) breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in four articles:

• “Wolverhampton city councillor summoned to court over rent arrears”, published 17 August 2022.

• “Dexys star Kev backs Mish as a Wolverhampton parliamentary runner”, published 3 November 2022.

• “Local election results 2023 for Wolverhampton as Labour gets big majority”, published 5 May 2023.

• “Wolverhampton local election 2022 full results with a very close race in Merry Hill”, published 6 May 2023.

2. The first article under complaint was a report of court proceedings involving the complainant, a local councillor. The article stated that “notice was served” by the complainant’s landlord “over rent arrears for a property in Mount Road, Penn”. It then stated the complainant’s representative “told the court that there had been some dispute over historic rent arrears but following negotiations [the complainant’s landlord] had agreed to withdraw the claim”. The article was illustrated with an image of the complainant, with her back turned to the camera, climbing stairs to enter the court building.

3. The second article under complaint focused on the complainant’s opponent in a then-upcoming election. It reported that the complainant “was […] summoned to court in August this year over a matter concerning rent arrears on a property in her ward of Penn, where the landlord had expressed concerns over more than a year's non-payment of rent. A repayment plan was agreed shortly afterwards, the landlord said later.” It also stated the complainant “was suspended indefinitely by the Wolverhampton Labour group last year after it upheld allegations of ‘breaching group rules’”.

4. The second article listed “other Labour members who are hoping to stand for the Wolverhampton SW parliamentary seat”. The list included another candidate who it stated “previously stood for the party in the North Shropshire by-election”, before it listed the complainant who it said “had previously camaigned [sic] to stand as MP for Market Harborough, where she was unsuccessful”.

5. The third article listed local councillors who had been re-elected in the 2023 local election, and reported they were “holding on to their posts along with Cllr Celia Hibbert for Labour”.

6. The fourth article reported on the 2023 local election results. It reported that “the Conservatives gained some ground in Penn”, and that the complainant “held on to her seat with 1,658” votes. It said “the highest turnouts were in Tettenhall Wightwick and Penn, where 39 per cent of the electorate for each area turned out. The lowest number of votes was for Bushbury South and Low Hill, where just 18 per cent of people voted.”

7. Prior to making a complaint to IPSO, the complainant contacted the publication directly on 5 September 2022, about the article “Wolverhampton city councillor summoned to court over rent arrears”. The complainant said the article was inaccurate as she had not been summoned to court but had attended voluntarily, and that she was in court for a “no fault” eviction hearing. She also said the reporter had violated her privacy by taking photos of her after she asked him to stop, and that while she was in a private room discussing matters with her landlord, he had sat in front of the room eavesdropping.

8. The publication responded on 12 September. It said it was satisfied it was accurate to report the complainant had been summoned to court over rent arrears, although it did not specify why. It also said there had been no breach of the complainant’s privacy because it was entitled to report anything heard in open court and the reporter had only taken four pictures of her outside the courtroom, where she did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The publication also said the reporter did not harass the complainant because he did not approach her at court, and just sent her one email the same day of the court hearing that she did not respond to.

9. In the course of the complainant’s IPSO complaint, which began on 22 October 2022, the complainant said that all four articles under complaint contained instances of inaccurate and misleading information, in breach of Clause 1. She said that the first and second articles under complaint were both inaccurate as they stated her appearance in court was linked to “rent arrears”. She said she was in court to discuss a Section 21 no fault eviction and that there were no such rent arrears. She said, in order to call for the hearing, her landlord had been required to sign a court application attesting that no rent arrears were owed, and court documents that confirmed this were a matter of public record.

10. The complainant also said that she had not been “summoned to court”, as was reported in the first article. She said she had attended a meeting at court voluntarily.

11. The complainant also said it was inaccurate for the second article under complaint to report she was “suspended indefinitely by the Wolverhampton Labour group”. She said the Labour Group did not have the power to suspend her indefinitely. She also said that the second article contained a further inaccuracy, as it described another politician as having “previously stood” in the local election, whereas she was described as “having previously campaigned to stand […] where she was unsuccessful”. She said she had actually received 14,420 votes and came second, whereas he (the other politician) came third with 3,686 votes.

12. The complainant said that the third article was inaccurate because it was an unduly negative and dismissive report of her third consecutive victory. She also said that the fourth article was inaccurate, in breach of Clause 1, to report that the Conservative candidate “gained some ground in Penn” and she had “held on to her seat with 1,658” votes. In fact, she had increased the Labour majority for her ward since the last election in 2018 by receiving “1,948” votes; and the voting share for the Conservatives had declined in the intervening period.

13. The complainant also said that the article had incorrectly referred to her as “Cecelia”, and was inaccurate because the electoral wards in the article were listed alphabetically, with the exception of her ward, which was listed last.

14. The complainant then said that the terms of Clause 2 had been breached by the publication of the first article, as this included her home address, which she considered private. She also alleged that the reporter who wrote the article had “eavesdropped” on her private conversations while present in the court building.

15. The complainant also said that the publication intruded into her private life, in breach of Clause 2, by taking and publishing photographs of her entering the court – these photographs appeared in the first article under complaint. She said the photograph was taken from “behind and below”, which she said was “wholly inappropriate” and selected to be deliberately humiliating because her underwear could be seen beneath her trousers.

16. The complainant also said that she had been harassed, in breach of Clause 3, in the taking of these photographs. She said the reporter took photos of her once she entered the court building after she had asked him to stop outside the building.

17. The complainant said the volume of articles about her – which were all written by the same reporter – represented a sustained campaign of harassment, in breach of Clause 3.

18. The complainant also said that the articles – and the alleged inaccuracies – constituted harassment and discrimination, in breach of Clause 3 and Clause 12.

19. The publication did not accept the articles had breached the Code. Regarding the alleged inaccuracy in relation to “rent arrears”, it said the complainant’s legal representative told the court that there had been a dispute over historic rent arrears but that – following negotiations – the landlord had agreed to withdraw the claim. It submitted a copy of the reporter’s notes to support its position. The notes said: “there has been some dispute over historic rent arrears but following negotiations [the landlord] has agreed to withdraw the claim.”

20. The publication also did not accept it was inaccurate to report the complainant had been summoned to court. It provided a Notice of Possession letter, issued to the complainant prior to the hearing, that stated the complainant “should attend in-person face to face”.

21. While the publication did not accept that the first two articles were inaccurate in their references to “rent arrears”, it offered to publish a correction on this point to the first article under complaint. On 20 December 2022, 30 days after IPSO contacted the publication to make it aware that the first article under complaint raised a possible breach of the Code the publication offered to publish the following clarification, although it did not specify where it would be published:

“A previous headline of this article stated that Cllr Hibbert was summoned to court over rent arrears. Although the matter of historic rent arrears was discussed in court, the court hearing in question was a possession hearing. We are happy to clarify this.”

22. Turning to the inaccuracies alleged in the second article under complaint, the publication said it did not accept it was inaccurate to report the complainant had been indefinitely suspended from the Labour group. It said that, at the time the article was published, there was no mention of a time limit to the suspension – it was, therefore, by definition an “indefinite” suspension. However, given the complainant had successfully appealed, the publication said it would be happy to add an update to the top of the second article to confirm that the suspension was revoked.

23. Turning to the fourth article under complaint, while the publication accepted that its article had misreported the election results for the Penn Ward of Wolverhampton council in 2023, it said that the text of the article made clear that the complainant had “held on to her seat”. Further, the publication did not consider that the article was significantly inaccurate to refer to the complainant as “Cecelia” where she publicly referred to herself as “CeeCee”.

24. Notwithstanding this, ten days after receipt of the complaint from IPSO, on 21 March 2023, the publication amended the online article – changing the number of votes received by the complainant to 1,948; the complainant’s name to Celia; and removing the disputed statement that the Conservatives had “gained some ground in Penn” – and published the following footnote correction:

“A previous version of the story stated that Labour councillor ‘Cecilia’ Hibbert won the vote with 1,658 votes. In fact, Celia Hibbert received 1,948 votes – an increase from 1,823 in the 2018 election. The article also referred to Ms Hibbert as ‘Cecelia’ instead of ‘Celia’. We are happy to clarify this.”

25. During IPSO’s investigation, on 2 May 2023, the publication published an updated version of the correction stating:

“A previous version of the story stated that Labour councillor ‘Cecilia’ Hibbert won the vote with 1,658 votes and that ‘the Conservatives gained some ground in Penn’. This was incorrect. In fact, Celia Hibbert received 1,948 votes – an increase from 1,823 in the 2018 election. The article also reported that referred to Ms Hibbert as ‘Cecelia’ instead of ‘Celia’. We are happy to clarify this.”

26. The publication also did not accept the inclusion of the complainant’s partial address in the first article represented an intrusion into her private life, as the information had been heard in open court.

27. The publication also disputed the complainant’s allegation that the reporter had eavesdropped on the complainant’s meeting at court. It said the reporter was sat approximately 10 feet away from a closed door and that, in any event, no information from this conversation appeared in the articles.

28. The publication did not accept that the photograph of the complainant included in the first article under complaint breached Clause 2. It said it strongly refuted the complainant’s suggestion there was anything inappropriate about the image.

29. The publication did not accept that the reporter had continued to take photos of the complainant after she had asked him to stop. It said the reporter took no photographs of the complainant inside the court building and the photograph published in the article clearly showed the complainant outside the court building. The publication accepted that the complainant protested having her photo taken, but said once she had made clear that she did not want to speak to the reporter, he did not persist in pursuing her any further. It provided the photographer’s camera roll, which had four images of the complainant entering court and did not show the complainant inside the court building.

30. The publication did not accept that the volume of articles about the complainant engaged the terms of Clause 3.

31. The publication also said that the terms of Clause 12 were not engaged.

32. The complainant did not accept the images on the photographer’s camera roll were the only ones taken of her.

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.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

33. The Committee firstly considered whether the publication had taken care not to print inaccurate information in reporting the complainant’s court appearance was due to “rent arrears”. The Committee noted the publication’s position that the complainant’s representative had mentioned there had been dispute over rent arrears. However, it did not follow that this was the specific purpose of the hearing, and that the complainant had been “summoned to court over rent arrears” – as reported by the first article under complaint – or on “a matter concerning rent arrears” – as reported by the second article under complaint. The purpose of the hearing could have been ascertained by inquiries on the part of the publication, and the Committee considered this error constituted a failure to take care to not to publish inaccurate information.

34. Given the inaccuracy was in the headline of the first article, and concerned the reason for the complainant’s court appearance, the first article’s inaccuracy was significant and in need of correction in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). As a clarification was not offered until three months after the publication had become aware of the error, the correction was not prompt enough and there was a further breach of Clause 1(ii).

35. In regard to the inaccuracy in the second article under complaint, although the inaccuracy did not appear in the headline, the article still misrepresented the reasons the complainant had appeared at court. The inaccuracy was therefore significant and in need of correction under Clause 1 (ii). The Committee noted that although the publication was made aware that this information was inaccurate by the complainant and had offered to correct another article containing the same information, it had not offered to correct the second article under complaint. There was an additional breach of Clause 1 (ii) on this point.

36. The Committee then considered whether it was inaccurate to report the complainant had been summoned to court. “Summoned” can simply mean an individual is asked to appear at court. As the complainant did not dispute she had been asked to attend court to discuss the Section 21 notice, the Committee did not consider that the first or second article breached Clause 1 by using the word “summoned”.

37. The Committee turned to the complainant’s concern that the second article had breached Clause 1 by reporting she had been “indefinitely suspended”. Regardless of whether the Labour group had the power to force a suspension indefinitely, or whether it was simply a recommendation that the complainant be removed from the group which did not have a specific end date, the complainant did not dispute that when the article was published, she had been asked to leave the group for an unspecified amount of time. In light of this, the Committee did not consider this to be inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

38. Turning to the complainant’s concerns about the third article under complaint, which were framed under Clause 1, the Committee noted there was no specific inaccuracy identified in this article. Rather, the complaint was that the results were presented in an unduly negative way. The Editors’ Code does not address issues of negativity. It makes clear the press has the right to be partisan, to give its own opinion and to campaign, as long as it takes care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. Where there was no inaccurate information identified within the article, concerns that it was unduly negative did not breach Clause 1.

39. Turning to the alleged inaccuracies identified in the fourth article under complaint, it was accepted by both parties that the online article misreported the 2023 election results for Wolverhampton City Council. It reported that the Conservatives had “gained some ground” in the Penn ward and that the complainant had “held on to her seat with 1,658” votes. In fact, the complainant had received 1,948 votes and in doing so had increased the Labour majority in her ward since the last election; the vote share for the Conservative Party had declined. This represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, where the election results were accessible to the publication and they had still been misreported. This was a breach of Clause 1 (i).

40. It was also accepted that the online article had incorrectly referred to the complainant as “Cecelia”. The Committee emphasised that in many circumstances typographical errors, including misspellings of a person’s name, would not constitute a failure to take care over the accuracy of an article. In this instance, however, the misspelling had been in a report of a local election results which was intended to identify the elected representatives to the local community and the general public. In this context, the Committee found that the misidentification of the complainant represented a further failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, resulting in a breach of Clause 1 (i).

41. The Committee considered that the article’s misreporting of the election results – and its misidentification of the complainant – were significant and required correction under Clause 1 (ii). Where a full correction that covered both inaccuracies was not offered until nearly two months after the publication was made aware of the inaccuracies, the remedial action was not sufficiently prompt and there was a further breach of Clause 1 (ii) on this point.

42. The Committee did not consider that the complainant’s further concerns around the order of the wards, or the difference in wording of the terms “having previously campaigned to stand […] where she was unsuccessful”, raised a breach of Clause 1. The order the wards were listed in and the phrasing used to describe past candidacies was a matter of the publication’s editorial discretion and, where no specific factual inaccuracies alleged, not a matter for IPSO. There was no breach of the Code on these points.

43. Where the complainant’s address had been heard in open court, she had no reasonable expectation of privacy over it and there was no breach of Clause 2 in reporting it.

44. The Committee then considered whether the image of the complainant with her back to the camera, from “behind and below” constituted an intrusion into her private life, or whether she had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location where the photograph was taken. The Committee understood that the complainant found the images being taken distressing. However, it noted the published images were of the complainant entering the court building, taken by a photographer in a public place, where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. The Committee understood the complainant had concerns the outline of her underwear could be seen in the images, but nevertheless the image showed the complainant in a public place, entering a court building, and not engaged in an activity over which she could have a reasonable expectation of privacy. As such, the Committee also did not consider the photographer had acted in an intrusive manner while taking the photographs or the images themselves revealed anything private about the complainant. In these circumstances the Committee did not consider the images breached Clause 2.

45. The Committee turned to whether the photography of the complainant constituted harassment. As the accounts of the complainant and the reporter differed, it was not possible for the Committee to establish what exactly had happened during the interaction. However, the Committee noted that there were only a small number of images that appeared to have been taken in quick succession; it did not appear that any images had been taken within the court building. The Committee understood that the complainant believed she had been photographed within the court building after she had asked the reporter to stop photographing her. However, the Committee noted that there were there were no images – published or otherwise – showing her within the court building, and the complainant had not reported seeing a flash or similar positive indicator that a photograph had been taken. Therefore, the Committee did not consider that there was sufficient information before it to show there had been a breach of Clause 3.

46. The Committee then considered the complainant’s concerns, framed under Clause 2, that the reporter had breached the complainant’s privacy by “eavesdropping” on a conversation at court between her and her landlord. The Committee noted there was no evidence to suggest the reporter had listened in on any conversation – for instance, the complainant had not alleged that material from any private conversation had later been published. In the absence of evidence that eavesdropping had taken place and where it was not in dispute that any alleged eavesdropping had not led to the publication of any material, the Committee did not find a breach of Clause 2 on this point.

47. The Committee did not accept the publication’s position that the volume of articles about an individual did not engage the terms of Clause 3, although it acknowledged that the publication of a large number of articles would not ordinarily constitute harassment in breach of the Code. In reaching its decision in this case, the Committee therefore considered several factors: the number of published articles; the time period over which the articles were published; the extent to which the complainant might be considered a public figure and the extent to which her activities might arguably have prompted the coverage; the extent to which the articles might reasonably be said to have solely targeted the complainant; whether the published information could reasonably be said to be intrusive or offensive; and whether publication could be regarded as an abuse of media freedom in light of the right to freedom of expression. In this case, there had been only four articles published over a nine-month period. In addition, the complainant was an elected public official, and the articles published in the period related to different topics, not all of which focused exclusively on the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 3 on this point.

48. The terms of Clause 12 state that publications must avoid prejudicial, pejorative, or irrelevant reference to an individual’s protected characteristic; it does not relate to general concerns that an individual is being treated differently to another person. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 12.

Conclusions

49. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1 (i) and (ii).

Remedial action required

50. Having upheld the complaint, 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 an adjudication; the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

51. The Committee considered that three of the articles under complaint contained significantly inaccurate information that was in need of correction. While the Committee did not consider the corrections and clarifications offered throughout the process to be sufficient to satisfy the terms of Clause 1 (ii), it did note that the publication had shown a general willingness to address the complainant’s concerns and correct the inaccuracies. Therefore, on balance, the Committee considered that a correction was the appropriate remedy for all of the inaccuracies.

52. The corrections for the first and second articles should acknowledge the complainant was not summoned to court because of rent arrears. It should also put the correct position on record, namely that the complaint was in court in response to a Section 21 no fault eviction, which enables a landlord to repossess without establishing fault on the part of the assured short-hold tenant.

53. The correction for the fourth article under complaint should acknowledge it was inaccurate to report the Conservative Party had “gained some ground” in the Penn ward and that the complainant had “held on to her seat with 1,658” votes. It should put the correct position on record, that the complainant had received 1,948 votes and in doing so had increased the Labour majority in her ward since the last election and the vote share for the Conservatives had declined.

54. The Committee then considered the placement of these corrections.

55. As the inaccuracy appeared in the headline of the first article under complaint, the correction should appear as a standalone correction and a link to this correction should be published on the homepage for 24 hours before being archived in the usual way. In addition, if the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, a correction should be added to the article and published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, this correction should also be published as a footnote.

56. Although the inaccuracy in article two did not appear in the headline, the Committee noted the publication had failed to offer a correction on this article despite offering to change another article containing the same information, and as such clearly being aware the article needed subsequent clarification. In the circumstances, the Committee considered that a standalone correction was appropriate. Therefore, the standalone correction in relation the first article under complaint should reference the second article under complaint as well, and make clear that the inaccurate information appeared in two articles. In addition, if the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, a correction should be added to the article and published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, this correction should be published as a footnote.

57. The inaccuracy in the fourth article under complaint appeared in the text of the article. Therefore, if the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, the correction on the article should be published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, the correction should be published as a footnote.

58. The wording of all three corrections should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear they were published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.


Date complaint received: 05/10/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 06/09/2023


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.