Ruling

17652-23 Potucek v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      21st September 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 17652-23 Potucek v The Daily Telegraph


Summary of Complaint

1. Lucy Potucek complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Nudists, bidding wars and no security — my rental hell”, published on 17 February 2023.

2. The article was a first-person account of a journalist’s experience finding a home to rent in London, after having been “evicted”. The article said: “with three weeks left to find somewhere to live, I was running out of options. My landlord had evicted me, on the grounds that my room needed to be refurbished”. It reported that she:

“later discovered the conditions under which I had been evicted were illegal. I’d been there for six months, paying £1,150 a month. Even though I’d signed a lodger agreement that stated otherwise, my landlord didn’t live in the property. They kept a room there that they stayed in a handful of times or let out to friends (one stayed for six weeks) but in order to legally have a lodger in a home, it needs to be the landlord’s primary residence. In short, this meant that in the eyes of the law, I was actually an assured shorthold tenant, not a lodger, and couldn’t be evicted so easily. Nonetheless, I decided it was better not to spend money I didn’t have hiring lawyers to fight this and simply move out.”

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format. This online version of the article also included a subheading, which said: “After being evicted by my most recent landlord, the search began for a new flat – and so did the torture that is the London rental market”.

4. The complainant was the writer’s previous landlord during the period described in the article. She said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as the writer had not been “evicted”, but rather was given notice in line with her contract as a lodger. She said this was due to a change in her personal circumstances and the need for repairs to the property. She said her tenant had not been given three weeks’ notice as stated in the article. She said that the writer had willingly agreed to a “lodger contract” and that the conditions of the eviction were inconclusive, but the article had stated as fact that it was “illegal”.

5. The complainant disputed the property was not her primary residence, as claimed in the article. She said she had resided at the property as much as was possible given her personal circumstances, and that her friend had stayed for three weeks, rather than six weeks – as reported in the article.

6. The complainant further said that the article had omitted the fact that the tenant had an anxious indoor cat, which would likely make her house-hunt more difficult. She said that Safer Renting – a service which provides advice to tenants, and which had provided the writer with advice – had not been mentioned in the article. She also said that the article omitted to mention that the writer had moved six times in two years and claimed that she had caused damage to the property. She also said the article had not made clear she had found a place to rent in three weeks - which was a positive outcome. She said that omitting these pieces of information from the article rendered it inaccurate.

7. The complainant said she had searched a property website and had found four homes in the immediate area that would permit a cat and over 22 properties in central London at approximately the same rate the writer was paying. She didn’t accept, therefore, that the writer would struggle to find a property for the reasons outlined in the article. She also said the rent was £1700 including bills, not £1150. She provided a screenshot of the rent payments which reflected this.

8. The complainant also complained under Clause 3 as she said she felt harassed by the writer’s conduct while she was her lodger. She said she continued to feel harassed now that the issues had been placed in the public domain by way of the article under complaint.

9. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It said the writer had signed a twelve-month lodger agreement with the complainant to live at the address with the landlord and one other lodger. It then said a lodger agreement is dependent on the condition that the landlord who is renting the room is also living at the address as their primary residence – a condition which it said was not met by the complainant during her time as the writer’s landlord. It also noted that the writer had been living at the address for six months when the complainant gave her notice to vacate the property, prior to the expiry of the twelve-month period. It said, by giving notice to the lodger to leave the property before the expiration date of the agreement, she had commenced eviction proceedings. The publication said that the article had not reported the writer was given three weeks’ notice by the landlord; rather, it said that she had “three weeks left to find somewhere to live”.

10. According to the publication, the writer sought legal advice regarding her situation and spoke to two solicitors prior to contacting Safer Renting, an independent housing law service; this was the basis for the writer’s claim that her eviction was “illegal". The publication provided the legal advice the writer had received, which it said supported the writer’s claim. The publication said the complainant was not in a position to dispute the legal advice which was provided by independent legal advisors.

11. The publication did not accept that reporting the property was not the complainant’s primary residence was inaccurate. It said that in the complainant’s initial contact with the writer, prior to her moving in, the complainant had stated that “my partner and I live in the countryside and travel in for work. My schedule is typically Thurs & Friday at the house”. It provided the messages in question to IPSO. The publication also said that the complainant had told the writer that she was planning to move back in 2023 due to a change in circumstances, which further supported the writer’s position that the complainant was not living at the address as her primary residence whilst the writer resided there.

12. The publication said that the article was not significantly inaccurate, misleading or distorted to report that the complainant “kept a room there that they stayed in a handful of times or let out to friends (one stayed for six weeks)”. It provided screenshots of a WhatsApp group chat between the house’s residents which showed that other individuals had stayed in the complainant’s bedroom. It said this also suggested this was not her primary residence, and supported the article’s claim that friends stayed in the room.

13. The publication said that the article was a first-person opinion piece as indicated by the presentation and tone of the article. It said that readers would be fully aware that it documented a personal experience and that no legal action had been pursued; this was clear from the article, as the writer had said that she did not have the money to pay lawyers. The article, therefore, did not state that the landlord had been found liable in any court proceedings. The publication said that the writer had set out the basis for why she believed her eviction was “illegal”, by explaining that she had entered into a lodger agreement and why she considered that she had additional rights.

14. While the publication did not accept a breach of the Code, it offered to amend the article, six days after being made aware of the complaint, so that the rent price would read £1700.

15. The publication said it was not for the complainant to state as fact that the writer of the article would not have encountered difficulties finding and securing alternative rental properties; this was speculation on her part. It further did not consider omitting the fact that the writer had an anxious cat or that Safer Renting had been involved breached the terms of Clause 1.

16. The publication did not accept that Clause 3 had been breached. It highlighted that the Clause related to intimidation, harassment, or persistent pursuit, and argued that –as no such behaviour had occurred – the Clause had not been engaged.

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 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

17. The Committee’s role was to adjudicate on the accuracy of the article under complaint, rather than on the accuracy of any claims made by the journalist in her personal interactions with the complainant. The Committee therefore considered the article’s claim that “with three weeks left to find somewhere to live, I was running out of options. My landlord had evicted me, on the grounds that my room needed to be refurbished”. It noted that the complainant had terminated the writer’s lodger contract prior to the 12-month term originally agreed upon by both parties. As such, it was not inaccurate for the article to describe this as an “evict[ion]”. In addition, the article did not claim that the notice period was only three-weeks long; rather, it said that the writer of the article did not have anywhere to live three weeks prior to the date when she was expected to have moved out of the property – which did not appear to be in dispute. For these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

18. Turning to the complainant’s concern that the article inaccurately reported that the conditions of the eviction had been “illegal”, and that the writer had been an assured shorthold tenant rather than a lodger, the Committee noted that the article had set out the reasons why the writer considered that the terms of the lodger agreement did not apply and that she had additional rights. The article was not a news report, and the writer had stated that the conditions under which she had been evicted were “illegal” in an opinion piece. This was, therefore, framed as the writer’s perspective on the situation for which there was a basis: the publication had provided email advice the writer had received from an independent housing law charity. The article went on to state the writer could not afford a lawyer to “fight this” and therefore made clear that there had been no legal finding on the status of the eviction as a result of legal proceedings. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. The complainant had disputed that the house was not her primary residence, as reported by the article, and said that she lived there as often as she was able. The publication had provided the rental listing messages which suggested the complainant lived at the property only two days a week, and WhatsApp messages which supported the article’s claim that the complainant did not live at the rental property throughout the week. While the Committee was not in a position to know the precise nature of the complainant’s residency at the property during the period the writer resided there, the publication had demonstrated that it had taken care over the accuracy of the claim – given the material it had provided – and the complainant did not appear to dispute that she had spent significant time also living at other properties. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. The complainant also said the article inaccurately reported a friend of hers had stayed for six weeks, when in fact she had stayed for three weeks. The Committee did not consider the difference between three and six weeks to be significant where it was not in dispute that non-residents did stay in the complainant’s bedroom for weeks at a time, and this did not materially affect the rest of the article: which was an account of the writer’s experiences finding a new property. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

21. The complainant said that the rent was actually £1700 – including bills – rather that £1150. The publication accepted that the figure in the article was inaccurate and offered to amend it on 6 April. However, the Committee did not consider the inaccuracy to be significant in the context of an article about the writer’s experiences of renting in London, and where it had not inaccurately reported that the complainant had overcharged the writer. For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

22. The complainant considered that the article omitted several pieces of information, which rendered it inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. The Committee noted that newspapers are entitled to choose which information they include in articles, provided that the Code is not otherwise breached. The article was a first-person account of the journalist’s personal challenges looking for rental properties in London – the Committee did not consider omitting the information flagged by the complainant rendered the article significantly inaccurate, distorted, or misleading where the article focused on the writer’s first-person experience of finding a property, and her experience living with the complainant formed a brief part of the article and no claim was made that the experience was covered exhaustively. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

23. The complainant disputed the journalist’s account of the difficulties renting in London, based on her own research. The Committee noted that the article was clearly the writer’s personal account of her experience house-hunting – the complainant was not in a position to dispute the writer’s subjective experience of looking for a new place to live. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

24. In regard to Clause 3 the Committee noted that the complainant and the journalist had interacted with each other prior to the article being published. However, in this instance the interactions were due to their relationship as landlord and tenant and the ensuing difficulties related to the eviction. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainant felt harassed by the writer’s behaviour, this concerned the dispute between them and not the writer’s role or behaviour as a journalist. It further noted that the article in and of itself did not constitute harassment under Clause 3; the complainant was not identified, and there was only one article under complaint which described the journalist’s experience with the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 3 on this point.

Conclusions

25. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

26. N/A


Date complaint received: 28/03/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 01/09/2023