Ruling

17960-23 Aghios v mylondon.news

    • Date complaint received

      17th August 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 17960-23 Aghios v mylondon.news


Summary of Complaint

1. Sofina Aghios complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that mylondon.news breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “‘I've been living in fear of my flat burning down after the landlord below created HMO with 3 people cooking on camping stoves’”, published on 27 March 2023.

2. The article – the account of a woman who had bought a flat in London – stated that the complainant – the owner of the flat below this woman – “had converted a three-bedroom property into a House of Multiple Occupancy [HMO] with cooking facilities in each of the units”. The article quoted the flat-owner, who reportedly said: that three people in the flat below her were “cooking on camping stoves”; that each bedroom was “fitted with cooking facilities”; and that “the HMO residents had been provided with portable gas camping stoves to cook on”. The article also said that the woman had a “fear of [her] flat burning down”, and that, after seeing the residents put damaged items outside the building, she “concluded there must have been a fire” in the building. The article reported that the fire brigade had attended the HMO, “but it was to tackle flooding rather than a fire”.

3. The article went on to describe how the woman had “consistently complained to the council” after first making contact in “mid-2021”. It reported that the woman had “claimed” that an employee from the council “seemed disinterested”. The article also reported that in September 2022 council HMO inspectors “tried to enter the flat [beneath the woman’s] but were refused entry”. It then reported that, in late September, the Council sent the woman an email stating that “tenants were cooking on newly installed kitchenettes and this was ‘in line’ with HMO requirements”, but that later in November the council told the woman “the owner of the flat had been told that cooking in the bedrooms was ‘unlawful’”. The article contained a statement from the council which said “the property now has a communal kitchen and there are no cooking facilities in the individual rooms” and that the HMO was “safe”.

4. The article also included several hyperlinks. One linked to a website which belonged to the owner of the downstairs flat, and one linked to the Haringey Public Register which set out all various files and notices in relation to the downstairs flat.

5. Eleven days prior to the publication of the article, the publication emailed the complainant for comment. The email set out: that neighbours to the property had been concerned about the conversion of the property to a HMO property and were scared of fire risks; that kitchens including gas camping stoves had been fitted in the bedrooms; that occupants were continuing to cook in their rooms; that the council had been refused entry to the flat; and that when the council did attend they initially found the property was acceptable in line with HMO requirements but then, at a later date, found it to be unacceptable. The email requested the complainant’s comments by 3pm the next day. The complainant did not respond.

6. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1. She contacted the publication directly on 28 March, the day after the article’s publication, and set out that no gas had ever been used in the property. On 31 March she sent a follow-up letter, setting out further alleged inaccuracies in the article, clarifying that she had never provided her tenants with portable gas-powered stoves, nor had there ever been any such stoves in the property. She said that she regularly inspected the building and on no occasion was such a stove found – she also said that this had been confirmed by the Council. In her complaint made to IPSO on 11 April she also stated that there were no cooking facilities in the bedrooms.

7. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to publish that the woman had a “fear of [her] flat burning down”. The complainant doubted the validity of her neighbour’s concerns, and considered it would be easy to differentiate between items damaged due to flooding and fire – she should therefore have realised that the items she had seen outside the building were not fire-damaged. She also said she thought her property was less of a fire risk than other properties, and noted the council’s statement in the article which stated that her HMO was “safe”.

8. The complainant also said that the article’s representation of the council was inaccurate. She said that rather than seeming “disinterested”, as claimed by the woman in the article, she had found the council’s employees and the emails they had sent her to seem “very interested”. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report that the HMO inspectors were “refused entry” into her property. She said that this had not been a deliberate refusal; rather, it was a misunderstanding on the part of her female tenant who had concerns about the inspector’s legitimacy and did not want to let two men into the building without prior notice – which the complainant said was against the council’s own policy. She said the visit was subsequently rearranged and entry was allowed at a later date.

9. The complainant said the article gave a misleading impression of the status of her HMO. She said it gave the misleading impression she had “converted” the flat into a HMO after the woman bought her flat – which she said was not the case as the licence had already been applied for prior to the purchase. In addition, the complainant said that, as the article did not refer to the fact that she possessed a HMO licence, it gave the misleading impression that she had created the HMO illegally. The complainant also said that omitting many of her concerns that the woman in the article was a bad neighbour rendered the article inaccurate.

10. The complainant also considered that the publication had failed to take care over the accuracy of the article when it contacted her for her comment. She said that the woman referred to in the article had her personal email address and phone number, and that the publication should have asked her to supply this so it could have contacted her using these methods. Whilst she accepted that the publication had emailed her for her comment, she said it was inappropriate to use her professional email address for personal matters, and that she only checked her work email once a month.

11. The complainant also said that the article was in breach of Clause 2, as it used her full name which she considered to be her “personal brand”. She also said that publishing the hyperlink to her website was a breach of her privacy, as she did not consider that the website was for the public, but for her business and clients. Furthermore, she considered the link to the Haringey Public Register, whilst in the public domain, was private as it revealed the address of the flat to more people than would normally have seen it.

12. The publication offered to amend the article during IPSO’s investigation, on 12 May, six weeks after the complainant had first contacted it with her concerns. With regards to the claim that the HMO residents had been “provided” with portable gas camping stoves, the publication provided copies of emails between the woman and the council, in which the council confirmed that the tenants’ “own cooking equipment [had been] removed and are now only allowed to use the kitchen”. It said, therefore, that the council had found that the tenants were using inappropriate cooking equipment in their rooms – although it accepted it was unable to demonstrate that there had been any portable gas stoves in the property. The publication therefore amended the article to state that the woman “believe[d] that the HMO residents had been provided with portable gas camping stoves” and added that the following sentence: “However, upon inspection, the Council confirmed that there were no portable hobs present within any of the bedsit rooms”. In addition, it also offered to publish the below correction as a footnote to the article:

A previous version of this article stated as fact that 'the HMO residents had been provided with portable gas camping stoves to cook on'. This statement has been amended to make clear that this was a claim made by [the woman], and that there is no evidence to demonstrate such equipment had been 'provided' to the residents or found by the Council.

13. After further correspondence with IPSO, over seven weeks since the complainant had made the publication aware of her concerns, the publication offered to amend the headline to: “Fears of flat burning down after landlord below created HMO where residents were using their own cooking equipment”. It also offered to publish the correction below the headline, rather than as a footnote to the article.

14. The publication did not consider it to be a breach of Clause 1 to include the flat-owner’s comment that she was scared her home might burn down. It said that it had clearly distinguished between comment, conjecture and fact in relation to these concerns, which it said were clearly attributed to the woman. It also noted that the fire brigade’s statement – that what the woman was concerned was a fire had actually been a flooding issue – was included within the article.

15. The publication also said that it had presented the claim that the council worker seemed “disinterested” as the woman’s opinion, and that the complainant was not able to dispute how the council worker “seemed” to the woman. It also said that the HMO inspectors were refused entry into the property by the tenant, and therefore it was not inaccurate to state this.

16. The publication said that the complainant’s flat was a HMO whilst the woman lived in the upstairs flat, after recently not being a HMO. It did not, therefore, consider the term “converted” to be significantly inaccurate or misleading. The publication said that omitting that the complainant held a HMO license did not make the article inaccurate or misleading, and that nothing in the article gave the impression that the complainant did not have the correct licence. Similarly, it said the omission of the complainant’s personal views of the woman were not relevant to the story, and therefore the omission of them did not render the article misleading or inaccurate.

17. The publication provided the email that it had sent to the complainant requesting their comment; this showed that it had used the email address the complainant had displayed on her website. It also provided screenshots of messages it had sent her requesting a comment in the form of: a Facebook message; a comment on a photograph she had posted on social media; and a comment on one of her tweets.

18. The publication said that the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over any of the information she had complained about as published in the article.

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.

Findings of the Committee

19. The Committee noted that the article was framed as the flat-owner’s account of living above the complainant’s HMO property. Much of the article was attributed to the woman and her experiences, however, the publication was still required to take care not to publish inaccurate information and to distinguish comment, conjecture and fact.

20. The publication had been alerted to the complainant’s concerns that tenants had not been provided with, nor had they ever had, portable gas camping stoves in their bedrooms within a week of the article’s publication. This claim had been presented as fact within the article and appeared in the headline in quotation marks. However, despite the use of quotation marks in the headline the Committee considered that, in conjunction with the article which reported the use of gas cookers as fact, the headline was misleading. As the publication accepted it was unable to demonstrate the claims were true, and had reported them as fact based on a claim made by a single individual, this represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information and a breach of Clause 1(i).

21. The Committee then considered the remedial action offered by the publication against the requirements for remedial action set out in Clause 1 (ii). The complainant had told the publication on 28 March there was no “gas” in the apartment, and then clarified three days later that there were no gas cookers. Despite being made aware of this, it was only when IPSO began its investigation that the publication offered a correction – six weeks later – and it took a further week for it to offer to change the headline. In addition, despite the headline inaccurately claiming that the gas cooking stoves had been provided to the complainant’s tenants for over seven weeks, the publication did not offer to publish a standalone correction – which the Committee considered to be the appropriate position for correcting headlines, given their prominence. The delay in publishing the correction after receiving the complainant’s comments and failing to publish a standalone correction to an inaccurate headline that had been published for over seven weeks meant the remedial action offered did not represent due promptness or prominence as required by the terms of Clause 1 (ii). There was a breach of Clause 1(ii).

22. The Committee turned to the other inaccuracies alleged by the complainant. It noted that the council had confirmed to the woman in the article that there had been kitchenettes in the rooms – although there were no gas cookers. It therefore did not find the article to be inaccurate in its reference to “cooking facilities”. Furthermore, while the complainant doubted the flat-owner’s fears that her flat was in danger of being burnt down, these fears were clearly attributed to her and were distinguished as her own comments. The Committee also noted that, whilst the article referred to the woman’s concerns that a fire had occurred, the article made very clear – via a statement from the fire brigade – that this was not the case. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

23. Similarly, the Committee did not find that it was inaccurate for the article to report that the council worker seemed “disinterested” to the woman – the word “seemed” clearly distinguished this as her own opinion. In addition, the complainant was not in a position to refute what the woman’s opinion of the council worker was. In relation to the report that the HMO inspectors had been refused entry – whilst the complainant may have had concerns about the methodology and procedures followed – where the tenant refused to allow them to enter the property to inspect it, it was not inaccurate for the article to report they were “refused entry”.

24. The article stated that the complainant had “created” and “converted” the flat into a HMO. It did not state the dates when the application had been made, accepted, or when the conversion came to fruition – nor did it explicitly state that this had occurred before or after the flat-owner had purchased her property. Where it was not in dispute that the flat had been a HMO whilst the woman had lived there, it was not significant when the conversion had occurred. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

25. The complainant said the article was rendered inaccurate by the omission of both the fact she held a valid HMO license and that she considered the subject of the article to be a poor neighbour. The Committee first noted that the article did not reference or allude to the complainant not having the relevant licence for a HMO. Taking this into account, and in the context of the article which set out the woman’s concern regard having a HMO below her flat, omitting these details did not render the article significantly inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

26. The complainant had said that the publication had not taken care to put its allegations to her prior to the publication of the article. However, the Committee made clear that the Editors’ Code does not include a standalone requirement for individuals to be contacted for comment prior to the publication of articles about them. In addition, whilst the complainant may have preferred a different email address to the one used by the publication, she did not dispute that she could have seen the email, and that it was sent to her over a week prior to the publication of the article. In addition, the publication had tried to contact the complaint via social media: twice over Facebook and once over Twitter. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

27. Finally, the Committee turned to Clause 2, and whether the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy over: her name, her business website, or the planning documents on the Haringey Public Records website. All of this information was already in the public domain, and additionally was not information the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy over, as names are not considered private and the two websites were already in the public domain and did not contain any private material. There was no breach of Clause 2.

Conclusions

28. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

29. 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.

30. The Committee considered that both the text and the headline of the article had inaccurately stated that the complainant had provided each bedroom in the HMO she owned with a gas-powered stove, which was not the case. The publication had offered a correction – but not one that the Committee considered fulfilled the requirements set out in Clause 1 (ii) to be duly prominent and prompt. However, where the publication had acknowledged the error in its report and offered remedial action, albeit without the necessary promptness and prominence, the Committee considered that a correction was the appropriate remedy. The correction should acknowledge that the article had previously stated as fact that the complainant had provided portable gas stoves, and should also put the correct position on record, namely that there was no evidence of this.

31. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. As the inaccuracy appeared in the headline to the article, the correction should appear as a standalone correction and a link should be published on the homepage for 24 hours before being archived in the usual way. In addition, as the article had been amended the correction should also be published as a footnote. 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:  12/04/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  25/07/2023