Ruling

18355-23 A complainant v nationalworld.com

    • Date complaint received

      31st August 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      14 Confidential sources

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 18355-23 A complainant v nationalworld.com


Summary of Complaint

1. A complainant complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that nationalworld.com breached Clause 14 (Confidential sources) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Dominic Raab report ‘barely breaks surface’ of bullying in government, ex-civil servant claims”, published on 21 April 2023.

2. The complainant had also complained about a tweet which said: "Exclusive: The Dominic Raab report 'barely breaks the surface' of bullying, a civil servant who contributed to the inquiry has said. They have claimed that a political aide swore and threatened them with Raab metres away, 'who didn't bat an eyelid'," published on 21 April 2023.

3. The article – which appeared online only – reported on comments made by an unnamed individual, the complainant, who had given evidence in the inquiry into the former deputy Prime Minister’s conduct. It included direct quotes from the individual, and various details about their employment – including the time which they had spent in the role in question, and what prompted them to leave the job. It also included details about an incident involving the complainant and at least two other individuals: one of whom was named, and one of whom was identified by job title.

4. The complainant said that the article had breached Clause 14 – they said that they had spoken to the publication on the basis that their contribution was “off-the-record” and had made this clear at the beginning of the interview. They said the article had quoted them directly and had published several details about them, including the detail of a specific incident involving a small number of individuals. The complainant believed these details would identify them, and that they would be easily identifiable as only a small number of people had spoken to the inquiry. However, they were unaware if anyone had successfully identified them as a result of the article and accompanying tweet – though they considered that it was likely the case. The complainant was concerned that the article had also revealed their location – as they believed that only readers from a specific location would read the article. They said no steps had been taken to protect their anonymity and that this could have serious repercussions on their future employment.

5. The complainant speculated that there had been some confusion over whether the interview was “off-the-record” or “anonymous” as the article quoted them directly, despite the reporter accepting that they had spoken “anonymously / off-the-record” in text messages after the article was published. The complainant said that as they had disclosed that they had spoken to other media outlets anonymously, the publication may have interpreted this as counteracting the request to be off-the-record. The complainant said that the publication should have clarified what the complainant meant if there was any confusion about any contradictory instructions.

6. The complainant contacted the publication the day after the article and tweet were published to make it aware of their concerns and request the removal of the article. On the same day, the publication apologised and confirmed the article and tweet had been removed.

7. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 14. It said that protecting confidential sources was of prime importance and it believed it had done so on this occasion. It accepted that the complainant had requested the interview be off-the-record. However, it said that after they had made this request, they said during the interview that they were happy to speak on the matter anonymously. The publication said it had not revealed the complainant’s name, age, gender, job position, department, nor did it give a time frame or any other details concerning the complainant’s working circumstances – this, it said, demonstrated that it had protected the complainant in line with its obligations under Clause 14. The publication further said that National World operated across the UK, and therefore did not link the complainant to a specific location.

8.The publication said it had recorded the interview to ensure accuracy and provided the recording and transcript. In the interview, when questioned about a previous interview, the complainant said: “I’m generally happy to speak anonymously… others have reached out to me, and I’ve got no problem speaking anonymously”.

9. The publication expanded on the specifics of the interview, and its aftermath. It said that the reporter had interviewed the complainant and had passed on the transcript to a senior member of staff – the reporter had requested the copy was checked with him before it was published as he was concerned about the “specificity” of some of the information. According to the publication, during a telephone call to the senior member of staff, the reporter said the complainant had previous requested to be off-the-record, but had then said they were happy to be quoted anonymously. The senior member of staff did not make any further checks regarding the complainant’s request to be off-the-record.

10. The publication said these two journalists had discussed the potential article in a message and discussed removing the complainant’s job role as it was too specific. Once the article was ready, the senior staff member did a final check with the reporter, who advised they remove the complainant’s gender and department from the article. The publication provided screenshots of these conversations to support its position; these showed that, on 21 April, the senior staff member said: “I’m guessing this person wants to stay anon? I can write that up quickly if needed”. He later said “able to knock something quickly up?” The article was then sent to the editor for a final check, according to the publication.

11. The publication said as soon as the complainant raised their concerns about the published material it removed the article and tweet on the same day.

12. The complainant reiterated that they were confident that there was no ambiguity in their request to remain off-the-record, which they had communicated at the beginning of the interview. The complainant said the reporter had agreed to this request, and therefore the complainant had continued the interview  on the understanding that any reference to speaking anonymously was in reference to past interviews, and had no bearing on their request to be off-the-record.

Relevant Clause Provisions

Clause 14 (Confidential sources)

Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.

Findings of the Committee

13. Firstly, the Committee considered whether the complainant acted as a confidential source of information. It recognised there was an agreement between the complainant and the publication: they had agreed to speak on the condition that they remain off-the-record and/or anonymous.  As such the Committee considered that the complainant was a confidential source, and that the terms of Clause 14 were engaged. The Committee noted the distinction raised by the complainant between the terms “off-the-record” and “anonymous” and noted that there are multiple interpretations of the term “off the record”. However, neither party disputed that the complainant had been acting as a confidential source, regardless of the publication and complainant’s respective definitions of the phrase “off-the-record”.

14. Having established that the complainant was a confidential source, the Committee next sought to establish whether the publication had protected them, in line with the terms of the Code. It noted that staff at the publication had clearly shown concern prior to publication of the article regarding the possible identification of the source as demonstrated by their internal correspondence – which showed the request being conveyed among staff, and the request that certain information be removed from the article to protect the complainant’s identity – such as their gender and the department they worked for.

15. he complainant believed that the article had revealed information which could lead to their identification.  However, the complainant had not said that anyone had, in fact, identified them as a result of the article. The Committee noted that the complainant had not been named in the article and considered the information about the complainant which had been included.  The information was general in nature, beyond the reference to a specific incident.  However, it did not follow that the incident described would necessarily be unique to the complainant, or that they were the only individual who had personal experience of the incident or a similar one. In these circumstances, the Committee was satisfied that the publication had protected the complainant as a confidential source. There was no breach of Clause 14.

16. Taking the above into account, the Committee considered clear steps had been taken to meet the moral threshold of protection required by the Code. There was no breach of Clause 14.

17. While the Committee did not consider that the terms of Clause 14 had been breached in this instance, it noted that – generally speaking – should there be any confusion or ambiguity over a complainant’s request to remain off-the-record, it would be expected that a publication would clarify the nature of this request in order for it to comply with its obligation under Clause 14. However, in this case, although the nature of the request was not clarified, the Committee was satisfied that the other steps taken by the publication satisfied its obligations under this Clause.

Conclusions

18. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

19. N/A

 

Date complaint received:  08/05/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  14/08/2023