Ruling

18473-23 Clunes v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      25th October 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee –18473-23 Clunes v Mail Online


Summary of Complaint

1. Martin Clunes complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:

· “EXCLUSIVE Martin Clunes says it would be a 'terrible shame' if view from his hilltop Dorset manor house is 'spoilt' by traveller site - after his new-age hippie neighbours won latest stage of planning war against actor”, published on 12 April 2023

· “Doc Martin star Martin Clunes launches last-ditch bid to stop new-age hippie neighbours building traveller site next to his hilltop Dorset manor house... by claiming the couple are NOT nomads”, published on 18 April.

2. The first article reported on a planning application submitted by the complainant’s neighbours, which had been granted despite objections from the complainant, other locals, and town councillors. The article included the following quote from the complainant: “We are very lucky to have this beautiful view. It would be a terrible shame if it was spoilt. We love living here. I am not going to comment on this, thank you. But you are welcome to speak to my neighbour, [name], to seek his comments. My understanding is that the proposals are now going to be heard by council committee members.” The article contained multiple references to this quote, including in the headline.

3. The second article also reported on the planning application, and a “last ditch attempt to stop” the application. The second article contained part of the quote, attributed to the complainant in the first article: “We are very lucky to have this beautiful view. It would be a terrible shame if it was spoilt”.

4. The complainant said that both articles were inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He disputed that he had said “it would be a terrible shame” if his view was “spoilt”. The complainant said that two journalists had attended his home property and, in response to one of them remarking on the beautiful view from his home, he had commented: “Yes, we are very lucky". He said that he had also made clear that he would not be commenting on the application during his interaction with the journalists. He said it would have made no sense for him to have referred to the view being “spoilt” as he could not see his neighbours’ buildings from his property, and the application would have no impact on his view. The complainant also said that neither journalist had a notepad, nor were either taking notes during the conversation. He said one was holding a phone which he believed was being used to record the conversation, and provided video footage, without audio, of the interaction.

5. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It said that, after speaking to the complainant, the journalist returned to his car, drove off the complainant’s property and wrote down what had been said during the conversation. It said the journalist had done this approximately ten minutes after speaking to the complainant. The publication also said that the phone had not been used to record the conversation, and that the notes were the only record of what had been said. The publication said that, whilst the quotes within the article may not reflect the complainant’s version of events, where the publication had both notes taken very shortly after the discussion and the testimony of the journalist tallied with the notes, it was confident the quote was accurate.

6. The publication provided the notes to IPSO, to support its position The notes said: “Beautiful view, we are very lucky. It would be a terrible shame if it was spoilt. We love living here. It’s now going to the committee members. I’m sure you will understand I’m not going to be commenting on this, thank you. I’m sure you’ve come a long way today but I will not say anything further. You’re welcome to speak to my neighbour and seek his comments. House not mobile home, first left down the hill”.

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.

Findings of the Committee

7. The Committee noted that, whilst contemporaneous notes are generally considered to be a good way to demonstrate that care has been taken to accurately report conversations, it did not consider that the notes in these circumstances were contemporaneous. It found this to be the cases where there had been several opportunities for the journalists to take notes of the conversation prior to the point where they had actually done so. For instance, the notes could have been taken at the time of the conversation by either of the two journalists, in the car as soon as they returned to it, or by one journalist whilst the other was driving. Instead, a period of ten minutes elapsed between the conversation taking place and the notes being taken.

8. Both parties accepted that the complainant had said he had a beautiful view, that he was lucky to live at the property, and that he was not going to comment further. Whilst the publication said that it was confident the complainant had also said that it “would be a terrible shame if [the view] was spoilt”, the complainant was adamant he had not said this, and that he would have no reason to say this as the buildings subject to the application were not visible from his house and would have no impact on the view.

9. There appeared to be inconsistencies between the quote and the established facts of the matter – the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that he was not able to see the buildings from his property, and also that he stated he was not going to comment on the application – which was confirmed in the publication’s notes. In these circumstances, and where the journalist had not made contemporaneous notes of the conversation. the Committee considered that on the balance of probabilities, it was more likely than not that the journalist had made an error when recording the conversation. The Committee therefore found that the publication had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1(i).

10. Turning to the significance of the inaccuracy, as the quote was setting out the complainant’s alleged opinion of the planning application, the subject of both articles, it was significant. A correction was therefore required, and as none had been offered there was a breach of Clause 1(ii).

Conclusion

11. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

12. 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.

13. The Committee considered that the quote included in both articles was inaccurate. Whilst the articles accurately reported on the planning application, the inaccurately reported quote required correction. As the majority of the article was accurate, and where the error appeared to have occurred during the process of writing up the notes of the conversation, the Committee considered that a correction was the appropriate remedy. The correction should acknowledge that the quote did not reflect the complainant’s position. It should also put the correct position on record, namely that the complainant denied that he had said the attributed quote.

14. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. As the inaccuracy appeared in the headline of one of the articles, 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, if the publication intends to continue to publish either of the online articles without amendment, a correction should be added to the articles and published beneath the headline. If the articles are amended to remove the inaccurate information, the corrections should be published as footnotes.

15. The wording of all correction should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that they have been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.


Date complaint received: 18/05/2023

Date decision issued: 27/09/2023