Ruling

18539-23 Garnier v Tenbury Wells Advertiser

    • Date complaint received

      28th September 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 18539-23 Garnier v Tenbury Wells Advertiser


Summary of Complaint

1. Mark Garnier MP complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Tenbury Wells Advertiser breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “MP’s home woe”, published on 4 May 2023.

2. The article was published on the newspaper’s front page. The headline was accompanied by the sub-heading: “Garnier may be in breach of restriction” which directed readers to page three. It was accompanied by a photograph of a three-way junction – a signpost to a named hamlet was visible. A smaller inset photograph of the complainant also appeared on the front page.

3. The continuation of the article on page three appeared under the headline “MP’s home ‘in breach of tenancy condition’”. It reported that the complainant had “allegedly been living in a house [in Worcestershire] for 10 years despite being in breach of an agricultural occupation clause”. It reported that a “Certificate of Lawfulness for occupation of property in breach of agricultural occupancy restriction” had been submitted to the local District Council and identified the condition: “The occupation of the dwelling shall be limited to a person solely or mainly employed, or last employed, in the locality in agriculture”. The article identified the hamlet where the property was located and its closest town.

4. The article then identified the owner of the property, and included a comment from the land agent, who confirmed that the property was rented by the complainant; the complainant’s residency had started in “March 2011”, with no void period since; an “Assured Shorthold Tenancy” was initially put in place for a “six-month period “and “left to roll” thereafter; and “the property ha[d] been occupied in breach of the Agricultural Occupancy Restriction”.

5. The article concluded by stating that the complainant’s “family decided to comment when approached” by the publication.

6. Two days prior to the article’s publication, a journalist acting on behalf of the newspaper contacted the complainant’s parliamentary address, and requested a comment on the planning application and the allegation that the property, where the complainant resided, was in breach of the agricultural occupancy condition. The next day, the journalist telephoned the office and spoke to the office manager, who declined to comment.

7. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline “MP Mark Garnier's Tenbury home 'in breach of occupation clause'”.

8. The complainant said the headline and sub-heading wrongfully suggested that he was personally in breach of an agricultural occupation clause. He said this was misleading and unsupported by the text of the article, in breach of Clause 1. He also denied that he was relevant to the story: he did not own the property; had not been aware of any restrictions on the property; and was not the local MP.

9. Further, the complainant said he had been given inadequate time to respond to a request for comment by the publication. He noted the nature of the request, his parliamentary commitments, and a forthcoming local election. He also noted that the information had been publicly available on the council’s website since January 2023 and therefore such a deadline was artificially and unnecessarily short. He further expressed concern that he had not been directly contacted from comment; the publication had instead contacted his parliamentary office.

10. The complainant also said that the article intruded into his privacy in breach of Clause 2. He said the article included sufficient information for readers to identity the location of his family home. He said that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to his home and family life. He said that due to his profile – and in the context of recent attacks on MPs – the identification of his private home had given rise to security issues. He considered that there was no public interest in publishing such material.

11. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the headline was supported and clarified first by the prominent sub-heading which made clear the complainant “may be in breach of restriction”, with the text of the article explaining that an agricultural occupancy restriction may have been breached by the complainant’s presence as a tenant in the property – a point confirmed by a letter from the property’s land agent to the local council, and accurately quoted in the text of the article. Further, it said that all the information regarding a planning application in relation to the property was sourced from the local District Council website, which it provided to IPSO. This document identified the complainant and said that, “on the balance of probability, based on the evidence provided [residence[ has been occupied continuously for in excess of 10 years in breach of the agricultural occupancy restriction”. The document also set out the nature of this restriction, which was that:

“The occupancy of the dwelling shall be limited to a person solely or mainly employed, or last employed, in the locality in agriculture […] or in forestry or a dependent of such a person residing within him (but including a widow or widower of such a person”.

12. The publication added that the story was clearly a matter of public interest; it had a duty to scrutinise the affairs of public figures, albeit fairly and accurately.

13. Further, the publication maintained that its approach for comment was appropriate. It had first contacted the complainant’s parliamentary office for comment, via email, at 6pm on 2 May 2023 – and two days before the article’s publication. Its reporter had then telephoned the office the following morning at 9am and spoken directly with his office manager, who had declined the opportunity to add any further clarity on the matter. Notwithstanding this, upon receipt of the complaint from IPSO, it offered to publish a statement from the complainant recording his position on the alleged breach.

14. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 2. In recognition of the security fears of MPs, the publication said that it decided not to publish the complainant’s full address or an image of his home. Further, it did not accept that the article included sufficient information to identity his home or reveal its exact location; its use of the hamlet was intentionally vague. In addition, it said this information was already in the public domain; it had been published on the council’s website. Though it accepted that these were later redacted, following a request by the complainant.

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

15. The Committee acknowledged that the headline and sub-headline were somewhat ambiguous, and that they did not make clear the complainant’s precise connection to the alleged breach of the restriction. Clause 1(i) provides that headlines must be supported by the text of the article and requires that headlines are not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. The text of the article explained that a condition may have been breached due to the complainant’s occupancy of the property; there was therefore a basis for the link made in the headline between the complainant and the potential breach of the restriction. The article also provided further information about the situation which had prompted the application to the local District Council. It identified the landlord of the property; explained that the complainant had resided in the property as a tenant since March 2011; detailed the terms of his tenancy – which were provided by the land agent to the local council and published on its website; and described how the property may have been occupied in breach of the Agricultural Occupancy Restriction. In light of the additional information included in the article, which clarified the ambiguity of the headlines, the Committee did not consider that the headline and sub-headline had presented the connection between the complainant and the alleged breach of the restriction in a significantly inaccurate or misleading way. Having also found that the headline and sub-headline were supported by the text of the article, there was no breach of Clause 1.

16. The complainant expressed concern about the way he was contacted for comment ahead of the publication of the article. In circumstances where the complainant had been contacted – via his parliamentary office – ahead of publication and had been provided with the opportunity to provide further clarity on the subject, the Committee did not consider that the publication had failed to take care over the accuracy of the information within the article. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. The Committee next considered the concerns raised under Clause 2. In general, people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding their address. However, there are circumstances in which the publication of details of an individual’s home may be intrusive. In this case, the Committee recognised that certain individuals, including those with a high public profile, may be exposed to security problems if their address, or details allowing their address to be identified, are published. As such, this may be information over which they have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

18. In this instance, the article reported details of the wider geographical region where the property was located and identified the hamlet that it was near. The photograph showed a junction and identified the hamlet; it did not identify the property or reveal its exact location. In the Committee’s view, these details were insufficient to identity the precise location of the property, such that the complainant would have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the information contained in the article. The Committee also noted that the property’s address – and its connection to the complainant – had been detailed on the local council’s website, and was already in the public domain. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

Conclusions

19. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

20. N/A


Date complaint received: 22/05/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/09/2023