Ruling

19509-17 Nokes v The Sunday Times

    • Date complaint received

      19th April 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 19509-17 Nokes v The Sunday Times

Summary of complaint

1. Caroline Nokes MP complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Minister faces police inquiry over ‘bogus’ planning papers”, published on 29 October 2017. The article was also published online with the headline “Caroline Nokes faces police inquiry over ‘bogus’ planning papers”.

2. The article reported that the Chief Constable of Hampshire Police had asked detectives to review a planning application to develop the complainant’s constituency home, after it had emerged that the application had been made in the name of the complainant’s sister, rather than her own name. It explained that planning laws state that an application must declare the identity of a property’s true owner. It reported the complainant’s position that this was a “genuine error”.

3. The article reported that the complainant did not seek planning permission before renovating a garage at the property, which now includes a kitchen, living room bedroom and gas and electricity facilities. It reported that according to the local council’s planning policy, “domestic outbuildings”, are not permitted if they provide “additional habitable accommodation”.  The article later reported that “the [local authority] said the garage development did not require planning permission”. Apart from the headline, the online article was the same as the print article.

4. The article was accompanied by a graphical representation of the complainant’s home and its surroundings. It showed the house, the general layout of the property, including the outbuildings and planned outbuildings. It also showed the property’s boundaries, and that that there was a driveway to the garage, and a path to the front door, both leading from the road. The article was also accompanied by a photograph of the front of the house, as it appeared from the road, and a photograph of the garage subject to renovation. The graphic was titled “The ‘Garage’ that Nokes built”. The garage in the graphic was labelled “October 2015 Start of works to convert existing garage to residential use for parents. Built without planning permission”.

5. The complainant said that by publishing a detailed layout plan of her property, including all main points of access, the newspaper had breached her security and privacy. She said it was not a pre-existing drawing, and there is no comparable layout illustration available. She said she warned the newspaper before publication that she would consider publication of pictures of her property as a breach of her privacy and security; she said that the newspaper went further and published an entire layout diagram. She said that the plan had been extensively re-published on social media by a campaign group, and that as a result, she was forced to install a further locking gate to maintain her security, following a threat of protestors coming to her home. In addition, the complainant said that a previous article had identified her home as being within her constituency, and said that by reporting it was also in an area governed by a certain local planning authority, the newspaper had narrowed the location to a handful of roads.

6. The complainant said that she had not “built” the garage, and that the reference to her having done so “without planning permission”, clearly implied wrongdoing. She said that the garage was built in the early 1900s, and according to planning authorities, there are no planning conditions attached to it. She said she had not required planning permission to renovate the garage.

7. The newspaper said that the published layout plan of the property was drawn on the basis of publicly accessible imagery on Google maps, and from a publicly available document on the planning pages of the local authority’s website. It said it was well aware of the security concerns of public figures, and ensured before publication that neither the illustration nor the article would include more information about the location of the home than was already in the public domain, other than that it was in a certain area in Hampshire. The newspaper noted that the complainant’s address had been in the public domain for some time, and was known to the campaign group to which the complainant had referred prior to publication of the article. It said that the property’s access points are visible from the street. It said that prior to publication, the complainant had told its journalist that she would consider publication of photographs of the rear of her property to be a breach of her privacy. It said it had not published such photographs; the photographs accompanying the article were of the main house, and of the front of the garage, as seen from the road. The newspaper denied it had breached the complainant’s privacy, but offered to remove the layout plan from the online article, as a gesture of goodwill.

8. The newspaper said that the local authority’s planning policy is not to permit the development of domestic outbuildings so as to provide additional habitable accommodation. It said it was not inaccurate for it to draw to the public’s attention the fact that a Member of Parliament had redeveloped her garage to provide additional accommodation in circumstances where the article did not accuse the complainant of wrongdoing, and made clear that the authority had said that no planning permission had been required.

9. The newspaper said that the title of the layout plan (“The ‘Garage’ that Nokes built”), was intended to be a reference to the renovation of an old garage, being a play on the nursery rhyme ‘The House that Jack Built’. It said it was not meant literally, and denied that the caption was inaccurate, when the article was considered as a whole. As a gesture of goodwill, it offered to remove the phrase from the online article.

Relevant Code provisions

10. 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 his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual’s private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant’s own public disclosures of information.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The Public Interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

i. Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.

ii. Protecting public health or safety.

iii. Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

iv. Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.

v. Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.

vi. Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.

vii. Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will or will become so.

4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication – or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.

Findings of the Committee

11. Generally, the Committee would not consider someone’s address, or broad details about the layout of a property, to be private information. However, the Committee recognised that for certain individuals, including those with a high public profile, publication of information about their homes may give rise to concerns about security, which may result in an intrusion into their private lives.  For instance, in this case, the Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that the information about the layout of her property may give assistance to those who wish to lobby, protest or intimidate her at her home, due to her role as a Member of Parliament. The Committee considered whether the newspaper had failed to have sufficient regard for the complainant’s privacy, by publishing the information about her property contained in the article.

12. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that, by disclosing the fact that the home was in a certain planning authority area, whereas in previous coverage it had been described as within her constituency, the newspaper had narrowed the location to a small number of roads. However, the article did not identify the precise road the complainant’s house was on, and the Committee also noted that the complainant’s address had already been placed into the public domain. The newspaper had not introduced into the public domain further material information about the location of the complainant’s property, and the inclusion of the reference to the local planning authority in which the property was situated was justified in the context of an article which concerned issues relating to the authority's planning policy . This aspect of the complaint under Clause 2 was not upheld. 

13. The information about the layout of the complainant’s property contained in the graphic accompanying the article, including the access points from the roads, did not go substantially further than the information which was available in the public domain, by using Google maps. In addition, information about the property’s access points could be obtained by looking at the property from the street. Where the information contained in the article about the property’s layout was publicly available, the Committee considered that publication of the plan within the article did not represent an intrusion in to the complainant’s private life. In addition, the plan was not published gratuitously or without justification; it was included to illustrate the changes made to the complainant’s property which were the subject of the article. The Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to delete the plan from the online article, in response to the complainant’s concerns, but there was no breach of Clause 2.

14. The title of the layout diagram was “The ‘garage’ that Nokes built”, and was accompanied by a label: “October 2015: Start of works to convert existing garage to residential use for parents. Built without planning permission”.  The Committee considered that the diagram and label were inconsistent, and that it was unclear from the captions whether the complainant had built a new garage, or converted an existing garage. However, the text of the article clarified that the piece was concerned with the complainant’s “redevelopment of a garage to provide a home for her parents” in light of the local authority’s planning policy in relation to developing buildings to provide additional habitable accommodation.  The Committee considered that the article as a whole made clear that the issue which had raised “new questions”, was the redevelopment of an existing garage, rather than the construction of a new garage. The article was not misleading on this point. 

15. The references to the complainant not having sought planning permission before renovating the garage, or that it was “built without planning permission”, were, if taken alone, capable of implying that the complainant had breached planning laws; a serious allegation, the newspaper had not sought to justify. However, the Committee considered these statements in the context of the entire article. The article referred to the garage renovation as raising “new questions”, and contrasted the fact that permission has not been sought, with the local council’s planning policy. The article also reported, although some paragraphs later, that the local authority had confirmed that the garage renovation did not require planning permission. In these circumstances, where the Local Authority’s position that planning permission was not required was stated unambiguously, albeit at the end of the article, it was not misleading in the manner alleged. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point

Conclusions

16. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

17. N/A

Date complaint received: 31/10/2017

Date decision issued: 29/03/2018