Ruling

20669-23 Hibbert v birminghammail.co.uk (Birmingham Live)

  • Complaint Summary

    Celia Hibbert complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Birmingham Live breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Labour councillor told she is 'only working for herself' after failed Lib Dem bid”, published on 3 September 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      15th February 2024

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 20669-23 Hibbert v birminghammail.co.uk (Birmingham Live)


Summary of Complaint

1. Celia Hibbert complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Birmingham Live breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Labour councillor told she is 'only working for herself' after failed Lib Dem bid”, published on 3 September 2023.

2. The article – which appeared online only – reported that the complainant, a Labour councillor, had “landed herself in hot water with senior party bosses after attempting to jump ship and join the city's Liberal Democrats”. It said she “had a meeting with the chair of Wolverhampton Lib Dems […] to ask about joining the party and sitting as a councillor and prospective parliamentary candidate - details of which were noted in the minutes of the group's August 29 meeting.” The article explained: “The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) has obtained a copy of the minutes, which state: "’Penn Labour councillor Celia Hibbert has expressed an interest in joining the Lib Dems and becoming a parliamentary candidate. The chair met Ms Hibbert and his report was received.’” The article also included a subheading, which read: “The member for Penn failed in her election bid to become an MP”.

3. In addition, the article included a statement from the Liberal Democrat Party's candidate for Bushbury North, who reportedly said: "Cllr Hibbert approached us a couple of weeks ago to arrange a meeting to explore the possibility of her joining the Liberal Democrats and sitting as a Lib Dem councillor. We agreed to meet with her and following this meeting, the local party has decided not to move forward with any arrangement with Cllr Hibbert.”

4. The article further said that “Cllr Hibbert's attempt to join the Liberal Democrats has now been brought to the attention of regional Labour Party bosses. An official source for the party told the LDRS: ‘It's against the party rules to request to join another political party. Cllr Hibbert is welcome to join any party she wishes, but she will never again sit as a councillor for the Labour Party. We're only interested in having councillors who uphold our values and work hard for their residents. At this point, Cllr Hibbert is only working for herself.’"

5. The article also reported that “[i]t emerged in June this year that Cllr Hibbert, who was re-elected to the Penn ward in May 2023 with 1,934 votes, had been suspended by the Labour Party for ‘unspecified reasons’ pending an investigation. First elected to the city council in 2018, she was previously suspended indefinitely by the Wolverhampton Labour Party in October 2021 after allegations of breaching group rules were upheld by members. A further allegation that she tried to join the Conservatives at the time was denied by both parties. The suspension was later overturned by provincial party bosses and Cllr Hibbert had her whip reinstated the following month.”

6. The article went on to report that “[i]n 2019 she campaigned unsuccessfully for parliament in the East Midlands constituency of Harborough, and announced last year that she would be applying to stand as Labour's parliamentary nomination for Wolverhampton South West in the next general election. However, the party selected a different candidate to run for MP”. The article concluded with the following: “Cllr Hibbert did not respond to phone calls, voice messages and emails inviting her to comment”.

7. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 as she disputed she had ever attempted to stand as a Liberal Democrat MP. She also said that the article was inaccurate as she had never been suspended indefinitely by the Labour Party. She said that an indefinite suspension is not a possible sanction under Labour Party Rules, and that the maximum suspension sanction was 12 months. She noted that she was currently a Labour Party Councillor, and it was therefore misleading for the article to report that “she will never again sit as a councillor for the Labour Party.” She also said that, contrary to what the sub-headline reported, she had not “failed” to become an MP.

8. The complainant also said the article was inaccurate as she had never been “told” she “only worked for herself.” The complainant also said that the following portion of the article was misleading: “A further allegation that she tried to join the Conservatives at the time was denied by both parties.” She said the accusation was found to have no merit or evidence and therefore was never put to her; she had not denied it, and there had been no need to as it was baseless.

9. The complainant also said the article was inaccurate to state she had been approached for comment, as she disputed that she had been approached by the publication.

10. The complainant then said that the article breached Clause 2 as it had referenced an internal Labour party disciplinary document which was sent to the complainant by the Chief Whip. She considered this to be private and confidential. The complainant also said that the article had breached Clause 3. She considered this to be the case as the publication’s publisher had published over 100 articles about her in two years. She said a substantial amount of these articles were negative in coverage, intrusive and offensive. She also said that a journalist acting on behalf of the newspaper had engaged in behaviour which caused alarm and distress, though she did not specify why she considered this to be the case.

11. In addition, the complainant said the article had discriminated against her, in breach of Clause 12, as she considered it included “misogynist and racialised language”. She said that this was the case as it included the idiom “in hot water”, which she said referenced the widespread practice of boiling enslaved people as punishment. She also said the article suggested she was “workshy” and without morals or values, which was a racist trope and directed at her as a person of African descent.

12. The publication said its source for the claim that the complainant had attempted to join the Liberal Democrats was the minutes of the City of Wolverhampton Liberal Democrats meeting on 29 August. It therefore did not accept that the article was inaccurate on this point, or that there had been a failure to take care over its accuracy. The publication provided the minutes to support its position, which said:

“Celia Hibbert

(i) Penn Labour councillor Celia Hibbert has expressed and interest in joining the Lib Dems and becoming a parliamentary candidate.

(ii) The Chair met Ms Hibbert and his report was received. The view of members at the Exec and of members expressed elsewhere that Ms Hibbert should not be welcomed in the Lib Dems. The Chair will wait for her to make contact before letting her know.”

It said it had taken further care over the accuracy of the article by approaching a local Liberal Democrat politician and the Labour Party for their comment, both of which were included in the article in full.

13. While the publication did not accept a breach of the Code on the above point, on 7 November – 62 days after it received the complaint – the publication said it was happy to add a statement to the article making clear the complainant denied the claims.

14. The publication accepted that the complainant had not been suspended indefinitely by Wolverhampton Labour Party in October 2021 and that the article was inaccurate on this point. On 18 September – 12 days after being made aware of the complainant’s concerns – it confirmed it had amended the article to make clear that the suspension was revoked after the complainant’s appeal, and published the following correction at the top of the article:

“A previous version of this article reported that Cllr Hibbert had be previously 'suspended indefinitely' in October 2021. The article has been amended to make clear that the suspension was revoked after Cllr Hibbert appealed the suspension. We are happy to clarify this.”

15. The above correction was later amended on 12 October after the complainant reiterated that her initial suspension was 12 months, and was later revoked:

“A previous version of this article reported that Cllr Hibbert had be previously 'suspended indefinitely' in October 2021. In fact, a suspension of 12 months was confirmed in October 2021, however was later revoked after Cllr Hibbert appealed the suspension. The article has been amended accordingly and we are happy to clarify this.”

16. Turning next to the article’s sub-heading, the publication said that the complainant had applied to stand for MP in 2019 and had not been successful. It noted that the article explained this, reporting that “in 2019, she campaigned unsuccessfully for parliament in the East Midlands constituency of Harborough, and announced last year that she would be applying to stand as Labour's parliamentary nomination for Wolverhampton South West in the next general election. However, the party selected a different candidate to run for MP.”

17. The publication did not accept that the article had inaccurately reported that the complainant had been “told she is 'only working for herself'”. It said that this headline reference was supported by the article, which said: "It's against the party rules to request to join another political party. Cllr Hibbert is welcome to join any party she wishes, but she will never again sit as a councillor for the Labour Party. We're only interested in having councillors who uphold our values and work hard for their residents. At this point, Cllr Hibbert is only working for herself."

18. In regard to the article’s reference to the “allegation that she tried to join the Conservatives at the time was denied by both parties”, the publication said that its source for this was an allegation which was put to the complainant in a letter from Wolverhampton Labour Group on 6 October 2021:

“It is alleged that in the previous weeks, you have approached the Conservative opposition in the Council and asked whether you could cross the floor and join their group.

“At the time, Councillor Wendy Thompson, Conservative group leader, advised that ‘There is no truth whatsoever in the allegation made by Labour councillor Paul Birch that Councillor Celia Hibbert has attempted to join the Conservative group.’””

The publication said it was reported at the time that the complainant was contacted for comment regarding this and that she did not respond. Although it did not consider this claim significantly inaccurate, it offered to amend the article to remove the reference to the complainant having denied this allegation.

19. The publication said it did contact the complainant for comment regarding a meeting she had with the Liberal Democrats where she expressed interest joining the party. It provided emails addressed to the complainant which gave her the opportunity to comment on the story.

20. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 2, Clause 12, or Clause 3.

21. The complainant said that the publication did not have proof to support the allegations made in the Liberal Democrat meeting minutes. She further said that the minutes showed the meeting was not quorate – which made it invalid – and that the Liberal Democrat politician quoted in the article had not attended the meeting in question.

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.

Clause 3 (Harassment)*

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

22. The Committee first considered the article’s claim that the complainant had “attempt[ted] to jump ship and join the city's Liberal Democrats”. It noted the publication’s position that it had relied on minutes from the Liberal Democrat meeting as its basis for this claim; the publication had provided the minutes in question, which recorded that the complainant had approached the party to join as a parliamentary candidate. The publication had also approached a local Liberal Democrat member, who had corroborated this information by providing a statement. The newspaper was entitled to rely on the meeting minutes, and it had taken further care over the accuracy of this claim by approaching both the party and the complainant for comment. After it became aware that the complainant disputed the minutes, it had also  offered to publish the complainant’s denial. For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 1.

23. The Committee noted that the complainant had been suspended by the Labour party for 12 months, rather than indefinitely as the article had claimed. The Committee noted that the publication had accepted this claim within the article was inaccurate and had not explained how it had taken care over the accuracy of this point. For this reason, there was a breach of Clause 1 (i). The Committee next considered whether this point represented a significant inaccuracy in need of correction as required by the terms of Clause 1 (ii). Where the article had stated that the “suspension was later overturned by provincial party bosses and Cllr Hibbert had her whip reinstated the following month.” Given that the article had made clear the suspension was overturned, the Committee did not consider the length of time of the suspension was significant in the context of the article which focused on the complainant’s attempt to join another political party. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii) on this point.

24. While the Committee did not find a breach of Clause 1 (ii) on the above point, it considered what the appropriate sanction would be for a breach of Clause 1(i) absent of a breach of Clause 1 (ii). In this case, where the publication had corrected the amended to make clear the suspension was 12 months during the investigation and published a correction, it was satisfied this breach had been remedied by the publication.

25. Turning to the subheading, which said that the complainant had “failed in her election bid to become an MP”, the Committee noted that the article had set out the basis for this claim; it had explained that in 2019 “she campaigned unsuccessfully for parliament in the East Midlands constituency of Harborough, and announced last year that she would be applying to stand as Labour's parliamentary nomination for Wolverhampton South West in the next general election. However, the party selected a different candidate to run for MP”. Where the complainant did not appear to dispute that she had said she would apply to stand as MP and had been unsuccessful, the Committee did not consider the article to be inaccurate on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

26. The Committee next considered the headline: “Labour councillor told she is 'only working for herself' after failed Lib Dem bid”. It noted that this was based on the statement from the Labour party which said: “It's against the party rules to request to join another political party. Cllr Hibbert is welcome to join any party she wishes, but she will never again sit as a councillor for the Labour Party. We're only interested in having councillors who uphold our values and work hard for their residents. At this point, Cllr Hibbert is only working for herself". While this statement was not directly addressed to the complainant, where the spokesperson had said the complainant was “only working for herself”, the Committee did not consider the headline to be inaccurate. Regarding the claim “she will never again sit as a councillor for the Labour Party”, as above, the Committee noted this was distinguished as the Labour spokesperson’s statement, and the article made clear the context and content of the full statement. The Committee also noted that the headline referred to the complainant as a “Labour Councillor”; it was therefore clear that the complainant was, at the time of the article’s publication, still a councillor for the Labour Party. Therefore, it was not presented as a statement of fact that she was not currently a councillor. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

27. Regarding the article’s claim that “Cllr Hibbert did not respond to phone calls, voice messages and emails inviting her to comment”, the publication had been able to provide email correspondence where the journalist had approached the complainant for comment at least twice. Given that the complainant had been given an opportunity to comment before publication, the Committee did not consider the statement to be significantly inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

28. The complainant said it was inaccurate to state that an allegation that she tried to join the Conservatives “was denied by both parties” as this was a baseless claim and she therefore had no need to deny it. In this instance where the allegation did not prove to be correct, and the complainant did deny she had ever attempted to join the Conservative Party, the Committee did not consider this claim to be inaccurate. For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 1.

29. The Committee considered the concerns raised under Clause 2 that the article had quoted from a private document. It noted that the article had quoted several spokespeople from various political parties regarding the complainant’s conduct and that both parties accepted her overturned suspension had previously been reported on. Where it had not been established that the publication had quoted directly from private or confidential documents, as opposed to sources in the public domain, the committee did not find a breach of Clause 2.

30. The Committee noted that the complainant had previously complained under Clause 3 in relation to the volume of coverage concerning her against the publication. It this instance it had not upheld her complaint on this point. The complainant made a further complaint about persistent coverage from the publisher, but had not provided any additional articles to support her claim that the specific publication had breached Clause 3 by persistent negative coverage of her over a one year period – IPSO’s remit in relation to all online material. In any event, the publication only has editorial control over its content, and not responsibility for other articles published by its publisher. In the view of the Committee, one published article did not constitute harassment of the complainant in breach of Clause 3.

31. The Committee also noted the complainant had not provided any further evidence to support that a journalist acting on behalf of the publication had harassed her in relation to the article under complaint. The Committee had sight of the email correspondence where the journalist had approached the complainant for comment, and did not consider the approach to be harassing in nature. For these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 3.

32. The complainant stated the article used misogynistic and racist tropes by, in the context of its criticisms, using the term “in hot water” and implying that she was “workshy” and “lacking in morals”, in breach of Clause 12. The Committee noted that there was no explicit reference to the complainant’s race and did not consider these terms and phrases to be clear references to the complainant’s race – which is what the terms of Clause 12 relate to. While the Committee recognised that the complainant believed the term “in hot water” had connotations with slavery, it noted that the term was of indeterminate origin, but in current parlance is commonly used to refer to someone being in trouble, and is likely to have been used in this way given the disciplinary matters and sanctions discussed in the article. For the reasons above, the Committee did not consider this term constituted a pejorative or prejudicial reference to her race or sex. For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 12.

Conclusions

33. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial action required

34. The correction put the correct position on record and was a sufficient remedy for the breach of Clause 1 (i). No further action was required.


Date complaint received:  03/09/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  31/01/2024