Ruling

20964-23 The Irish Football Association v Sunday Life

  • Complaint Summary

    The Irish Football Association (IFA) complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Life breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “LIFE'S A PITCH FOR LARNE”, published on 21 May 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      21st March 2024

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 20964-23 The Irish Football Association v Sunday Life


Summary of Complaint

1. The Irish Football Association (IFA) complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Life breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “LIFE'S A PITCH FOR LARNE”, published on 21 May 2023.

2. The article appeared on the back page of the newspaper, above a banner which read: “Serious questions over Euro Licence due to unfit 4G Inver surface”. The article reported that Larne FC’s participation in the UEFA Champions League “could be in doubt following a wrangle over their unfit 4G pitch and subsequent European Licence approval by the Irish Football Association”. It then reported that an investigation by the publication had “thrown up a number of anomalies around the suitability of their licence, which is required to play European football”. The article then reported that Larne FC had been “forced to concede that their Inver Park pitch had failed a FIFA inspection and they must therefore find an alternative venue to play continental games next season”. It stated that Larne FC “were granted a UEFA European Licence by the Irish FA last month following a March 31 deadline when strict criteria needed to [be] met.”

3. The article continued on a two-page spread, which spanned pages 78 and 79 of the newspaper, under the headline “LICENCE TO GRILL”. The article then reported that Larne FC were “forced to release a statement confirming Inver Park [Larne FC’s stadium] could not be used for their European games” and had made “a request to [another football club] to use [its pitch] as their venue to host European games" – and “the request was rejected”.

4. The article then asked: “Why were Larne seeking an alternative venue to Inver Park for their European games? Should this not have been sorted out months ago?” The article reported that the newspaper had “put these questions to Larne” prior to the article’s publication and that a:

“[S]tatement of confirmation was then swiftly released but left more issues to be addressed, including: Where are Larne going to play? What is the problem with the Inver Park pitch? How long has there been a problem? When did Larne – and the Irish FA – know there was an issue with the surface? Why wasn’t this addressed before now?”

5. The article continued: “It transpires that Larne’s pitch certificate expired last November and Inver Park failed a subsequent renewable test. This is also a Category A/essential requirement to get a licence”. It then stated that there are:

“[T]wo types of pitch certification, as outlined on FIFA’s website: ‘FIFA awards the FIFA Quality mark to pitches that meet the standard for community and amateur pitches, and the FIFA Quality Pro mark to pitches that ensure the highest playing performance for professional level football’. A further search of the FIFA website shows Larne holding a Quality certificate – not the Quality Pro certificate other Irish Premiership clubs with artificial surfaced have. How, then, were Larne awarded a UEFA European Licence last month if their pitch does not meet the required standard?”

6. The article also reported that the newspaper:

“[A]sked the Irish FA if Larne had a Quality Pro certificate at the time of the deadline. The IFA declined to answer directly on the grounds of confidentiality but said: ‘As part of the entry process to UEFA club competition, eligible clubs who have qualified for UEFA Club Competitions season 2023-24 on sporting merit, have obtained a EUFA Licence, and who are seeking to play on artificial turf must provide a FIFA Quality Pro certification by June 2, 2023. Where a club is unable to provide the competition organisation (UEFA) with such confirmation, it can nominate an alternative compliant venue before this date”.

7. The article then stated that Larne FC “took the same position when asked if the club had a Quality Pro pitch certificate on March 31”, commenting: “’As referred to in our statement on Thursday, Inver Park remains UEFA Category 2 Stadium, as per the UEFA Club Licence issued by the Irish Football Association. UEFA’s competition rules state that we have until June 2 to nominate an alternative venue to play our European home games and we will announce where this will be in due course’”.

8. Following this, the article stated that Larne was “correct in stating it has UEFA Category 2 Stadium status and a UEFA Club Licence issued by the Irish FA, but there is clear evidence to suggest this licence should not actually have been issued by the [complainant] in the first place.” It added: “June 2 is indeed the cut-off point for associations to confirm their clubs’ participation in Europe, but the Irish FA deadline to apply for a European Licence was March 31, at which time it appears Larne’s Inver Park pitch was not up to European standard”. The article concluded: “[O]n the evidence [the newspaper] has viewed, there are more questions than answers to this curious case.”

9. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “EUFA licence concerns casts doubt over Larnce’s plans for European football this summer”.

10. The complainant said the article was inaccurate and misleading, in breach of Clause 1, as it suggested that it had improperly granted a UEFA Club Licence to Larne FC and reported that there was “clear evidence” the licence should not have been issued – a claim it said was unsubstantiated.

11. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It noted that the complainant had published a document, titled “Club Licensing Manual for Participation in the UEFA Club Competitions”, which made clear that it “grants its UEFA Club Licence in accordance with this Manual”, with Section 8.4.1 stating:

“The licence applicant must have a stadium available to play UEFA club competitions. The licence applicant either: a) owns the stadium, or b) if it does not own the stadium, must provide a written contract with the owner(s) of the stadium or with owners of different stadia it will use. This contract must guarantee the use of the stadium”,

The above was described in the manual as ‘Category A criteria’.

13. The newspaper also said that Section 2.1.1.2 of the Manual said that Category A criteria was “essential” and that “if the licence applicant does not fulfil any A-criteria, then it cannot be granted the UEFA Club Licence”. Further, the newspaper noted that, according to FIFA’s website, Inver Park has a FIFA ‘Quality’ pitch certification, rather than the higher FIFA ‘Quality Pro’ pitch certification required for UEFA Club Competitions. It therefore argued that Larne FC did not appear to meet a Category A Criteria for a UEFA Club Licence as it did not “have a stadium available to play UEFA club competitions”. As such, the newspaper said there was evidence to suggest that the UEFA Club Licence in question should not have been issued by the complainant. It added that the article did not contain a statement of fact that the licence should not have been issued, but instead raised important questions around the process of issuing the licence that needed to be addressed.

14. The newspaper said that, prior to the article’s publication, a journalist acting on behalf of the publication contacted the complainant for comment via email. It provided the email chain to IPSO; this included the following excerpts:

Reporter: […M]y opening question is, do Larne have a FIFA Quality Pro pitch certificate for Inver Park, and did they have this certificate on March 31 of this year? I may have more questions.

[…]

Reporter: I have asked you/the IFA because it is the IFA's Licensing department that has the answers. I know you're twitchy about this but I have to ask, did Larne have a FIFA Pro Standard pitch certificate on March 31 and do they have the relevant certificate at present? It is my understanding that Inver Park failed at least one pitch test this season.

Complainant: Submissions are made on a confidential basis and, as such, I can’t share any specific details. Please see line below for use: As part of the entry process to UEFA club competitions, eligible clubs who have qualified for UEFA Club Competition season 2023-24 on sporting merit, have obtained a UEFA Licence, and who are seeking to play on artificial turf must provide confirmation of a FIFA ‘Quality Pro’ certification by 2 June 2023. Where a club is unable to provide the competition organiser (UEFA) with such confirmation, it can nominate an alternative compliant venue before this date.

Reporter: You refer to June 2 as a cut-off date, but you can clarify something; Does a club's application for a UEFA European licence not have to be made by March 31 with relevant clubs requiring either a FIFA Quality Pro pitch certificate on that application or an alternative venue with the required pitch certificate nominated by March 31? Failure to comply would surely result in a licence being revoked?

Complainant: 31 March is the submission date for a clubs UEFA Licence application. Re the second point, can you confirm where in the UEFA Licensing Regulations it states that an applicant club must have a FIFA Quality pro certificate? Let me know and I will cross check this for you.

Reporter: From the FIFA website: “FIFA awards the FIFA QUALITY mark to pitches that meet the standard for community and amateur pitches, and the FIFA QUALITY PRO mark to pitches that ensure the highest playing performance for professional level football.” Did Inver Park have a FIFA Quality Pro certification in its application for a UEFA European Licence as submitted to the IFA on or before the March 31 deadline?

Complainant: Thanks […] what you have sent me is from the Fifa website and not from any club licensing regulations. As per my email last night, licensing submissions are made on a confidential basis and, as such, I can’t share any specific details and cannot guide you any further on this enquiry.

Reporter: It is indeed on the FIFA website and as the parent body for world football, you don't get more authoritative than that. For the purposes of clarity, fairness and accuracy, I put it to you that Larne did NOT have the required Quality Pro pitch certificate going by a further search of the FIFA website and therefore, as far as I am aware, did not meet the criteria required to be granted a UEFA European licence by the IFA. I have evidence to back up this assertion and am offering you an opportunity to correct, confirm or deny the assertion. Again, on the grounds of clarity, fairness and accuracy, I would welcome a correction or corrections if they are merited.”

Complainant: I can only point you again to my previous response. Apologies I can't help further.

15. While the newspaper did not accept a breach of the Code, it offered to update the online article should the complainant wish to clarify matters or to respond directly to the claims.

16. The complainant said that Larne FC’s UEFA Club Licence was granted in April 2023 and before the conclusion of the domestic season in Northern Ireland – which the club won and thereby sportingly qualified for the 2023-24 UEFA Champions League. It explained that, as part of the entry process to UEFA club competitions, eligible clubs who have: qualified for UEFA Club Competition season 2023-24 on sporting merit; obtained a UEFA Licence; and are seeking to play on artificial turf must provide confirmation of a FIFA ‘Quality Pro’ certification by 2 June 2023. The complainant explained that the extension of the ‘window’ for pitch certification beyond the 31 March deadline was necessary given the inherent uncertainty in qualification for UEFA club competitions coupled with the logistical and financial demand of testing for artificial pitches.

17. The complainant said the newspaper’s investigation wrongfully conflated its licensing requirements with UEFA entry requirements for club competitions: a FIFA ‘Quality Pro’ Pitch certification was required by UEFA as part of the entry process to play in its club competition; however, it was not required to obtain a UEFA Club Licence from the IFA – these were two distinct processes governed by separate organisations. The complainant added that the FIFA ‘Quality Pro’ Pitch certification had no bearing on the issuing of a UEFA Club Licence. Further, it argued that the newspaper had conflated the requirement of having a stadium available for matches with the quality of the pitch. It also said that the minimum requirement for the issuance of a UEFA Club Licence was FIFA ‘Quality’ Pitch certification (which, it said, Larne FC held), and not FIFA ‘Quality Pro’ Pitch certification.

18. The complainant further argued that the newspaper’s interpretation and understanding of Section 8.4.1 of the Manual was flawed. It said Larne FC was granted a UEFA Club Licence in April 2023 having properly and correctly satisfied Article 33.04 of the UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Sustainability Regulations: “The stadium(s) must fulfil the minimum requirements defined in the UEFA Stadium Infrastructure Regulations and be classified at least as a UEFA category 2 stadium”. It said that to achieve Category 2 status, the stadium had to also meet the requirements of the UEFA Infrastructure Regulations. On 31 March, the complainant said Larne FC demonstrated that it had a Category 2 stadium meeting the necessary UEFA Infrastructure requirements at that time: this was the basis for which the licence was correctly awarded to the club; and the pitch certification process to FIFA ‘Quality Pro’ did not form any part of that process.

19. On 22 June 2023, in direct correspondence with newspaper, the complainant requested the publication of a clarification and an apology. The complainant then said, when it contacted IPSO on 25 September 2023, that a correction was necessary given the delay in the newspaper addressing its concerns and correcting the matter. On 27 October 2023, the complainant requested the publication of the following wording in print and online:

“‘In an article entitled ‘Life’s a Pitch for Larne’, published in the Sunday Life on 21 May 2023 and online, we incorrectly suggested that the Irish Football Association had improperly granted a UEFA Club Licence to Larne FC. We accept that this was not the case, and we apologise to the IFA for this suggestion”.

20. This proposal was not accepted by the newspaper; however, it reiterated its offer to update the online article with a statement from 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.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

22. The article under complaint contained criticism of the complainant over the process it had followed in issuing a “Euro Licence” to a football club. In doing so, the article reported that there was “clear evidence to suggest” that the complainant should not have awarded a UEFA Club Licence to Larne FC, because, as of March 31 2023, “the Irish FA deadline to apply for a European Licence” it “appear[ed]” that the football club’s pitch “was not up to European standard”. The complainant, who had issued the licence, disputed that there was “clear evidence to suggest” it had been improperly issued, as it said the quality of the pitch had no bearing on the issuance of the UEFA Club Licence.

23. The Committee noted its role was not to adjudicate on whether the process followed in the granting of the licence was the appropriate one; its role was to decide whether there had been a breach of the Editors’ Code on the part of the publication. In this case, that would involve examining: whether the publication had taken care not to publish inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information; whether comment and conjecture had been distinguished from fact; and whether any significantly inaccurate, misleading, and distorted information was corrected promptly and with due prominence.

24. In considering the care taken by the newspaper over the accuracy of the above claim, the Committee had regard to the complainant’s Club Licensing policies and regulations, which set out the minimum criteria – including for infrastructure – to be fulfilled by a club in order to be granted a UEFA Club Licence. This criteria was set out in a manual, provided to IPSO by the complainant and which had been referenced by the publication in its response to the complainant’s concerns. The Committee therefore carefully reviewed this document.

25. The manual in question included a ‘timetable and deadlines for core process’. This referenced 31 March as the “Submission deadline for documents related to the Financial criteria (and return of all documentation from the licence applicant unless as earlier date is specified).” There was no reference to a further June deadline in the manual.

26. Section 8.4 of the manual set out criteria for licensing, with Section 8.4.1 of the manual containing a description of Category A criteria. Both the complainant and the publication had referred to this portion of the manual as the relevant criteria for the issuance of licences. The criteria included the following:

“APPROVED STADIUM FOR UEFA CLUB COMPETITIONS

The licence applicant must have a stadium available to play UEFA club competitions.

The licence applicant either:

a) owns the stadium, or

b) if it does not own the stadium, must provide a written contract with the owner(s) of the stadium or with owners of different stadia it will use. This contract must guarantee the use of the stadium for the licence applicant’s UEFA home matches during the licence season.

This requirement must be read, and satisfied, in parallel with the requirements of I.02 of the IFA Premiership Club Licensing Manual. Particular emphasis must be given to ensure that the required spectator facilities are still satisfied as a result of assessment against the principles and requirements of the Safety of Sports Grounds (NI) Order 2006.

The stadium must be based within Northern Ireland, be approved by the IFA and fulfil all minimum requirements defined in the UEFA Stadium Infrastructure Regulations and be classified at least as a UEFA category 2 stadium.”

27. The Committee noted that the manual set out that the licence applicant – in this case, Larne FC – must have a stadium available to play UEFA club competitions, though it was not required to own the stadium, provided it held a written contract guaranteeing the use of an appropriate stadium. Any stadium would have to “classified at least as a UEFA category 2 stadium”.

28. It did not appear to be in dispute that, at the time of publication, the football club in question did not have a stadium available to play UEFA club competitions; although its stadium fulfilled the minimum requirements as set out in the UEFA Stadium Infrastructure Regulations and was a category 2 stadium, the quality of the pitch meant that UEFA club competitions could not be held there – and a request to use another club’s stadium had been declined.

29. The Committee also noted that article did not report, as fact, that the license had been improperly granted. The article was clearly framed as questions which the publication considered the complainant should answer, beginning with the banner – which referred to “serious questions” – and following through the article, which contained several questions as well as the complainant’s response. The article did refer to “clear evidence to suggest this licence should not actually have been issued”, before making clear the evidence which was being relied upon in this case: The fact that, at the time of the March 31 deadline, the club did not appear to have a pitch available to play UEFA Club competitions. The Committee noted the use of the word “suggest”, which indicated that the “evidence” was not unequivocal.

30. The Committee also took into account the fact that the newspaper had contacted the complainant prior to publication for its comment, which was included in the article. The complainant had declined to comment on the specifics of Larne FC’s licence, but had confirmed that all clubs had until June 2 to confirm that they had a pitch available with a Quality Pro rating – this position was outlined in the article. In such circumstances – the fact that the complainant’s manual referred to the availability of a stadium available to play UEFA club competitions as a condition to be granted a licence; the complainant not having such a stadium available to them at the time of the licence being granted; the manual not including a reference to the 2 June deadline; and the newspaper having approached the newspaper for comment on this specific claim – on balance and taking into account all the information before it, the Committee considered that the newspaper had taken the appropriate level of care over the accuracy of its claim that there was “clear evidence to suggest this licence should not actually have been issued”, in light of the qualifying language used and given the fact that the article did not report, as fact, that the licence had been improperly granted. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i).

31. As noted above, the article was clearly framed as setting out the newspaper’s perceived inconsistencies in the licensing process. In this context, the Committee did not consider it was significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted to report the newspaper’s view that “clear evidence to suggest this licence should not actually have been issued” – the nature of the evidence was clearly set out in the article, as was the complainant’s position. There was, therefore, no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusion

21. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

22. N/A 


Date complaint received: 26/09/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 01/03/2024

Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.