Ruling

22008-23 Hibbert v Express & Star (East)

  • Complaint Summary

    Celia Hibbert complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Express & Star (East) breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Labour councillor told she is not welcome to join city’s Liberal Democrats”, published on 7 September 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      21st March 2024

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 22008-23 Hibbert v Express & Star (East)


Summary of Complaint

1. Celia Hibbert complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Express & Star (East) breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Labour councillor told she is not welcome to join city’s Liberal Democrats”, published on 7 September 2023.

2. The article – which appeared on page four – reported on the complainant, a Labour councillor, who reportedly “attempted to jump ship and join the city’s Liberal Democrats, according to official papers”. It said: “Celia Hibbert, who represents Penn ward, 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 the meeting are noted in the minutes of the group’s August 29 meeting”. It then reported that 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.’”

3. The article quoted a statement from the Liberal Democrat’s candidate for Bushbury North, who had reportedly said: “Councillor 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 Councillor Hibbert. We believe that she does not share the Liberal values needed.” The article concluded by reporting that the complainant had “been approached for comment.”

4. The article also appeared online, in substantially the same form, under the headline “Wolverhampton Labour councillor attempted to join the city’s Liberal Democrats”. This version of the article was published on 6 September 2023, and included a photograph of the complainant with the caption: “Labour councillor Celia Hibbert attempted to join the Liberal Democrats, it has been revealed.”

5. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as the allegations it included were untrue and unsubstantiated. She said there was no evidence to support the claims that she had attempted to join the Liberal Democrats or that she had a conversation with a member of an opposition party. She said the article had undermined her role in the Labour Party by claiming she wished to leave. She also said the headline – which claimed she had been “told she [was] not welcome to join” the Liberal Democrats – was inaccurate.

6. The complainant said that the meeting minutes, which the article was based on, indicated that the meeting was inquorate with only three members and the Chairman in attendance. She said that this would have made the proceedings invalid; therefore, she said the meeting minutes could not be described as “official papers”, and to do so was inaccurate. The complainant also said that, at the time of the article’s publication, approved minutes of the meeting did not exist. She said the only document available to the reporter were the notes from the meeting, which contained several errors – including listing a member as being both present and absent at the same time. She said the reporter was advised that these were only notes and were unapproved, however these had been presented as a final legal document – the complainant did not explain how she knew this or who had advised this. She said these minutes would only have been approved at the next meeting in October 2023 – after the article had been published. She said other information, which was legally required to have been noted on the minutes – such as the time and location of the meeting – were also missing from the minutes. She said it was inaccurate and misleading for the publication to present the notes as minutes.

7. The complainant also said that the Liberal Democrats spokesperson quoted in the article was not present at the meeting, which meant what he had reportedly said was merely “hearsay”.

8. The complainant said she had not received any email or voicemail regarding the story requesting her comment prior to publication. She accepted she had received an email from a reporter about becoming a councillor, however as she was already a councillor she said that this had not made sense to her at the time and she had therefore not responded.

9. Additionally, the complainant said the publication breached Clause 3, as a journalist acting on its behalf had engaged in behaviour which caused her alarm and distress. She said he continued to promote the article on his social media accounts and that there had been over 100 articles published about her over a two-year-period – though she did not provide these articles to IPSO as part of her complaint. She also said that, although she was an elected public official, a disproportionate number of articles focused exclusively on her and had not been prompted by her activities. She also said several articles were intrusive and offensive.

10. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said the story was provided to it by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), administered by another publisher, and that the article was a shortened version of the story published three days earlier by another newspaper. It said it considered the information was correct, given the minutes were provided directly to the other publisher by a member of the Wolverhampton Liberal Democrats and it therefore had no reason to question their authenticity. It considered these were official minutes and that the article was not inaccurate or misleading in its reporting of them. The publication further said it had no reason to doubt the official statement issued by the Liberal Democrats. It also said it had reported the facts as presented through the minutes of the meeting by using the phrase "according to official papers" in the article, therefore making clear the source of the information.

11. In support of its position, the publication shared a copy of the minutes the article was based on. These minutes said:

Labour councillor Celia Hibbert has expressed and [sic] interest in joining the Lib Dems and becoming a parliamentary candidate.

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.

12. The publication said the journalist had made several attempts to contact the complainant and said the article made clear it had approached her for comment. It shared email correspondence where the journalist had sought the complainant’s comment; these emails had been sent on 31 August and 1 September 2023. It further said that its Chief Reporter made several attempts to call the complainant prior to publishing the story and then confirmed this in an internal email. This email said: “After seeing the LDR story by [the reporter], I made several attempts to contact Councillor Celia Hibbert by phone using the phone number supplied on Wolverhampton Council's website […] However, she did not answer her phone.”

13. On 8 November, one day after the publication had been made aware of the complaint, it offered to put the complainant’s side of the story on record both in print and online.

14. The publication said it was not its intention to undermine the complainant’s role as a local councillor or within the Labour Party. It noted that she was no longer part of the Labour group on Wolverhampton Council, according to the official council website which described her as 'Independent'.

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 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.

Findings of the Committee

15. The Committee first considered the article’s claim that the complainant had “attempted to jump ship and join the city’s Liberal Democrats, according to official papers” and that 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”. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that she had not attempted to join the Liberal Democrats, and that the meeting where this had been discussed – and formed the basis of the article – was inquorate, and the minutes had not been approved at the time of the meeting. However, the Committee acknowledged that these minutes had been provided by the political party who had held the meeting in question, and who had not seemingly indicated that they did not accurately reflect the outcome of the meeting in question. The fact that the meeting was potentially inquorate did not impact the accuracy of what had been reported in the article, which was that the complainant’s reported approach had been discussed during a meeting. As such, it was not inaccurate for the article to describe the minutes as “official papers” and the newspaper was entitled to rely on these minutes; doing so did not represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article.

16. In addition to the minutes, the Committee noted that the article had further supplied a quote from a spokesperson of the party which corroborated the claim that the complainant had attempted to join the party, and had taken further care over the accuracy of this claim by approaching the complainant for comment. After it became aware that the complainant disputed the content within the minutes, it had also offered to publish the complainant’s denial, though the complainant had not accepted this as a resolution to her complaint. The Committee further noted that the article clearly presented this claim as having been made during a meeting of the Liberal Democrat Party, which the complainant did not appear to dispute – though she disputed whether the meeting had been properly held and the minutes appropriately recorded. In such circumstances, the newspaper had taken care not to publish inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information; and the article did not include significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. The complainant also said that the Liberal Democrats spokesperson quoted in the article was not present at the meeting and that, therefore, quoting them breached the terms of Clause 1. The Committee noted that the complainant did not dispute that her reported attempt to join the Liberal Democrats was discussed at the meeting. It also noted that newspapers are entitled to select which information they include in articles provided this is not inaccurate. The complainant did not dispute that a spokesperson for the Liberal Democrat Party had responded as described by the article, and – provided the Code is not otherwise breached – the Code does not place prohibitions on who might be quoted within articles. The article was not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted on this point, and there was no breach of Clause 1.

18. The Committee next considered the print headline: “Labour councillor told she is not welcome to join city’s Liberal Democrats”. It noted that this was based on the minutes which said: “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”. For the reasons explained above, the publication was entitled to rely on the minutes in addition to the party’s statement which made clear they had decided not to move forward with the arrangement. Therefore, the Committee did not consider that the headline was inaccurate, misleading or distorted, and considered that it was supported by the text of the article, which clarified that this was discussed at a Liberal Democrat meeting. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. Regarding the article’s claim that the complainant had “been approached for comment”, the publication had been able to provide email correspondence where the journalist had approached the complainant for comment at least twice. It also noted that she had accepted the journalist had contacted her regarding an article about her becoming a councillor. Given that the complainant had been given an opportunity to comment before publication, the Committee did not consider the statement to be inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. The complainant said the publication had breached Clause 3 as the journalist had engaged in behaviour which caused her alarm and distress and that there had been over 100 articles published about her over a two-year-period. However, the complainant had not provided any additional articles published by Express & Star or its online counterpart 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 usual remit in relation to online material. In the view of the Committee, one published article – which is what it had before it when considering this complaint – did not reach the bar of harassment or intimidation in breach of Clause 3. The Committee also noted the complainant had not explained or provided any further evidence to support that a journalist acting on behalf of the publication had harassed her. For these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 3.

21. The Committee further considered whether the journalist sharing the article on his social media account breached Clause 3. It noted that the newspaper did not have editorial control over this account, and that this was the reporter’s personal social media page. IPSO’s remit generally does not extend to social media pages of individual journalists; it regulates editorial content published by IPSO regulated publications, as well as online content published on websites under their editorial control. In such circumstances, this concern was not within IPSO’s remit and therefore the Committee did not consider this aspect of the complaint further.

Conclusions

22. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

23. N/A


Date complaint received: 27/10/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 01/03/2024