Ruling

22032-23 Huey v The Belfast Telegraph

  • Complaint Summary

    Robert Huey complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Belfast Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in two articles headlined “Controversial chief vet ‘guest of honour’ at professional body’s gala dinner event” and “Abattoirs and sea border checks face week of disruption as vets go on strike”, published on 11 and 18 October 2023 respectively.

    • Date complaint received

      29th February 2024

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 22032-23 Huey v The Belfast Telegraph

  

Summary of Complaint

1. Robert Huey complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Belfast Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in two articles headlined “Controversial chief vet ‘guest of honour’ at professional body’s gala dinner event” and “Abattoirs and sea border checks face week of disruption as vets go on strike”, published on 11 and 18 October 2023 respectively.

2. The first article reported on the attendance of the complainant, the Chief Veterinary Officer of Northern Ireland, at a dinner held by the North of Ireland Veterinary Association (NIVA). It reported that the association “ha[d] been criticised for making chief vet [the complainant] a guest of honour at a dinner despite him having hounded a colleague with an impeccable record out of her job”. The article went on to report that “it was [the complainant’s] presence in photos of the event which caused disquiet among some vets dismayed by his behaviour towards [a colleague]”.

3. The article then reported on the interactions between the complainant and the colleague – it reported that the complainant “left [the colleague] in tears after he refused to even look at photos of animal suffering she had taken at [a] livestock market”, and “[t]hat was part of a series of events which an industrial tribunal found led her to reasonably believe that her career at DAERA [Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs] was effectively over”.

4. The article also reported the views of an unnamed vet on the matter – the vet was quoted as having said: “By accepting him as guest of honour, the NIVA committee make it crystal clear that they condone [the complainant’s] behaviour”. The article also reported that the publication “asked NIVA why it had invited [the complainant] to the celebration dinner, and for its view of his behaviour towards” the colleague.

5. The second article reported on recent strikes by vets at abattoirs and sea borders across Northern Ireland. It went on to report that “[t]he action by staff in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) is primarily over pay, but another significant factor is the dismay of many vets at the leadership of [the complainant], the man who hounded government vet […] out of her job but was not punished by the civil service”.

6. Both articles also appeared online, in substantially the same formats, under the respective headlines “NI vets’ body defends having controversial chief vet as guest of honour after forcing out of whistleblower” and “Hundreds of NI vets to strike for a week, disrupting abattoirs and Irish Sea border checks”.

7. The complainant said that both articles were inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. Firstly, he stated that both articles were misleading to report that he had “hounded” a colleague out of her job. The complainant stated that, although the resulting tribunal had found that the colleague was “treated detrimentally by acts and deliberate omissions”, it did not conclude that he had “hounded, harassed, pursued or persecuted” her – and that the use of the term “hounded” was therefore inaccurate. Similarly, the complainant also stated that both articles were misleading as they reported that he was solely responsible for the actions which led to the colleague leaving her job – the tribunal judgment made clear that a number of parties and incidents had contributed, and that he was only involved in one incident.

8. Moreover, the complainant also stated that the first article was misleading to report that he was a “guest of honour” at the dinner event. He said that there were “more important guests” at the event, and questioned whether the event organisers had described him as such – he later suggested that this alleged inaccuracy made the article “much more sensationalist”, and generated wider public interest in the article.

9. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. The publication referred to extracts from the employment tribunal judgment regarding the treatment of the colleague, and stated that owing to the tribunal’s findings, it was “entirely justified” in concluding that the complainant “hounded” the colleague out of her job. IPSO was supplied the judgment in question. In support of its position, the publication referred to numerous extracts, including the following:

“We find it to have been reasonable for the claimant to regard [the complainant’s] actions as intimidating, patronising and belittling and dismissive of her as a professional. We therefore find [the complainant’s] action to have been detrimental to the claimant.”

“The encounter with [the complainant] was one of the key reasons why the claimant felt that she had no option but to resign (rather than for example to ask for a transfer) because she realised that the attitude to her ‘went all the way to the top’. We find that this was a reasonable conclusion for the claimant to reach in all the circumstances and it was a reasonable belief on her part that she had no future in the organisation. We thus find that the claimant was dismissed as she was justified in resigning in response to the breach of contract.”

10. Additionally, the publication stated that it had used the term “hounded” in correspondence with the DAERA three times before the articles’ publication – and that it had not been objected to. The publication supplied IPSO with this correspondence. The publication also said that neither of the articles reported that the complainant was “solely responsible” for the treatment of the colleague.

11. Finally, the publication noted that it would be for the NIVA to dispute that the complainant was a guest of honour at the dinner, given that it was the host organisation. In any event, it stated that the publication had emailed the NIVA, prior to the article’s publication, describing the complainant in this manner, and this had not been disputed in its response. The publication supplied IPSO with this correspondence – the email dated 9 October opened:

“Good morning, I have been contacted by someone who is appalled that you invited [the complainant] to your celebratory dinner last week as a guest of honour”.

12. In response to the publication’s position regarding the use of the term “hounded”, the complainant stated that, although the publication had contacted the DAERA prior to the article’s publication and used the term, he had not seen this correspondence, or had the opportunity to object to it at this stage.

13. Moreover, in response to the publication’s position regarding the use of the term “guest of honour”, the complainant stated that – while the publication’s initial email to the NIVA referred to him as “a guest of honour” – it did not specifically ask if he was attending the event as a guest of honour. He also added that, although the NIVA did not object to the term, it did not confirm or endorse it.

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.

Findings of the Committee

14. Firstly, the Committee considered the complainant’s view that the articles were inaccurate and misleading to report that he “hounded” a colleague. The Committee considered that “hounded” could have many meanings. However, the Committee acknowledged that an allegation of “hounding” a colleague out of their job is a serious one, and the fact that a statement is subjective to a point does not in itself absolve a newspaper of its obligations under Clause 1. Therefore, the newspaper was required to demonstrate that there was a reasonable factual basis to support this description.

15. To address the question of whether the newspaper had a reasonable factual basis for this characterisation, the Committee turned to the employment tribunal judgment and its description of the complainant’s actions and the manner they had impacted his colleague. The tribunal had found it “reasonable” that the colleague considered the complainant’s actions to be “intimidating, patronising and belittling and dismissive”, and that his actions had “been detrimental to the complainant” and “one of the key reasons” she had resigned. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s view that his actions were limited to one specific interaction, however, in light of the tribunal’s findings, it did not consider the newspaper’s characterisation of the complainant’s actions to be significantly misleading or inaccurate – the tribunal had identified the complainant as “one of the key reasons” behind his colleague’s resignation. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

16. The Committee then turned to the complainant’s position that the articles inaccurately reported that he was the only individual involved in the treatment of the colleague. It noted that newspapers have the right to choose which pieces of information they publish, as long as this does not lead to a breach of the Code – this includes choosing what information to focus on. The Committee also noted that neither article stated that the complainant was the only individual involved. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider it misleading or inaccurate for the articles to focus on the complainant and not reference other parties. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. The Committee then turned to the alleged inaccuracy regarding the phrase “guest of honour”, used in the headline and the text of the first article. It did not appear to be in dispute that the event was not open to all vets, and that, in some form, the complainant was in attendance owing to his role. The Committee also noted that an unnamed vet had used it while commenting on the complainant’s attendance, providing a further basis for its use. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider it misleading or inaccurate for the article to refer to the complainant as “a guest of honour”. The Committee also noted that the DAERA did not dispute the term in correspondence with the publication before the article was published, and that concerns that an article is unduly sensationalist, or written to pique the interest of the reader, does not engage the terms of Clause 1, where there is no inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

18. The complaint was not upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

19. N/A


Date complaint received: 31/10/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/02/2024