Ruling

22691-23 Stegers v The Times

  • Complaint Summary

    Johan Stegers complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Fake landlords, flats and fees: rental traps to avoid”, published on 9 December 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      3rd April 2024

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 22691-23 Stegers v The Times


Summary of complaint  

1. Johan Stegers complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Fake landlords, flats and fees: rental traps to avoid”, published on 9 December 2023.  

2. The article reported on the risks that tenants should be aware of within the housing market, and was divided into several sub-headings, including one titled ‘High holding fees’. It said that “if [a] tenant has lied about their income or credit history, or cancels the tenancy after signing a contract they might not get all the holding fee back”.

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline, “Fake landlords, flats and fees: rental scams and how to spot them”.  

4. The complainant said the article breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) as he considered it inaccurately implied that a holding fee could only be retained if a tenant had signed a tenancy agreement and that “they were safe until they sign[ed]”. The complainant said that the correct position was that a holding fee could be retained even if the tenant did not sign a tenancy agreement. To support his position, the complainant referred to paragraph 11c, within Schedule 2, of the Tenant Fees Act 2019:

“11. Subject to paragraph 13, paragraph 3(c) does not apply where the deposit is paid to the landlord if —

a) the landlord takes all reasonable steps to enter into a tenancy agreement before the deadline for agreement, and

b) if the landlord has instructed a letting agent in relation to the proposed tenancy, the agent takes all reasonable steps to assist the landlord to enter into a tenancy agreement before that date, but

c) the tenant fails to take all reasonable steps to enter into a tenancy agreement before that date”.

The complainant considered this paragraph meant that, “if a tenant fails to take reasonable steps to complete (in other words sign on the dotted) by the agreed date, paragraph 3c doesn’t apply”; and that, “para[graph] 3c states that the Holding Dep[osit] has to be returned”. The complainant provided paragraph 3c, within Schedule 2, which said:

“3. Subject as follows, the person who received the holding deposit must repay it if –

a) the landlord and the tenant enter into a tenancy agreement relating to the housing,

b) the landlord decides before the deadline for agreement not to enter into a tenancy agreement relating to the housing, or

c) the landlord and the tenant fail to enter into a tenancy agreement relating to the housing before the deadline for agreement”.

The complainant did not dispute that if a tenant lied about their income or credit history, or declined to move in after signing a contract, they may not get all of the holding fee back – but noted that there were other circumstances in which a holding fee could be retained. The complainant considered the publication was under an obligation to give an exhaustive list of the circumstances in which the fee could be retained and considered the article was inaccurate where it neither included this list nor a disclaimer informing readers that this was not an exhaustive list of all situations in which a holding fee could be retained.  

5. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It said the article correctly reported possible reasons which may lead to a holding fee not being returned. The publication acknowledged that there were other circumstances, other than what was outlined in the article, which would lead to the holding fee being retained as highlighted by the complainant. However, it did not consider the article reported or implied that the specific circumstances mentioned were the only circumstances in which a holding deposit could be retained. The publication did not consider there was an obligation for the article to provide an exhaustive list of such circumstances and considered it presented accurate examples of legitimate reasons for the retention of such fees.  

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

6. The Committee did not consider that the sentence “if [a] tenant has lied about their income or credit history, or cancels the tenancy after signing a contract they might not get all the holding fee back” was inaccurate, or implied that these were the only circumstances in which a holding fee may be retained. In reaching this decision, the Committee were mindful of the fact that – provided the Code is not otherwise breached – the selection of material for publication is ultimately a matter of editorial discretion. Therefore, the mere fact that the publication had omitted information that the complainant considered relevant was not, in and of itself, a breach of the Code. The Committee further noted that the article did not claim to include an exhaustive list of the reasons that a holding fee could be retained – rather, it set out in brief some of the issues facing tenants in the current rental market, and the section in which the allegedly inaccurate information appeared was titled “High holding fees”. In this context, in an article which explored difficulties tenants may face in the housing market – including in relation to high holding fees – omitting to provide an exhaustive list of tenant’s obligations with regard to their holding fees did not render the article inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. As such, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.  

Conclusions

7. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

8. N/A 


Date complaint received: 12/12/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 22/03/2024