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Complainant Name:
Mr Angus John Macleod and others

Clauses Noted: 1

Publication: Sunday Mail

Complaint:

Mr Angus John Macleod and others, of Harris, Western Isles, complained that an article headlined “Taransay invaded by Neds” published in the Sunday Mail on 7 May 2000 contained inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code.

The complaints were not upheld following the newspaper’s offer to resolve the matter.

The article described how a group of unnamed people from Harris had visited the island which is the home for those participating in the BBC Castaway programme. It alleged that the visitors had been unwelcome and their behaviour drunken and so loutish that some of the participants of the programme had threatened “to quit the problem-plagued show” as a result. Amongst other claims the article stated that the visitors had “stripped naked”, “hurled abuse as the disgusted castaways looked on” and “scattered empty beer cans along their beach”.

The complainants, representing those who had made the visit, stated that the article’s account of the event was inaccurate and significantly misleading. The visitors had been welcomed by the Castaways and had spent some time socialising with them. The behaviour of the visitors from their arrival onwards had in no way been rowdy or distressing. Alcohol had indeed been brought but this was shared with the Castaways. Although the complainants were not named in the article their identities would have been clear to local readers of the newspaper.

The newspaper replied that the information and quotes which supported the article’s claims had been given by a “known and reliable source” whose identity it wished to protect. One of the visitors had been heard by the source boasting in a public house about their conduct during the encounter with the Castaways. When the newspaper contacted two of those who had been on the trip, including Mr Macleod, the fact of its occurrence was denied. It was clear, however, that the trip had taken place and involved the consumption of arguably a large amount of alcohol.

The complainants stressed that an unnamed source overheard boasting in a public house was not a solid foundation for the serious claims of misbehaviour levelled at the visitors. They had denied the trip had taken place to the reporter prior to publication of the article in accordance with a promise made to the Castaways. The allegations of misbehaviour had not been put to the visitors by the reporter at this point - if this had happened the complainant would have admitted the trip had taken place and denied the charges of rowdiness. A BBC press officer had confirmed prior to publication that the visit was “brief and incident-free”. The visitors had returned on a subsequent visit to the island without incident and had been invited by one of the Castaways to return again by letter. Some of the Castaways themselves wrote to the Commission supporting the complainants’ version of events.

In an effort to resolve the matter, the paper offered to publish a letter of reply from the complainants, or to print a follow-up article based on interviews with the complainants. Furthermore, the complainants’ objections to the story had been placed on the newspaper’s permanent electronic record so that any journalist researching a related story in the future would be aware of the differing account of events.

The complainants did not accept that the newspaper’s offers.

Decision:
Sufficient remedial action offered

Adjudication:

It is not the Commission’s job to establish the facts of a matter when two parties dispute the accuracy of an article but to consider, under the Code, whether sufficient care has been taken by a newspaper not to publish inaccurate material and to examine whether, in cases where the Code may have been breached, any remedy offered by the newspaper is adequate.

In this case, the Commission considered the lengths to which the newspaper had gone to ensure that the material was accurate. The newspaper had apparently received information from a local source which it wished to keep confidential - as indeed it was obliged to under the Code - and had then sought to corroborate what it had been told by approaching two members of the party. These men had denied that the trip had taken place apparently because they had promised the Castaways not to speak to the press about the trip. However, it was clear to the Commission that the journalist had been attempting to verify the story and in denying that the trip had occurred the complainants lost the opportunity to put their side of the story in the original article.

The article had not therefore been balanced with the views of those who had taken part in the trip - although this opportunity had been offered to them - and the Commission considered that it was therefore inevitable that the description of the trip and the newspaper’s interpretation of the events differed substantially from the complainants’ own views of the matter. However, the Commission also noted there was some common ground between the two parties - a trip had taken place, alcohol had been involved and members of the trip had come into contact with the Castaways. The dispute therefore rested on two conflicting positions regarding the complainants’ behaviour on the island.

The Commission noted that further evidence had been provided by the complainants to support their complaint. It had regard to the statement from some of the Castaways - written after publication of the original article - and to the BBC press release that said that the visit was incident-free. The Commission had to balance this evidence with the newspaper’s reliance on its anonymous source. While upholding a newspaper’s right not to reveal a confidential source of information the Commission would normally expect a newspaper to provide material to corroborate information given by such a source in cases where the complainant has submitted conflicting evidence.

In this case, the newspaper was unable to do so and the Commission therefore considered the lengths to which the newspaper had gone to remedy the complaint. While it stood by the authenticity of its source the newspaper offered the complainants the opportunity to write a letter for publication or be interviewed for a follow-up article. It also said that the complainants’ objections had been attached to the permanent and electronic record of the story. Although these offers had been made at a relatively late stage the Commission considered that in the unusual circumstances of the complaint - where the complainants had initially denied that the trip had taken place and where the original article had not named any of the trippers - they were an adequate way to resolve the dispute between the parties. There were therefore no matters to pursue under the Code.

The Commission urged the complainants now to accept the newspaper’s offer of resolution to ensure that the record was put straight.

Report:
52



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