Clauses Noted: 1, 2
Publication: Alloa and Hillfoots Wee County News
Mr George Tainsh, Director of Ochil View Housing Association, complained on behalf of himself and Ochil View that an article headlined "Ochil View Housing fraud scandal", published in the Alloa and Hillfoots Wee County News on 17 July 2012, was inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice, and that he had not been afforded an opportunity to reply in breach of Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) of the Code.
The complaint was upheld.
The article reported that Ochil View had been "entangled upon a disgraceful fraud" that was the subject of a police investigation and that the complainant had been interviewed by police. The article stated that "fraudulent and improper activities [had been] going on" at Ochil View and claimed that "until Ochil View Housing has been charged they are expected to fulfil all their current contracts".
The complainant said that the article was fundamentally inaccurate: he was a witness not a suspect in the investigation, and Ochil View was the alleged victim. He explained that during an internal review information had come to light which suggested that Ochil View had been the victim of a fraud. It had taken appropriate steps to report the matter to the police and the appropriate regulatory bodies, which had led police to investigate. The misleading impression created by the article had damaged the reputation of both the complainant and his organisation. Prior to publication the complainant had been asked only for a general statement about "allegations of fraudulent and improper activities" and had confirmed that an investigation was ongoing.
The newspaper said the article had been based primarily on excerpts from two sets of minutes of the association's management committee, which had been provided by a confidential source. The minutes noted that police considered there was sufficient evidence for the matter to be referred to the Procurator Fiscal; that the organisation was facing a potential financial loss; and that the complainant had been interviewed by police at length. The newspaper appeared to accept the complainant's position that no current members of staff were suspected of involvement, but it maintained that previous members of staff were suspects, along with contractors, and referred to conversations with confidential sources in this regard. It offered to publish a reply from the complainant setting out his position and, at a late stage in the correspondence, a statement (which included an apology for inconvenience caused) clarifying that the Association was the victim of the fraud.
The complainant emphasised that there was no dispute about the information derived from the minutes. The inaccuracy was in the article's implication that he and Ochil View, as a corporate body, were suspects. This was not, and had never been, the case. The complainant did not consider that the newspaper's offer of remedial action was sufficient.
The newspaper had published a front-page story that carried a clear implication that the complainant and Ochil View Housing Association were suspects in a police investigation into allegations of fraud involving thousands of pounds. The internal documents provided by the newspaper to corroborate its story contained no confirmation that either the association or the complainant was a suspect. In fact, in the view of the Commission they strongly indicated to the contrary: they recorded that the complainant had been present at meetings where the matter had been discussed, and that he had provided the committee with updates on both internal and external investigations. There was no reference to potential disciplinary action against him or any member of staff. The newspaper had provided no other evidence to corroborate its position that either Ochil View or the complainant was potentially implicated in the allegations, and this claim had not been put to the complainant before publication.
The newspaper had failed to demonstrate that it had taken care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, and the result was a clear breach of Clause 1 of the Editors' Code of Practice. At a late stage in the correspondence, it had offered to publish a clarification and apology confirming that Ochil View was the victim of the fraud. In all the circumstances, however, the Commission did not consider that this was sufficient to remedy the initial breach of the Code. It particularly noted the requirement in Clause 1 (ii) of the Code that once recognised, misleading information must be corrected "promptly".The complaint was upheld.
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