Clauses Noted: 1, 3, 4
Publication: Hull Daily Mail
Mr Lee Turnbull complained to the Press Complaints Commission that an article headlined "Council denies service manager jumped queue for 3 bedroom house", published in the Hull Daily Mail on 22 May 2012, was inaccurate and intrusive in breach of Clauses 1 (Accuracy) and 3 (Privacy) of the Editors' Code of Practice. He also complained that the newspaper had breached Clause 4 (Harassment).
The complaint was not upheld.
The article reported claims by unnamed sources connected to the Hull City Council housing department that the complainant, a customer services manager at the Council's Neighbourhood and Families Department, had "jumped the queue" to secure council housing eight weeks after he had joined the list. The complainant said that the allegations had been fully investigated by the Council and that it had informed the newspaper before publication that the allocation had been made in accordance with its policies and procedures. He noted that the policy was not based upon how long someone was on the list; it was a bidding process, and the availability of properties was a matter of luck. He questioned the motivations of the newspaper's source. In his view, there was no reason to publish the story once the Council had confirmed the outcome of its investigation.
The complainant also objected to the publication of information about his professional role and approximate salary, and pictures of him and the street on which he lives. He believed that this had potentially endangered him and his family, and said it had led members of the public to abuse him at work. He also said the newspaper had harassed him by putting notes through his letterbox requesting his comment on the story.
The newspaper said that it had been approached by a "whistle-blower" who made allegations about bad practices within the Council's housing department, giving the complainant's case as an example. Its source had raised concerns about the relatively brief time the complainant had been waiting; the nature of the housing he had been allocated, given his personal circumstances; and the fact that 51 other bids had been made for the property, including several with more "priority points". The newspaper said it had obtained corroboration from a second source with knowledge of the policy and approached both the complainant and the Council for comment before publication. It had prominently published the Council's denial of any impropriety, including in the headline.
The newspaper said it had no intention to embarrass the complainant but argued that there was a public interest in investigating the matter and in identifying the complainant as the subject of the allegations: he was not a "bystander" but rather someone who was accused of benefiting directly from unfair practice. It had considered the matter of his identification before publication and had concluded that a decision not to name him might lead to the misidentification of other Council employees in connection with the story. It did not accept that the Council's response resolved the concerns and argued that the complainant's salary and role were highly relevant to the story: it was a "relevant question" whether someone earning such a salary should receive council accommodation. The information about the salary had been provided by the source, but the newspaper said that it could have obtained his approximate salary by submitting a Freedom of Information request or referring to pay scales published on the Council's website.
The newspaper denied any harassment: its journalist had made a legitimate approach for comment and, after visiting the complainant's home three times and getting no answer, had simply posted a note under the door.
The procedures by which council housing is allocated are complex and regularly attract confusion and concerns about unfairness, particularly when - as here - waiting lists are long. An allegation that a public servant working for the Council had received preferential treatment was unquestionably an appropriate matter for investigation by the newspaper.
The complainant had questioned why, once the Council had confirmed the outcome of its investigation, the newspaper had proceeded with publication. The Commission sympathised with the complainant's desire to avoid potentially embarrassing publicity and understood why - given that no wrongdoing had been established - he viewed the coverage as unnecessary. The Commission nonetheless considered that there was a very substantial public interest in ventilating the source's detailed claims along with the Council's response. The publication of such a story in circumstances where allegations of impropriety were circulating could serve a valuable role by presenting the positions of both parties. It would then be for the public to decide whether the Council's response was sufficient to answer the concerns raised.
The Commission noted the steps the newspaper had taken to test the claims, which included seeking comment from the complainant and the Council before publication. While the complainant denied that the factors cited in the article supported a claim of impropriety, the accuracy of these details was not in serious dispute. The Council's position - that it had investigated and found no wrongdoing - was indicated in the headline to the story and a lengthy response was prominently quoted in the text. Readers would not have been misled about the nature of the allegations, or the fact they were disputed. There was no breach of Clause 1. Furthermore, the decision to publish this material - thus identifying the complainant in relation to the story - did not, in itself, raise a breach of Clause 3.
The photograph of the complainant had been taken, with his consent, for use with a previous story. Against the background of the Commission's conclusions above, its republication in this context did not raise issues under Clause 3. A second photograph showed several homes (including the complainant's) on his street, which was named in the caption. While the complainant had expressed general concerns about his security, in the absence of information about any specific threat the Commission did not consider that the publication of the photograph breached Clause 3.
Finally, information about the approximate salaries of the Council's employees was published on its website, and the complainant did not appear to dispute that the newspaper was in a position to obtain information on this point through a FOI request. The complainant's role as a public servant was not a private matter, and it was in any event central to the story. In the view of the Commission, it was reasonable to note the complainant's salary in the context of wider questions about the relative priorities assigned to those on the list. This did not breach Clause 3.
Under Clause 4 (Harassment), journalists "must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on their property when asked to leave". Seeking the complainant's comment was an important step in verifying the accuracy of the story. The communication of such a request as part of a legitimate investigation did not raise issues under the terms of Clause 4, in the absence of any request from the complainant for the newspaper to desist.
The complaint was not upheld.
Clark v Whitstable Times (2010)
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