AddThis SmartLayers

Council manager’s complaint against newspaper rejected

The press watchdog has rejected a complaint against a regional daily newspaper after it reported claims that a local council official had jumped the social housing queue.

Lee Turnbull complained to the Press Complaints Commission over a Hull Daily Mail story headlined “Council denies service manager jumped queue for 3 bedroom house.”

Mr Turnbull, a customer services manager at Hull City Council, claimed the story published last May was inaccurate and intrusive in breach of the Editor’s Code of Practice provisions on accuracy and privacy, and also accused the newspaper of harassment.

However in an adjudication published today, the PCC rejected the complaint, saying claims that a public servant working had received preferential treatment was “unquestionably an appropriate matter for investigation.”

The original story reported claims that Mr Turnbull has “jumped the queue” to secure council housing eight weeks after joiining the waiting list.

Mr Turnbull said the allegations had been fully investigated by the council and that it had told the newspaper before publication that the allocation had been made in accordance with its policies and procedures.

In his view, there was no reason to publish the story once the Council had confirmed the outcome of its investigation.

Mr Turnbull 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 said the newspaper had harassed him by putting notes through his letterbox requesting his comment on the story.

The Mail 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 claimed that 51 other bids had been made for the property that had been allocated to Mr Turnbull, including several with more “priority points”.

The newspaper said it had obtained corroboration from a second source with knowledge of the policy, had approached both the complainant and the council for comment before publication, and prominently published the council’s denial of any impropriety, including in the headline.

The newspaper argued that there was a public interest in investigating the matter and 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.

In its adjudication, the PCC said:  “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 Commission 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.”