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Watchdog rejects breach of confidentiality claim against regional daily

The press watchdog has rejected a complaint by a man who claimed a regional daily published an article revealing him as a confidential source.

The man complained to the Press Complaints Commission after The Bolton News published an article in March about his concerns that the town’s blue badge car parking system was being misused.

He said that the article had identified him in breach of Clause 14 of the Editor’s Code of Conduct, which covers confidential sources, as well as the clauses relating to accuracy, privacy and discrimination.

However the PCC has rejected his complaint, saying that where information has been freely provided there is a “basic expectation” that it will be attributable.

The article in question came about after the man contacted the paper about his concerns on the misuse of the blue badge system and it reported on his account of an incident of alleged misuse, along with his name, age and partial address.

It also noted that he and his wife, who was not named, were disabled and identified their medical conditions.

While the complainant acknowledged that he had initiated the contact with the newspaper, he said no consent had been sought for the publication of the couple’s personal information, which he felt could lead to reprisals.

The man suggested that his wish for anonymity should have been evident when he cancelled an appointment to be photographed for the story, when he said the publication of a picture of him was not a good idea “as [he] didn’t want to be identified”, due to his wife’s profession.

The complainant said the headline’s suggestion he expressed “anger” about the badge abuse was inaccurate because he only felt “disappointment”.

He was also concerned about the description of the local council’s abrogation of duties regarding blue badges as a “legal loophole”, and what he considered as an inaccurate suggestion that his wife had been present when he witnessed the alleged abuse.

He considered that his and his wife’s disabilities were irrelevant to the story and said that he had only provided details of their conditions following a reporter’s question.

In responding to the complaint, the newspaper said the information had been freely provided by the man and it was not the first occasion he had brought local issues to its attention, while he also maintained a blog about local issues.

During the telephone conversation in which the complainant identified his and his wife’s medical conditions, he had referred to his wife being present in the room, and the newspaper had understood from this that she consented to the publication of the information.

While it accepted that the complainant had changed his mind about being photographed, it denied that he had asked to be treated as a confidential source or requested that any detail be withheld from its report.

In its adjudication, the PCC said that where an individual initiates contact with a newspaper to provide information for publication, there is a basic expectation that this information will be attributable and Clause 14 is generally engaged only where an agreement has been reached that the person will be treated as a confidential source.

With regards to privacy, the Commission said the complainant had disclosed information about his medical condition without stating that this was to be treated confidentially and it was reasonable for the newspaper to proceed on the basis that the information was intended for publication.

The PCC judged that the situation with his wife was less clear cut but the complainant had chosen to inform the paper his wife was in the room and the clear implication was that she was aware of his conversation with the reporter.

The Commission considered that the newspaper had reasonably understood that the complainant was also acting on his wife’s behalf at the time he disclosed information relating to her medical condition and it noted that the information was limited to the type of condition without any further details.

The PCC did not consider that the complainant’s position on the headline or “loophole” was was significantly misleading in the context of the article, while the reference to his wife was not significantly inaccurate.

It further said that the article concerned the misuse of blue badges and the complainant had commented about the effect on disabled people, so in this context, his and his wife’s disabilities were relevant.