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Weekly newspaper rapped over inaccurate fraud story

A weekly newspaper has been rapped by the Press Complaints Commission after publishing an inaccurate front-page story.

The Alloa and Hillfoots Wee County News published a story in July last year about Ochil View Housing Association which it said was involved in “fraudulent and improper activities”.

George Tainsh, director of the housing association, complained about the article saying that it was fundamentally inaccurate and that rather than being a suspect in a police investigation, it was the alleged victim.

He also said he was a witness rather than a suspect in the investigation and that his reputation and that of his organisation had been damaged by the article.

Mr Tainsh explained that during an internal review, information had come to light which suggested that Ochil View had been the victim of a fraud and it had then taken appropriate steps to report the matter to the police and the appropriate regulatory bodies.

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.

In its response, the newspaper said that the basis for the story was a confidential source who had provided it with two sets of minutes from the housing association’s management committee, which included an update on the status of the police investigation into the allegations.

These 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.

The title offered to publish a reply from the complainant and at a later stage, it also offered to publish a clarification and apology confirming that the housing association was the victim of the fraud.

In its adjudication, the PCC upheld his complaint under Clause 1 (Accuracy), saying it was a “clear breach” of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

It noted that the internal documents provided by the newspaper to corroborate its story did not confirm that either the complainant or the housing association was a suspect, and in fact “strongly indicated to the contrary”.

It ruled that the newspaper had not taken appropriate care over the accuracy of the story and that its late offer to apologise was not sufficient to remedy the breach.

Charlotte Dewar, head of complaints and pre-publication services said: “The allegations contained in the story were of an extremely serious nature and the newspaper was slow to recognise that clarification of the association’s position was needed.

“This ruling serves as a reminder that taking care over the accuracy of the story is particularly important where the story has the potential to damage the reputation of an individual or an organisation.”