Spencer Flower, the former leader of Dorset County Council, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Bournemouth Echo had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) and Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in two articles published last summer.
The first article reported that planning approval for a local housing development had been granted despite seven of thirteen councillors, including Cllr Flower, failing to attend a vote on it at a council meeting.
The complainant said the Echo had failed to report that he had booked a holiday before notice of the meeting had been given, which gave a misleading impression that he had not chosen to attend.
A photograph of Cllr Flower, pictured above left, also appeared with the article and he further question why this had been singled out for publication when he was one of seven not in attendance.
A second article reported that, following the complainant’s conviction under the Localism Act 2011, a council had issued advice to its members on adhering to the Disclosable Pecuniary Interest regulations.
The article stated that Cllr Flower had taken part in a vote on a local housing matter without “letting on” that he was a non-executive director of a housing charity, which qualified as a “disclosable” interest, adding he had been convicted and fined £930.
Cllr Flower said he had been given a six-month conditional discharge and was ordered to pay costs. This was not a conviction, and he was not “fined”, as reported.
He added the Echo had not given him the chance to reply prior to the articles’ publication in breach of Clause 2, and claimed the “misleading” coverage constituted harassment in breach of Clause 4 (Harassment).
The Echo considered that there was a public interest in reporting the voting performance of a local councillor, particularly in relation to a vital planning issue. It said the article had been neutral in tone and had not implied any reason for the complainant’s non-attendance at the meeting. It did not consider that it was misleading to omit that he had been on a pre-booked holiday at the time.
It further noted that the complainant’s photograph had been used because he was relevant to the story, and because he was a prominent political figure locally who had been involved when the planning strategy for the development had been brought in.
Despite this position, as a gesture of good will, the newspaper offered to publish a statement making clear the complainant’s reasons for his absence.
However, the Echo accepted Cllr Flower had not been fined and offered to publish a correction on this point.
IPSO found the reporting of the “fine” had given a significantly misleading impression of the view taken by the court of the seriousness of the complainant’s offence.
The complaint was upheld under Clause 1 on this basis, but dismissed on all other counts.
The full adjudication can be read here.