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IPSO clears weekly over claim that council ‘treats media with contempt’

A weekly newspaper was justified in claiming that a council “treats the media with contempt” in a front page editorial, the press watchdog has ruled.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation has ruled in favour of the Thurrock Independent after over an article headlined ‘Council of secrecy and contempt’.

The page one comment piece claimed Thurrock Council “refuses to answer questions about its waste, incompetence and accountability” and added, in relation to a number of stories, that “despite having days to respond, [the council] repeatedly declines to do so”.

The editorial further claimed that the authority “treats the media with contempt”, with its actions begging the question “what has this incompetent council got to hide?”

Thurrock contempt

The piece, run on 25 January this year, prompted the council to complain to IPSO, denying that it had refused to answer any of the enquiries made by the publication despite the fact that some of them required lengthy responses.

Complaining under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, the authority said it had not been made aware, through any formal channels, of the intention to run the piece, or that it was being based on media enquiries submitted that week.

It claimed the article’s suggestion that a delay in responding indicated incompetence or ‘contempt’ was tenuous because a response can take time to be collated, and judgements need to be made regarding which enquiries merit responses.

In response, the Independent said it had notified the council’s press officer by phone on the morning of 24 January of its intention to run the comment piece, and had provided a copy of the front page proposed, but did not receive a response – adding it would have included a comment had the authority supplied one.

The publication provided IPSO with emails to and from the council in the week before the article was published, which showed when it had asked for comments on various stories during that time period.

The council denied it had received clear requests for comment on the points as they were presented in the article and claimed it was not accurate to say that the council had “refused to answer questions” because answers had previously been provided, or questions had not been clearly asked.

It added the fact that the editor had sent a copy of the proposed front page to a council press officer on the morning of publication did not represent a media enquiry, as it did not come through any of the agreed formal channels.

IPSO found the Independent had communicated questions to the council in some form in relation to each of the points addressed in the article, and that in each case, the question had been presented at least 24 hours prior to the print deadline.

The Committee did raise some concerns about the way in which the Independent communicated with the council and found there was a large volume of correspondence, much of which was not relevant to the requests made, adding some of the questions asked were unclear, and, in some emails, hidden within extensive commentary.

Notwithstanding these concerns, IPSO found the Independent had not received responses to the questions it had asked in time for the print deadline and was entitled to characterise the council’s behaviour as a “refusal” to answer questions.

Similarly, the characterisation of the authority as a “council of secrecy and contempt”, and the claim that it “treats the media with contempt”, were plainly the publication’s own characterisations, presented within a comment piece, the basis for which was made clear.

IPSO found the Independent was entitled to express its own editorial position, which was clearly flagged as such.

The complaint was not upheld, and the full adjudication can be read here.

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  • August 2, 2018 at 12:59 pm

    Well done that paper for sticking to its guns. Officialdom seems to think that with the slow demise of local papers they can do what they like but forget they are using council taxpayers money.

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