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Council gags weekly over interview with person in its care

A council has issued a gagging order against a weekly newspaper over an interview it conducted with a person in the authority’s care.

The Orcadian has been served with a court interim interdict which prevents publication of the identity of a person in Orkney Islands Council’s care or any claims made by that person to the paper.

The move, branded “ludicrous and unnecessary” by Orcadian editor Leah Seator, came after the person voluntarily contacted the paper.

Despite receiving assurances that The Orcadian did not intend to identify the individual in question, the newspaper received the writ from Kirkwall Sheriff Court just eight minutes before its press deadline.

How The Orcadian covered the gagging order on Thursday's front page

How The Orcadian covered the gagging order on Thursday’s front page

Leah said: “We are disappointed that the good relationship between the council’s press department and my editorial staff was completely underestimated and bypassed in this situation.

“More communication would have resolved this ludicrous and unnecessary gagging of a newspaper, which had no intentions of breaching any legalities in the first place. The council simply did not uphold its own end of the bargain.

“It is rare that the newspaper becomes the story, but we believe the decision to issue a legal gagging order to a newspaper — when a simple conversation would have sufficed — is an example of a heavy-handed and hasty approach in local decision-making.

“We strongly hope it will not set a precedent.”

The gagging order comes after Orcadian journalist Mark Harcus recently covered attempts by Advocacy Orkney, an independent charity which assists vulnerable members of the community, to plug a gap in funding after the withdrawal of £54,000 from the council and NHS Orkney.

That decision was made after an alleged “serious breach” by an advocate for actions the council claims amounted to the obstruction of a court order in the care of a vulnerable member of the community.

The vulnerable person concerned then contacted The Orcadian to air what the paper has described as “personal concerns”.

The council wrote to Leah on the evening of Monday 8 June asking her to confirm her publishing intentions — adding without this undertaking, the authority would seek a court interdict as well as a claim for the full costs of such an action. The interim interdict was issued the following day.

In a story in The Orcadian, Leah added: “In their own efforts to curb the inevitable reactions and public speculation arising from the serving of this interdict, the council has divulged far more information than has ever been reported in this newspaper during our coverage of this story.

“All that is left from this situation is a newspaper gag that wasn’t called for, some hefty lawyers’ bills, and some staff overtime to recoup.

“It also raises issues about the grey areas in law which leave social media to report unfounded versions of events — where a local newspaper could intervene to retrieve balanced, fair accounts, and even-sided storytelling.

“Arguably, these grey areas prevent us from doing our jobs properly.”

The council has claimed in a statement to The Orcadian that an email correspondence received from Leah on the evening of 7 June failed to provide reassurances of her intention not to publish its interview with the person, or any part of their personal information.

The authority said in its statement: “The email contained a reference to The Orcadian deciding ‘to keep any reference to the service user to a bare minimum — if naming [them] at all’. That statement provided no assurance whatsoever that no personal information relating to the service user would be published.

“In addition, the email contained an expression of intent to ‘publish the advocate’s version of events with extreme care and sensitivity…’

“Those events concerned the obstruction of a court order. Any publication of that information would have presented a material risk of the service user being identified and of the service user’s personal circumstances (including their mental and physical health and associated care needs) entering the public domain.

“Such publicity and associated consequences would have had a significant prejudicial impact upon the service user’s welfare.

“The welfare guardian, in accordance with the service user’s best interests, therefore, was quite entitled to request the undertaking and, as that was not provided, to instruct the court proceedings that were subsequently raised.”

In response, Leah said the council’s statement “fails to mention that my response to their letter clearly then says that we did not intend to ‘specify any personal details of any client of Advocacy Orkney or person in the care of Orkney Islands Council’ in our coverage.

“This point is made in three places, and the word ‘reiterated’ is used on the final mention of the point.

“If there was any further ‘absence of specification,’ the council had a full day to pick up the phone and ask us.

“The rest of my email, which they chose to ignore, clearly explains in numerous sentences that we did not intend to publish the information they had asked us to withhold, and therefore we feel this court action was absolutely unnecessary.”