A source who raised concerns to her local newspaper about conditions in the shop where she worked during the first Covid-19 lockdown was fired in part because a journalist revealed her identity in an email to her employer, press regulator IPSO has found.
IPSO said the Halifax Courier’s failure to protect the woman’s confidentiality was a “breach of a moral obligation” that had “serious consequences” for her as it ordered the newspaper to signpost an adjudication on its front page.
The woman, who worked as a floor manager for a retail chain, posted online on 28 March about her experiences at work with the name of her employer evident on her page at that time.
A journalist commented on the post, which has since been deleted, asking her to get in touch and the woman subsequently sent two emails outlining concerns about a lack of measures to protect staff from Covid-19 and non-essential purchases being made, alleging that the shop had put profit above the health of its employees.
The woman made clear that she needed to stay anonymous for fear of losing her job but was later suspended partly because of an allegation she had “made derogatory comments regarding the company and its customers to the media”.
She was dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct on 4 May after the employer substantiated the allegation.
The Courier denied its journalist had revealed the woman’s identity in his email, claiming he had said only that she worked at one of its two Halifax stores.
However, it could not produce any proof as the email had been deleted “through error” after just a few months despite the paper having a policy to retain emails for two years.
The paper pointed out that the employer’s hearing notes and a letter to the woman did not refer to her by name, referring only to her “comments… to the media”.
But the employer provided an extract from an email described as being from “the media” that named the woman and contained the same complaints in the same language she had made to the journalist. In addition the woman said she had only spoken to the Courier.
IPSO said the paper had failed to prove it protected the woman as a confidential source and described the incident as a “very serious” breach of Clause 14 (confidential sources) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
“The Committee took the opportunity to express its serious concern over the breach of Clause 14 in this instance,” it said. “It represented a breach of a moral obligation and had had serious consequences for the complainant.”
IPSO decided that because the course of events had partly led to the woman’s dismissal, with the incident worsened by the publication’s “gross failure of record-keeping”, the paper should publish an adjudication on page three or further forward signposted with a front page headline.
The adjudication was also published online and stayed in the top half of the Courier’s homepage for 24 hours.
The rare breach of Clause 14 was revealed just two weeks after IPSO ruled the Central Fife Times & Advertiser had breached the same section of the code by publishing a source’s name despite a written agreement not to do so.
IPSO said it happened because the reporter who first dealt with the story went on leave and did not mention the agreement to the colleague who took it over, with Covid-19 remote working worsening internal communications.