A second complaint against the Hull Daily Mail has been rejected by the Press Complaints Commission in the space of a week.
Last Friday the press watchdog rejected two claims from the wife of a police officer who admitted sex assault offences over stories published on the Hull Daily Mail website.
Today the PCC announced that it had not upheld complaints made by council officer Lee Turnbull over a story headlined: “Council denies service manager jumped queue for 3-bedroom house”.
Turnbull alleged the 22 May article breached Clauses one (Accuracy), three (Privacy) and four (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
The Mail’s article reported on claims by unnamed sources connected to Hull City Council that Turnbull, a customer services manager at the Council’s Neighbourhood and Families Department, had “jumped the queue” to secure council housing eight weeks after he had joined the list.
Turnbull claimed the allegations had been fully investigated by the council and that it had informed the newspaper before publication that the allocation had been made in accordance with its policies and procedures.
He believed there was no reason to publish the story once the council had confirmed the outcome of its investigation and objected to the publication of information about his professional role and salary, as well as pictures of him and the street on which he lives.
In its adjudication the PCC concluded:
The procedures by which council housing is allocated are complex and regularly attract confusion and concerns about unfairness, particularly when – as here – waiting lists are long. An allegation that a public servant working for the Council had received preferential treatment was unquestionably an appropriate matter for investigation by the newspaper.
The complainant had questioned why, once the Council had confirmed the outcome of its investigation, the newspaper had proceeded with publication.
The Commission sympathised with the complainant’s desire to avoid potentially embarrassing publicity and understood why – given that no wrongdoing had been established – he viewed the coverage as unnecessary.
The Commission nonetheless considered that there was a very substantial public interest in ventilating the source’s detailed claims along with the Council’s response. The publication of such a story in circumstances where allegations of impropriety were circulating could serve a valuable role by presenting the positions of both parties. It would then be for the public to decide whether the Council’s response was sufficient to answer the concerns raised.
The Commission noted the steps the newspaper had taken to test the claims, which included seeking comment from the complainant and the Council before publication. While the complainant denied that the factors cited in the article supported a claim of impropriety, the accuracy of these details was not in serious dispute. The Council’s position – that it had investigated and found no wrongdoing – was indicated in the headline to the story and a lengthy response was prominently quoted in the text. Readers would not have been misled about the nature of the allegations, or the fact they were disputed. There was no breach of Clause 1. Furthermore, the decision to publish this material – thus identifying the complainant in relation to the story – did not, in itself, raise a breach of Clause 3.
The photograph of the complainant had been taken, with his consent, for use with a previous story. Against the background of the Commission’s conclusions above, its republication in this context did not raise issues under Clause 3. A second photograph showed several homes (including the complainant’s) on his street, which was named in the caption. While the complainant had expressed general concerns about his security, in the absence of information about any specific threat the Commission did not consider that the publication of the photograph breached Clause 3.
Finally, information about the approximate salaries of the Council’s employees was published on its website, and the complainant did not appear to dispute that the newspaper was in a position to obtain information on this point through a FOI request. The complainant’s role as a public servant was not a private matter, and it was in any event central to the story. In the view of the Commission, it was reasonable to note the complainant’s salary in the context of wider questions about the relative priorities assigned to those on the list. This did not breach Clause 3.
Under Clause 4 (Harassment), journalists “must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on their property when asked to leave”. Seeking the complainant’s comment was an important step in verifying the accuracy of the story. The communication of such a request as part of a legitimate investigation did not raise issues under the terms of Clause 4, in the absence of any request from the complainant for the newspaper to desist.
The complaint was not upheld.