Rochdale Council complaint to IPSO backfires

The council's decision to complain to the Independent Press Standards Organisation about the actions of a local news website has backfired, after the complaint was dismissed and the council criticised by leading journalists.

Rochdale Town Hall
Rochdale Town Hall

The council made a formal complaint to IPSO earlier this year after Rochdale Online published a story with the headline "Councillors' allowances will top one million".

The complaint argued that the website had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in its reporting of figures from a Freedom of Information response and that it failed to approach the council's press office for a comment.

IPSO ruled against the complaint and a council appeal against this decision, to the Independent Complaints Reviewer, was rejected.

In its ruling, released last month, the watchdog said that the council had "raised concern that the publication had approached several Council members for comment, but had not put these claims, including the projected cost of Councillor Allowances, to the Council’s communications team".

The ruling stated that the information in the article was based on information provided by the Council and added: "There was no subsequent requirement on the publication to approach the Council’s communication team for comment. In these circumstances, the publication had taken care over the accuracy of this claim and there was no breach of Clause 1 (i)."

Patrick Smith, news editor at BuzzFeed UK, branded the council’s decision to complain to IPSO "utterly ridiculous", while ITV journalist Charlotte Cross tweeted: "What a waste of everyone's time."

Samantha Harman, editor of the Oxford Mail, tweeted: "I've had several arguments in recent times with council press officers AND councillors saying we shouldn't be contacting councillors direct. Of course we should. These people are elected and they are accountable."

But Clive Power, interim head of comms at Norfolk County Council, told PRWeek: "Journalists rightly ask who they want questions, such as councillors about councillor allowances. But I think if they criticise a council, they should ask for a response from the council, not just from councillors."

In a statement, John Rooney, assistant director for information, customers and communities at Rochdale Council, said: "We value being approached by journalists who are seeking full and accurate information through our communications team or via Freedom of Information requests."

He added: "We also appreciate that journalists will contact councillors directly and we do not want to prevent engagement with councillors, as this is sometimes appropriate. However, it is important that the public is provided with accurate information, so on areas such as expenditure, the communications team is in the best position to be able to clarify the picture for the whole council. As such, we feel we took appropriate action by approaching IPSO in this instance."

However, Rochdale Online managing director Pauline Journeaux described the decision to complain as "pointless and a waste of our time and that of IPSO".

Requests for comment were sent "directly to the councillors concerned", she said. "The council press office answered but, as we considered it was a political point about the specific action of these councillors, we initially considered it was inappropriate to include the council's answer when we had sought, and obtained, comment from councillors."

Journeaux added: "However, we did subsequently add the council's comment in an attempt to placate the council press office – why this formed part of their complaint is a question only they can answer."

She commented: "We would prefer to have a mutually respectful relationship with the council communications team in the hope that disagreements, which are inevitable between council PR and local media, can be resolved without any third-party involvement."

Francis Ingham, director general, PRCA, said: "There’s an inevitable two way process between elected councillors and the local media. Wise press officers will realise the realities of life, and work with journalists and councillors on the majority side (they have, after all, close to zero legitimate leverage over minority group councillors). What they won’t do is go to IPSO and ensure that what might be a mildly embarrassing story achieves even greater prominence."

He added: "The great majority of council press teams do indeed have a good, mature, and sensible working relationship with councillors and local journalists -that’s why this kind of story is very much the exception."

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