Mr Kevin Groves, Acting Head of Media, Railtrack plc, complained to the Press Complaints Commission that information for an article headlined ''What am I bid for a front-page story?'' published in The Independent on 29 January 2002 was obtained in breach of Clause 11 (Misrepresentation) and that the subsequent article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code of Practice.
The complaint was upheld.
The article followed revelations that a well-known writer was being paid a retainer to write favourable articles about a tobacco company. The journalist from The Independent telephoned a number of companies which in his view had a bad public profile in order to find out whether they would engage in a similar exercise. The article reported that the spokeswoman from Railtrack sounded shocked at the proposal but said that she would get back to him.
The complainant said that the journalist had identified himself correctly but had pretended that he secretly wrote positive stories about companies in return for money. The company immediately complained to the editor and the journalist later telephoned the Railtrack press officer to apologise and to explain that the newspaper had simply wanted to find out whether any companies would be prepared to pay for positive stories. When the story was finally written up – in a light-hearted way – the complainant claimed that it inaccurately stated that Railtrack would "get back" to the journalist, which wrongly implied that the company might be interested in the proposal.
The newspaper defended its behaviour as a "legitimate journalistic exercise" and denied that subterfuge was involved. It added that the journalist stood by his claim that the press officer had said that she would get back to him, but nevertheless offered to publish a letter from the company.
While this complaint may have been seen as trivial it raised an issue of principle about how journalists obtain information. The paper's motives might have been humorous – and the Commission noted that the resulting piece was indeed amusing – but there was a breach of the Code as it was clear that the Railtrack press office had been misled, and there was no public interest in doing so. In upholding the complaint, the Commission also took account of the fact that Railtrack had made its position and its concerns clear to the paper before publication, and that in spite of this the newspaper may still have given the impression to some readers that Railtrack was interested in the proposal.Reuse content