DUNCAN WILSON AND SUZANNE PAUL AGAINST NATIONAL BUSINESS REVIEW

Case Number: 2207

Council Meeting: AUGUST 2011

Verdict: Not Upheld

Publication: National Business Review

Ruling Categories: Errors, Apology and Correction Sought
Accuracy
Unfair Coverage

Duncan Wilson and his wife, Suzanne Paul, complained that National Business Review reported that a company bearing Suzanne Paul's name could be struck from the company register unless it filed its annual return by the following Monday.

They further complained that though the company did then file its return on time, and the NBR updated its story accordingly, the original story remained on the newspaper's website behind a paywall.

They were also concerned that NBR's original heading, 'Suzanne Paul Beauty could be cut from company..." appears on Google lists of references to Suzanne Paul.

The complaints are not upheld, however the case highlighted a problem for people who are the subject of a story they cannot see in full without paying a subscription to an online newspaper site. The complainants' concern was raised by a headline and they relied on the Council to obtain a copy of the material behind NBR's paywall. The Council strongly urges editors of online sites to make the full text available on request at no charge to those who are the subject of a story.

Mr Wilson and Ms Paul considered this story to be unfair on three grounds: (a) last minute company returns are not usually newsworthy, (b) the story was as much about the activities of the Honk Group, two of whose directors part-own Suzanne Paul Beauty, and (c) her name was used in the headline and introduction to attract readers to the story and subscriptions to the paper.

Regrettably, the editor, Nevil Gibson, made no response to the complaint, nor did he reply to repeated attempts by the Council to urge his compliance with the industry's agreed procedure.

Clearly, the NBR used the complainant's name to attract attention to a story that was not strong. It covered the filing issue in three paragraphs and filled the rest of its space with unrelated material on her and the Honk Group directors.

It not only used her name in the heading and introduction, calling her "infomercial queen", but illustrated the item on its website with her posed image. While celebrity bait of this nature may be surprising in a serious business weekly, it does not breach minimum standards of fairness. Suzanne Paul has made her name well known. A newspaper is entitled to give greater attention to a company bearing her name than its affairs might otherwise receive.

The survival of the story and its headline on the internet raised a more difficult issue.

The Council finds no fault with the newspaper's updating of the story on its own website, which the news editor agreed to do as soon as Mr Wilson emailed her to say the company return had been filed.

The report was given a substitute heading: 'Suzanne Paul Beauty files return, safe on register' and noted: "Mr Wilson has informed the NBR that the annual return for Suzanne Paul has now been filed."

Mr Wilson had also asked that the original story be removed from the website. This the news editor refused to do and the Press Council understood her decision. The story remained accurate at the time it was written. Editors rightly refuse to remove such stories from their web record, just as they would not previously have culled them from paper archives. So long as the material is clearly updated, the Council can see no reason to remove it.

The complainants' lasting concern arose from the story's wider circulation on the web. When the Council put the name Suzanne Paul into the Google search engine a line appeared - albeit on a fifth page of references to her - that read: "Suzanne Paul (in bold type) Beauty could be cut from company - National Business....."

Immediately below, in smaller type, the updated headline also appeared, along with a subscription notice. The casual reader scanning the references might have noticed only the original headline and be drawn into the story behind the paywall.

But the unfairness arose from the Google format, not the originating newspaper. In circumstances such as this, the Council can only relay some technical instructions for requesting a removal of the item from Google lists.

The complaint is not upheld.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.