· Decision of the Complaints Committee 00109-14 Scott v The Daily Telegraph
Summary of complaint
Summary of complaint
1. Lisa Scott complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Home rule? Scotland’s voters are betting the house on independence”, published on 8 September 2014 in print and on 7 September online.
2. The article was published prior to the referendum on Scottish independence and discussed the implications of independence for Scottish homeowners. As part of a discussion on mortgages, the article claimed that Scottish homeowners who had purchased property using the “Help to Buy” scheme would, in the event of independence, “be left in the extraordinary position of owing a foreign government [the UK] for part of their home” because the scheme was “underwritten by the UK taxpayer”.
3. The complainant said that this was conjecture, as the true position would have been determined following negotiations between Scotland and the UK. The newspaper had failed to clearly distinguish this from fact, in breach of Clause 1 (iii) of the Code.
4. The newspaper explained that its claim related to the mortgage guarantee scheme for “Help to Buy”, which was underwritten by the UK Treasury. The newspaper said it had sought confirmation of this from the Treasury before publication. While it did not provide a record of this contact, it was able to point the Committee towards the Treasury’s Annual Report and Accounts 2013-2014, to which it had been directed by the Treasury, in support of its position. Absent specific agreement, in the event of Scottish secession, those mortgage guarantees would remain with the UK Treasury. While the transfer of such liabilities from the UK Treasury’s balance sheet might have become the subject of negotiations following secession, this, like any issue of what may or may not have happened following Scottish secession, was conjecture. Readers would have understood the article in those terms.
Relevant Code Provisions
5. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
(iii) The press, while free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
6. The complainant did not dispute that the article had correctly reported the position in relation to the status of the mortgage guarantees, absent specific agreement which might have transferred these to an independent Scottish government. Nonetheless, she contended that the article was misleading as it failed to explain that the position could be changed following negotiations.
7. The article had explained that an independent Scotland would have had a number of months in which to negotiate the terms of its secession. It was clear therefore that the article was based, at least to some extent, on conjecture - the newspaper could not be in a position to take account of how those negotiations might affect the article’s claims.
8. The article made a number of specific points regarding the way in which the financial arrangements it discussed might be altered by negotiations following a ‘yes’ vote.
9. The Committee noted in particular the article’s explanation that Scotland might “possibly have to create a new currency”, and the statement that while “in theory an independent Scotland would have 18 months to negotiate an amicable and orderly divorce from the UK, there is every possibility that such a separation would be more acrimonious”. The article suggested that the nature of any negotiations might vary depending on the political impact in Westminster of an independence vote.
10. While this was not specifically drawn to the reader’s attention in relation to the claims about the ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, the Committee was satisfied that in the context it was clear that the discussion of these arrangements, before the referendum and prior to any specific negotiations, was speculative. There was accordingly no failure to distinguish the claims as conjecture, and no breach of Clause 1 (iii) of the Code.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date of complaint: 11/09/2014
Date decision issued: 20/10/14
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