Decision of the Complaints Committee – 00116-20 McDonald v The Sunday Times
Summary of Complaint
1. David McDonald complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “HIGH ANXIETY OVER GLASGOW DEPUTY LEADER’S PLANE TRIPS / Anger at Glasgow convener’s jet-setting”, published on 29 December 2019.
2. The article reported on the official international trips taken by a Glasgow councillor. It said that the councillor had been “globetrotting at public expense” and that his trips “follow[ed] the public outrage over expenses claims for thousands of pounds worth of shoes, clothing and beauty sessions that forced [another councillor] to resign”. The article gave details of the seven official trips, which it described as “an impressive itinerary spanning seven countries in Europe and Asia”, and explicitly referred to trips in Japan, Romania, Germany, the Czech Republic and Estonia. It also said he was “facing a backlash” and had “been condemned” and contained quotes from a Glasgow Conservative MSP and the GMB union’s Scottish secretary, who expressed disappointment that “Glaswegians”’ and “tax-payer” money was used this way. The article also reported that the councillor “could not be reached for comment but Glasgow council said that ‘in most cases’ the trips had been endorsed by a crossparty committee to forge international links.”
3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, headlined “High anxiety over Glasgow deputy leader’s plane trips”.
4. The complainant, the Glasgow councillor who was the subject of the article, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said it was inaccurate to report that he had been “globetrotting at public expense” as several of the international trips referred to in the article had been at no cost to the public. He said this information could have been verified by checking his register of interests which could be found publicly on the Glasgow City Council website. He said that the trip to Japan had been sponsored and had not been paid for by taxes. He accepted that the information available online said his travel expenses came to £777.53, including £314.10 for return flights to Dusseldorf, £306.73 for return flights to Tallinn and £156.70 for taxi fares. The complainant said that whilst the council initially paid for the flights to Tallinn, they were to be reimbursed by the event organisers. He said the inclusion of a quote from the Glasgow Conservative MSP that he was “spending” public money was also inaccurate, for the same reasons. He also said that referring to the other councillor who had been at the centre of an expense scandal was misleading and that it demonstrated that the publication had selectively chosen material.
5. The complainant also considered that it was misleading to refer to “high anxiety” and to report that he was “facing backlash” due to his trips. He said there had been no public anger or backlash prior to the publication of the article.
6. The complainant said that he had not been given sufficient opportunity to comment before the article was published. He said that the reporter had tried to contact him via the Council’s communication team on 23 December, and they had then emailed his work email address on 27 and 28 December telling him that the article would be published on 29 December. The complainant said that the council was in recess, and that the newspaper knew this, and therefore he was unable to challenge the accuracy of the article prior to publication.
7. The publication did not accept that the article was inaccurate. It said that the article had been based on a series of Tweets which the complainant had posted, which described the trips that he had taken that year as part of his work. In addition, it said that the article did not report that all of the trips had been at the expense of the public. The day after the article was published, prior to receipt of the complaint, the publication submitted a Freedom of Information request. This said that the complainant had spent over £1,800 of public funds on travelling. It also said that it was not inaccurate to report the views of other politicians, and that it was entitled to characterise their views as being of “high anxiety”, and that this would clearly have been understood by readers to be a pun. Furthermore, it did not find it misleading to refer to another councillor who had been in the news with regards to expenses, as it was relevant to the story. Whilst not accepting a breach of Clause 1, the publication did offer to publish the following wording in its Scottish print edition, in the Corrections and Clarifications column, and in the online Corrections and Clarifications column:
Our article "High anxiety over Glasgow deputy leader's plane trips" (News, December 29) stated that David McDonald, deputy leader of Glasgow City Council, had been "globetrotting at public expense" in 2019. Councillor McDonald has asked us to make clear that some of the costs of the seven overseas trips mentioned in the article were in fact borne by his hosts, and one involved no expense to the public.
8. The publication said that it had given the complainant opportunity to respond prior to the article being published. It said that on 23 December the reporter had emailed the council press office, and attempted to call the complainant’s phone number at the council. On 27 December, the reporter emailed the complainant’s council email address, called the complainant’s council phone number, and contacted the council press office. On 28 December, the reporter emailed the complainant again, and also contacted a body chaired by the complainant. The newspaper provided the relevant emails. In addition, the publication said that the complainant had been active on his official Twitter page, so it assumed he would also be able to respond to official emails.
9. On receipt of the Freedom of Information request, the complainant said that these costs related to taxis, accommodation and other expenses, while the article referred to flights, and it was therefore still inaccurate.
Relevant Code Provisions
10. Clause 1 (Accuracy)
i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
11. The complainant accepted that many of the trips had elements, such as taxis, accommodation or flights, that had been paid for by the Council. The article had not reported which of the seven trips had been funded by the tax-payer, nor had it said that all of them had been. The newspaper had based its report on information which the complainant had Tweeted, and it had contacted the Council via email and phone. The Committee noted the complainant’s concerns that, due to the fact the Council was in recess, he was given insufficient time to respond, but the newspaper had tried to contact him both via the Council and directly, and the article had included the Council’s comment. As the publication had made multiple attempts to contact the complainant in order to put the accusations to him, and had based the article off a Tweet the complainant had himself published, there was no failure to take care under Clause 1(i). When provided with the evidence supplied by the complainant, in addition to the Freedom of Information request, it was clear that the complainant had visited several countries at the expense of the public. On this basis there was no significant inaccuracy which required correction under Clause 1 (ii). The Committee, however, welcomed the clarification as offered by the publication.
12. Referring to concerns about another councillor’s expenses was not misleading within the context of the article, as it was relevant to the story and she had been on one of the trips with the complainant. On this basis, there was no failure to take care to report accurate information and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
13. The article had included two quotes from a rival politician and a union representative who expressed concern regarding the way in which public money had been spent. It was therefore not misleading to report that the complainant was “facing a backlash” and had “been condemned”; this was clearly the newspaper’s characterisation based on the reported comments. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.
14. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 07/01/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 26/06/2020Back to ruling listing