Decision of the Complaints Committee 00616-16 McKenna v The Sun
Summary of Complaint
1. Paul McKenna complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “McKenna’s Brahms ’n hypnotist”, published on 1 January 2016. The article was also published online on 31 December 2015 with the headline “Paul McKenna’s Brahms ‘n hypnotist: Telly star refused alcohol on BA flight”.
2. The article reported that passengers on a transatlantic flight had claimed that the complainant had been “staggering around the cabin” and had spilt his drink on a fellow passenger. It quoted a passenger saying that “the staff had obviously decided he’d had enough and stopped serving him. He did not seem happy and went off on one in a rant”. It reported that passengers had claimed that the complainant had “reduced a hostess to tears”. The article also reported that “staff stopped offering [the complainant] more alcohol after he became abusive and started staggering around”. It reported that a spokesman for the complainant had said that “[the complainant] was feeling unwell on the flight. He sincerely apologises for any offence caused”.
3. The text of the online version of the article was identical to that which appeared in print.
4. The complainant said that he was not drunk on the flight, was not refused alcohol, and did not have an altercation with a member of the airline’s staff. He said that during the flight, he had been suffering from acute food poisoning. This had made him unsteady, as a result of which he had spilt a drink over a neighbouring passenger towards the end of the flight.
5. The complainant said that, prior to publication, the newspaper had misled his spokesperson about the allegations that would be published, and about the evidence the newspaper had to support its story.
6. The complainant said that the journalist had misled his spokesperson into believing that he had a “sound recording” of the incident. The journalist had told the spokesperson that “we have two witnesses on the record and evidence of disturbance”. The spokesperson asked the journalist what was meant by “evidence of disturbance”, and the journalist told him “sound recording…from what I have heard it sounds like he’s had a few drinks. He spilled a drink all over a passenger and was a bit short with an air hostess which made her upset”. In fact, the journalist did not have a sound recording of the incident, but a sound recording of the alleged witnesses describing the alleged incident.
7. Furthermore, the complainant said that his spokesperson was told that the airline was aware of the incident, and that they were providing a statement. He said that this implied that the airline was about to provide the newspaper with a statement confirming the allegations. In fact, the airline did not provide a statement until after the journalist had contacted his spokesperson. This statement did not relate to the complainant’s flight. The complainant said that this showed that the journalist had misled his spokesperson when he told him that the airline was providing a statement: the airline had initially believed that the journalist’s enquiry related to a different flight.
8. The complainant said that his spokesperson had then taken instructions and – in a telephone conversation with the journalist – had issued an unequivocal denial that he had been drunk, had been refused alcohol and had engaged in a “rant” which had “reduced an air hostess to tears”.
9. His spokesperson was then told that the allegations would be “toned down” and that the article would not contain the allegations that he had been drunk, or that he had made an air stewardess cry. The complainant said that it was on this basis that his spokesperson had issued the apology for being unwell on the flight, which was included in the article.
10. In response to the complaint, the newspaper accepted that the allegations about Mr McKenna were untrue. However, it said it had not failed to take care over the accuracy of the article, and had not engaged in misrepresentation or subterfuge. It provided a transcript of a conversation between the journalist and two passengers on the complainant’s flight. In this transcript, one of the passengers stated that the complainant was “pissed”, that “he was staggering around and then it kicked off”, that “they stopped serving him as well”, and that “all the way across he was a pain in the arse”. In addition, the newspaper said that its journalist had spoken to a freelance journalist, who told him that he had been informed by a member of the cabin crew that Mr McKenna’s conduct had reduced a flight attendant to tears, and that he had been told by the same passengers the newspaper had spoken to that they had seen a flight attendant crying.
11. The newspaper said that the complainant’s spokesperson had not denied – in his conversation with the journalist – that the complainant had been drinking, or that he had been refused alcohol. It said that the spokesperson told the journalist that the complainant had been “short” with the air hostess and had spilt a drink, but was suffering from an upset stomach. The newspaper denied that the complainant’s spokesperson was told that the allegations that the complainant was drunk and had made an air stewardess cry would not be published. It said it was inherently improbable that the journalist would have done so, given that these allegations formed the core of the story. It said that the when the spokesperson said that he appreciated the journalist “turning it all down [sic]”, this related to the decision not to publish additional allegations that had been made by the passengers.
12. The newspaper said that the journalist’s use of the term “sound recording” referred to the newspaper having proof that people on the flight claimed to have witnessed the incident. It said that when the journalist contacted the airline, he enquired about the wrong flight, and was told that “we have not had any reports of disruptive customers on this flight”. In the journalist’s email in response to this statement, he said “Thanks – but I did clarify [that it was the complainant’s correct flight]. Could you please check again”. The airline then provided the statement: “We are unable to discuss details of individual customers”. The newspaper said that airline gave off-the-record guidance that they had a record of the incident, which was confirmed by the change in its statement when the correct date for the complainant’s flight had been provided.
13. The newspaper said that it had credible sources for the allegations in the article; these allegations were put to the complainant, who did not deny them but instead provided a statement for publication, which included an apology for his behaviour. The newspaper said that, at worst, there may have been a misunderstanding between its journalist and the complainant’s spokesperson, but that it was not necessary for it to spell out the nature of the evidence for the purposes of seeking comment, and denied that there was misrepresentation or subterfuge.
14. The complainant contacted IPSO on 4 February, and his complaint was referred to the newspaper on 10 February. The newspaper removed the online article from its website on 24 February, and, following a meeting with the complainant on the same date, made an offer of a correction and an apology. It made a further offer on 29 February, making clear that the wording would be published on page 2 of the newspaper. The article under complaint had been published on page 3. Following further, extensive, correspondence with the complainant, on 8 April it offered to publish the following apology on page 2 of the newspaper, and to publish the same wording online with the headline “Apology to Paul McKenna” with a link from the home page for 24 hours, and archived thereafter:
Paul McKenna – Apology
Our January 1 article about Paul McKenna wrongly alleged that Paul McKenna was drunk on a flight to Barbados; was accordingly refused alcohol by the flight crew; and reacted to that refusal by launching into an abusive rant which reduced a female flight attendant to tears. We now accept that these allegations were untrue. We apologise to Mr McKenna.
15. In relation to the transcript provided by the newspaper, the complainant noted that it did not contain the allegation that he had engaged in a “boozy rant”, or had made an air hostess cry. He noted that while the transcript recorded that airline staff stopped serving him, it did not record that he had been “refused booze”, or that an altercation had followed. The fact that the transcript recorded him being unsteady on his feet was consistent with the symptoms of acute food poising, as was the description of him “running up and down”, which was the result of his frequent journeys to the loo. He noted that the passengers did not say that they saw him drinking.
16. The complainant said he did not believe that the airline had confirmed “off-the-record” that the incident had taken place, and noted that the newspaper had no record of this conversation. The complainant said he did not believe that either of the witnesses had alleged that he had made a member of airline staff cry, nor did he believe that a member of the airline staff had made this claim. He noted that the newspaper had made this submission at a late stage of IPSO’s investigation.
17. The complainant said that the article under complaint had been published on page 3 of the newspaper, a well-read page, and that the online article had been published for 55 days with similar prominence to the print article. He said that the offer to publish the correction and apology on the homepage for 24 hours, and on the less-read page 2, in a format that would be significantly smaller than the article under complaint, without a picture, was inadequate.
Relevant Code Provisions
18. 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.
Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)
ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.
Findings of the Committee
19. It was accepted by both parties that the complainant’s spokesperson had set out an alternative version of events to the allegation of drunkenness during his telephone conversation with the journalist prior to publication: that he had been unwell on the flight. Following this conversation, the complainant issued an apology, which related to his being unwell. The newspaper was not able to demonstrate that this apology represented an admission of the published allegations; allegations it subsequently accepted were untrue.
20. The publication of the allegations alongside the complainant’s apology gave the impression that the allegations had been admitted by the complainant. This represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. The Committee also expressed concern that in his correspondence with the complainant’s spokesperson, the journalist had given the misleading impression that the “sound recording” the newspaper possessed was a recording of the incident itself and that the airline would be providing a statement which might confirm that the incident had taken place. The complaint under Clause 1 (i) was upheld.
21. The newspaper had accepted that the allegations that the complainant was drunk, was refused alcohol, and had reacted by becoming abusive to airline staff, were inaccurate; these were significant inaccuracies and a correction was therefore required to comply with Clause 1 (ii). The wording of the correction and apology offered by the newspaper identified the inaccuracies and made clear the correct position. It contained an apology to the complainant, which was required under the terms of Clause 1 (ii) given that the inaccuracies related directly to his personal conduct and were potentially damaging to his reputation.
22. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern in relation to the size of the offered correction. Clause 1 (ii) requires that corrections be published with due prominence: this requirement is not punitive, but requires that corrections and apologies are sufficiently prominent to achieve the required corrective effect. The Committee did not accept that this purpose can only be achieved by publication of corrections the same size as the article under complaint.
23. The Committee noted that the newspaper had an established corrections and clarifications column, published daily on page 2 with the headline “Corrections and clarifications”, which included information about IPSO. The article was published on page 3 of the newspaper, and in these circumstances, publication of the correction and apology on page 2 of the newspaper and as an item on the publication’s website, linked to the homepage for 24 hours, constituted due prominence under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). While the final offer was made on 8 April, the newspaper had also offered to publish a similar correction and apology towards the end of February, which – given the nature of the negotiations ongoing between the parties – was sufficiently prompt under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).
24. Misrepresentation under Clause 10 generally covers situations in which an individual is misled as to the fact that they are speaking to a journalist: it reflects the position, embodied in the Code, that journalism should be conducted openly unless the public interest requires otherwise.
25. In this instance, the journalist’s conduct did not constitute an act of subterfuge or misrepresentation for the purposes of Clause 10; while the journalist had exaggerated the evidential basis for the story, it was entirely clear both that he was a journalist and that he was seeking the complainant’s comments about his alleged behaviour on the flight. There was no breach of Clause 10.
26. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.
Remedial Action Required
27. The newspaper had already offered to publish a correction and an apology on page 2 of the newspaper, as well as removing the online article and offering to publish the correction and apology online. The publication of the offered corrections and apologies would be sufficient to remedy the established breach of the Code and, in light of the Committee’s decision, they should now be published.
Date complaint received: 08/02/2016
Date decision issued: 02/06/2016