Decision of the Complaints Committee 00915-18 The Scottish Government v The Daily Telegraph
Summary of complaint
1. The Scottish Government complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Sturgeon hauls down Union flag” published on 24 January 2018.
2. The article reported that Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP administration had issued new guidance on the flying of flags, which it reported would result in the Union flag being flown from Scottish Government buildings on only one day of the year. It stated that the flag traditionally flies of dozens of public buildings on royal birthdays and anniversaries, but in light of the new guidance issued by civil servants, it will now fly only on Remembrance Sunday. The article reported that that the guidance applied to buildings operated by the “Scottish Government and its executive agencies”, stating that it brought these buildings into line with the practice in recent years at the Scottish Government headquarters at St Andrew’s House. The article stated that “the Scottish Government confirmed its guidance had been changed, but said there would be no reduction in the Union flag being flown”, and went on to state that a spokesperson later clarified “that this referred specifically to St Andrew’s House, where the flag’s use had already been abandoned.” It also included a number of statements from politicians who had criticised the decision.
3. The article went on to report that Historic Environment Scotland (HES) was required to follow these rules and included a statement from a representative of HES, who stated that it followed Scottish Government protocol. The article was also published online with the headline, “SNP ‘eradicates’ Union flag from Scottish government buildings with Saltire to fly alone on royal occasions.” It was substantively the same as the article that appeared in print.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate, as the guidance would not result in the Union flag being flown from government buildings on fewer days in 2018. It said that the operational guidance had simply been updated after a number of inquiries from the public, to reflect existing practice. It also said that this document had made clear that it was “rules” for the buildings of the Scottish Government, but was simply guidance for all other buildings, including executive agencies, which chose whether or not to follow it. It said that the HES, referred to in the article, was not an executive agency of the government, and was not required to follow the rules or guidance, as stated in the article. It said that whether or not other public buildings chose to follow the guidance was up to each individual institution, and said that some still chose to fly the Union flag every day of the year, which they were entitled to do.
5. It said that a list of the buildings of the Scottish Government was published online, and as St Andrews House and Victoria Quay were the only two building with flagpoles, these were the only buildings that were formally required to follow these rules. It said that since 2010 both these buildings had flown the Union flag on Remembrance Sunday only, reflecting the policy that had been agreed by the previous First Minister and the Royal Household. Because of this, the complainant said the headline of the article was inaccurate, as it referred to the current First Minister who had no role in changing the policy. It said that the newspaper had been told prior to publication that the decision had been taken by the Protocol and Honours team, not the First Minister.
6. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It provided copies of the flag flying guidance published on the Scottish Government’s website in 2010, 2017 and 2018. It said that in the 2017 document, 15 dates, including royal anniversaries and birthdays, mandated that the Union flag should be flown if there was one flagpole, or flown alongside the Saltire if a building has two flagpoles. It stated that the Royal Banner was to be flown, by Royal assent, on these dates at St Andrew’s House or at another Scottish Government building where the First Minister is present. In contrast, the 2018 document stated that on the 14 days of royal anniversaries and birthdays, the protocol for St Andrew’s House was the same as outlined in the 2017 document, but at all other buildings, the Saltire, not the Union Flag, should be flown. The newspaper said that the document showed that the only day where the Union flag was now to be flown from any building, was Remembrance Sunday.
7. The newspaper also provided copies of the correspondence the journalist had had with the press office of the Scottish Government prior to publication. The journalist had asked who had ordered the change, when it was changed and the reason for the change. The newspaper said that the press office had responded with a statement which had made no mention to the policy having been in place since 2010, and in fact referred to the guidance as being “recently updated.” It said that it was therefore accurate to state that the guidelines had been changed.
8. It also said that both the 2017 and 2018 documents were titled “Rules for hoisting flags in buildings of the Scottish Government,” and had a section entitled “Extent of Application” stating “these guidelines apply to the Scottish Government its related Agencies and associated Departments.” The newspaper therefore said that the document plainly applied as rules for these other Executive agencies and departments, not just the principal buildings of the Scottish Government. It said that this was distinguished from “local authority buildings,” “other public institutions” and “members of the public”, which it states were not bound by these rules. It said that the article had made clear that while there would be no change at St Andrew’s House, the rules are observed by many more institutions and buildings, and said it had confirmed with a number of these latter organisations, prior to publication, that they would now fly the Union flag on fewer days than they did last year. It said that the rule change could not reasonably be interpreted as a reflection of existing practice, where the practice of so many institutions was set to change. It also said that HES was listed on the Scottish Government website as an Executive Non-Departmental Public Body, and was defined by the Scottish Government as part of its “central estate.” The reporter also contacted the HES directly prior to publication, which confirmed that it does follow these rules, and considers itself bound by them.
9. The newspaper said that it was a longstanding journalistic convention, particularly in headlines, to use the name of the Prime Minister, or in this instance, the First Minister, as shorthand for the administration that they lead. The newspaper said that the article had made clear that the rules had been published by the “SNP administration” and the “First Minister’s civil servants. In light of this, it said that the headline was not inaccurate and was supported by the text. Regardless, as a gesture of goodwill, the newspaper offered to publish a clarification, in its corrections and clarifications column on page two, making the Scottish Government’s positon clear. It also offered to remove the online article to resolve the complaint. The proposed clarification stated:
“A 24 Jan article, “Sturgeon hauls down Union flag”, concerned an update to flag flying guidance in Scotland. Although it has been confirmed to us that the update will result in many public buildings in Scotland, other than the two Government ones, flying the Union flag less often this year than last, the guidance was not updated as a result of Ms Sturgeon’s direct intervention- despite the headline’s implication- but was issued by Scottish government civil servants. Nor is Historic Environment Scotland required to follow the guidance, as the article incorrectly stated; it does so voluntarily.”
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.
Findings of the Committee
11. The article reported on the recently published flag flying guidance. The Committee was asked to consider whether the article had accurately reported the nature of this guidance, and which buildings it applied to.
12. It was accepted that the updated guidance issued in 2018 would not reduce the number of days the Union flag flew from the two principal buildings of the Scottish Government. The staff managing the buildings were aware of the change of policy agreed in 2010, and had followed the procedure agreed from this point. However, regardless of whether or not they were required to, it was not in dispute that a number of other organisations followed the guidance each year. The guidance did change which flag these buildings should fly for the 14 royal anniversaries and birthdays; suggesting that no building fly the Union flag. The newspaper had confirmed with several bodies that they would reduce the number of days the Union flag flew to one, in light of the guidance. In these circumstances, the newspaper had taken care over the accuracy of the claim that the guidance issued was “new” and that the Union flag “traditionally flies on dozens of public buildings on royal birthday and anniversaries… but this will now happen only on [Remembrance Sunday].”
13. There was a material difference between the guidance for buildings other than St Andrew’s House, in 2017 and 2018. In 2017, buildings that followed the official government guidance, were advised to fly the Union flag on these 14 dates, accompanied by a Saltire only if a second flagpole was present. In 2018, the guidance stated that the saltire instead should be flown. Regardless of whether this had been agreed in 2010, the guidance issued to organisations and the public had not been updated to reflect the formal position until 2018. Where a number of organisations followed this guidance, which now recommended flying the Union flag on one day, it was not inaccurate to state that this document would reduce the number of days the Union flag would fly from dozens of public buildings. Also, where this guidance contained different requirements for the days certain flags were to be flown to its predecessor, it was not inaccurate to refer to the guidelines as new. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
14. The article had stated that the guidance “applies to buildings operated by the Scottish Government and its executive agencies,” echoing the wording used in the extent of application section of the document, which stated “these guideless apply to the Scottish Government, its related Agencies and associated Departments”. The guidance had differentiated the buildings of the Scottish Government, related agencies and associated departments from other institutions, stating that the guidelines applied to the former group, but not the latter. Where this claim accurately reported what was stated in the official government document, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
15. The newspaper had presumed that Historic Environment Scotland was included in the reference to agencies and other departments because of the reference to it as a non –departmental public body and as part of the “central estate” of the Scottish Government on the government website. The document did not specify which buildings made up the Scottish Government, its related agencies and associated departments, and a spokesperson had also confirmed that it did follow the guidelines each year. In these circumstances, the newspaper had taken care over the accuracy of the claim that HES was required to follow these rules.
16. While it was now accepted that HES was not required to follow the rules, where it had confirmed that it always did so, and this comment was included in the article, reporting this claim did not represent a significant inaccuracy requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification on this point.
17. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the policy had been agreed by the previous First Minister, and therefore Ms Sturgeon had played no role in agreeing the updated guidelines. However, the document had been published by civil servants for the Scottish Government in 2018, when Ms Sturgeon was First Minister. It is common practice to refer to decisions taken by civil servants, who enact the wishes of government, as action taken on behalf of the government which the First Minister, in this case, leads. The document reflected the current position of the government in 2018, regardless of what year it was informally agreed. And where the article did make clear that civil servants had enacted the change, the headline was not inaccurate, or misleading, and was supported by the text. There was no breach of Clause 1.
18. The complaint was not upheld
Remedial Action required
The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.
Date complaint received: 24/01/2018
Date decision issued: 27/04/2018