Decision of the Complaints Committee 00916-18 The Scottish Government v The Scottish Daily Express
Summary of complaint
1. The Scottish Government complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Scottish Daily Express breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:
2. The first article reported that Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon had been accused of “trying to eradicate the Union flag in a snub to the Queen.” It stated that new rules meant that the number of dates the flag is flown from Scottish Government buildings would decrease from fifteen to one. It reported that documents from 2017 showed that officials were instructed to fly the Union flag on 15 dates, including royal birthdays and Remembrance Sunday. It went on to state that on these royal occasions, the rules now stated that “the Royal Banner and the Saltire may be flown from St Andrew’s House or wherever Ms Sturgeon may be.” The article also included a number of statements from politicians, criticising the decision, as well as a comment from a government spokesperson stating “The guidance was recently updated to see the Lion Rampart flown from St Andrew’s House to mark royal birthdays and anniversaries…The updated guidance will not see any reduction in the number of days the Union flag is flown within the Scottish Government.” The article was also published online with the headline “Sturgeon snubs Queen: Union flag stripped from Scottish Government buildings.” It was substantially the same as the article that appeared in print.
3. The second article was an editorial, which discussed the alleged change in flag flying policy of the Scottish Government. It reported that that the SNP had “slashed” the number of days the Union flag can be flown from Scottish Government buildings to one. It claimed that this appeared to be a deliberate snub to the Royal Family.
4. The complainant said that the headline was inaccurate. It stated that there was no “snub” to the Royal Family, as the online flag guidelines made clear that the Royal Banner is flown at Scottish Government on Royal occasions, by Royal Assent. It said that this practice was agreed with the Royal Household in 2010, and had been followed by St Andrew’s House from that point forward.
5. It also said that the article was inaccurate, as the updated guidance was only rules for the main buildings of the Scottish Government, which had been following this practice since 2010. The complainant said that it was merely guidance for other buildings, and believed it was therefore inaccurate for the article to refer to the guidance as rules and regulations in the article.
6. The newspaper
did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code. It said that the story
related to a recently published document on the Scottish Government’s website,
titled “Days for hoisting flags on buildings of the Scottish Government.” It
said that the article had made clear when and where the Royal Banner was flown,
and the change in the policy for flying the Union flag, as outlined in the
document. It said that the Royal Banner could only fly from St Andrew’s House
or at another building where the First Minister was present. It said that it
was clear that at all other buildings of the Scottish government, the guidance
on flying flags had clearly changed. The newspaper said that the document was
headlined “rules for hoisting flags on buildings of the Scottish Government,”
not guidance, which it said it was entitled to report.
7. It provided a
copy of the 2018 document. Under the section “Rules for hoisting flags on
buildings of the Scottish Government” it stated under the section “extent of
application” that this guidance applied to the Scottish Government, related
Agencies and associated Departments. Therefore the newspaper said it was clear
that excluding St Andrew’s House, where the Royal Banner was flown, these other
buildings of the Scottish Government would fly the Union flag on fewer days in
2018 compared to 2017.
8. It said that, in these circumstances, it was entitled to characterise this change in policy as a “snub” to the Royal Family. It said that the journalist had contacted the Scottish Government, who had not stated in its response that this policy had been in place for several years. It said that if this was the case, the other buildings referred to in the document were also not aware of the change. It said it had confirmed with a number of bodies that it follows the guidance for all its buildings.
Relevant Code Provisions
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
9. It was accepted that the publicly available guidance on flag flying had been updated in 2018. The Committee acknowledged that this document would not change practice at St Andrew’s House, where the Royal Banner had flown on these 14 royal anniversaries or birthdays from 2010. However, a number of other buildings who followed the government’s guidance each year, had confirmed that they would now fly the Union flag on just one day in 2018, compared with fifteen in 2017. Where the government’s official guidance suggested that the Saltire be flown on 14 days that were previously reserved for the Union flag, the newspaper had accurately reported this change. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
10. The newspaper was entitled to characterise this change as a “snub” to the Royal Family, where the basis for this characterisation was made clear. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
11. The 2018 guidance advised buildings to fly the Saltire on these fourteen occasions, rather than the Union flag, in contrast to the guidance issued the previous year. In these circumstances it was accurate to refer to this document as new. The document had also referred to the guidance as “rules for hoisting flags on buildings of the Scottish Government.” In these circumstances, using the terms rules, guidance and regulations interchangeably did not significantly misrepresent the document. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 24/01/2018
Date complaint concluded: 03/05/2018Back to ruling listing