01481-14 Beggs v Scottish Daily Mail

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

·         Decision of the Complaints Committee 01481-14 Beggs v Scottish Daily Mail

Summary of complaint 

1. W F Ian Beggs complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Scottish Daily Mail had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The prisoner gravy train”, published on 11 October 2014. 

2. The article reported that prisoners have been suing the Scottish Government over alleged breaches of their human rights, and that these actions are proving very costly, both in compensation and legal aid payments. It reported that the complainant was particularly litigious, having launched 124 cases so far, with a total legal aid bill amounting to £795,520. It also reported that the complainant had been refused access to “gay pornography”. 

3. The complainant said that, contrary to the claim in the article, he had never sought nor been denied access to pornographic material. He provided documentation from the Scottish Prison Service confirming that it had been unable to locate “any complaints…that referred to any pornographic material”. He also said that he had not been awarded £5,000 by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), in relation to his claim that the appeals of his conviction had been subject to undue delays; two-thirds of that award had constituted legal costs. He said that the newspaper’s failure to note this represented a breach of Clause 1. 

4. The complainant was also concerned that the article continued a prejudicial reference to sexuality, as it was unnecessary to specify that the pornography in question had been “gay”, notwithstanding that this reference had in any case been inaccurate. The complainant said that he was not aware of instances of the use of the term “heterosexual pornography” in the newspaper, and so the reference breached Clause 12. 

5. The newspaper said that, due to a sub-editing error, the complainant’s name had been transposed with that of another prisoner. That prisoner had requested access to homosexual pornography, and had sought to have his case heard before the courts. The newspaper offered to publish the following clarification on page 2 of the newspaper: 

“In an article published on October 11 headlined ‘Prisoner gravy train’, it was stated that prisoner William Beggs had criticised prison officials for refusing him access to gay pornography. This was inaccurate; Mr Beggs had not requested access to gay pornography. We are happy to clarify the matter.” 

6. The newspaper did not accept that the reference to the complainant’s award from the ECHR had been inaccurate or misleading. It also said that, as the reference to the complainant having sought access to homosexual pornography had been due to a sub-editing error, the article had not contained any statements which were discriminatory, prejudicial or pejorative. 

Relevant Code Provisions

7. Clause 1 (Accuracy) 

i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures. 

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. 

Clause 12 (Discrimination) 

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability. 

ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story. 

Findings of the Committee 

8. The newspaper’s misattribution of the request for “access to gay pornography books” represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information. This failure had resulted in publication of a significant inaccuracy, which was requiring of prompt correction in order to comply with the terms of the Code. 

9. The Committee understood that the £5,000 sum which the newspaper had described as being “awarded” to the complainant, following a finding by the ECHR that his human rights had been breached, was a combination of compensation and legal costs. However, in the context of the article as a whole, which noted that the complainant’s legal aid bill at the time of publication was £795,520, the omission of a breakdown of the £5,000 figure did not render the article significantly misleading, and the fact remained that this was the sum of public money which had been granted to the complainant at the conclusion of the case. A correction was not required under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). 

10. The story in this case was that homosexual pornography had been requested from prison authorities and had been refused. It was accepted that another prisoner had been refused such a request. It was genuinely relevant to that story, regarding the other prisoner, that  pornography had been requested, and to note that the pornography had been “gay” did not, in this case, discriminate against the complainant. The Committee did not find that the use of the word “gay” was prejudicial or pejorative, such that it would constitute a breach of Clause 12. 

Conclusions 

11. The complaint was upheld. 

Remedial Action Required 

12. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1 (i), the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee has the power to require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication, the nature, extent and placement of which is to be determined by IPSO. It may also inform the publication that further remedial action is required to ensure that the requirements of the Editors’ Code are met. 

13. The newspaper had offered to publish a correction making clear that the complainant had not requested access to homosexual pornography in prison. In light of the Committee’s decision, it should now be published promptly. 

Date complaint received: 27/10/2014

Date decision issued: 17/03/2015

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