Decision of the Complaints Committee 01538-18 Nash v The National
1. Pamela Nash complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The National breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:
•“Scotland in Union in crisis after donor details are leaked,” published on 3 January 2018.
• “Scotland in Union face questions as we reveal foreign billionaire’s donation,” 6 January 2018.
• “Scotland in Union accused of trying to bully Electoral Commission over big money donors,” published on 5 February 2018.
2. The articles reported on the content of documents belonging to the organisation, Scotland In Union (SIU), which SIU considered to be confidential and which it said had been leaked to the newspaper and to a number of other media outlets. The articles reported that the documents had been sent from an anonymous e-mail account to various publications, and that they contained the names and contact details of donors, as well as details of donations which SIU had allegedly received.
3. The first article reported that SIU had informed the police and the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) about the leak, and that the ICO has the power to issue fines of up to £500,000. It also included a quotation, given to another publication, by a spokesperson from SIU, “All the information on our supporters is protected and held securely in accordance with best practice and we regret internal documents have been shared with external parties. We have reported the matter to the police and the Information Commissioner. We have taken all necessary steps to make our affected supporters aware and will continue to investigate how these documents have been misused.”
4. The second article reported that SIU was “in crisis as angry supporters ask how they managed to let a spreadsheet…be stolen and leaked to the press.” It reported that, according to one of the leaked documents, 12 donations of more than £7500 had been made to SUI in the run-up to two General Elections and a Scottish Parliamentary Election. The article noted that this was during the “regulated period”, when donations are supposed to be declared to the Electoral Commission. The article included a statement from the Electoral Commission, which said, “We consider and assess possible breaches of the rules consistent with our published Enforcement Policy and we are reviewing the matter” and a statement from SIU, “We are confident that our donations are in accordance with Electoral Commission guidelines and we are awaiting clarification of that.” The article also set out the SIU’s position that none of the donations received were specifically for spending in relation to the General Election campaign and therefore they had been advised that they did not need to declare them.
5. The third
article reported that the Electoral Commission had recently investigated SIU
for allegedly not declaring a spending return, but that the Commission had
decided not to take this matter further. It also repeated the claim from the
second article, that 12 donations of more than £7,500 had been received by SIU
during the “regulated period”. The article said
that there appeared to be a “grey area” in the Electoral Commission’s
rules, as donations not received specifically for regulated campaign spending
do not have to be declared and made clear that
SIU argued that these donations were not donated for the purpose of
regulated campaign spending.
6. The complainant
was the Chief Executive of SIU. She believed that the information published had
come from an incomplete note which had been unlawfully taken from the
organisation, and therefore should not have been reported. She said that SIU
had not seen the documents which had been sent to the newspaper, but based on
images posted on another website, she believed that the document was not a
record of donations but a newsletter mailing list, and that, therefore, the
information about the donations reported in the articles was not accurate.
7. The complainant
also said that the articles suggested that SIU had broken the Electoral
Commission’s rules on receiving and declaring donations and that SIU was being
investigated by the ICO, and could potentially be fined. In fact, this was not
the position, as the Electoral Commission had later concluded that all relevant
donations had been declared and the SUI was not subject to an investigation by
the ICO. She also said it was inaccurate for the second article to claim that
supporters were angry and concerned about the leak.
8. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Editors’ Code. It said that it had accurately reported the documents which had been leaked to the newspaper, and had made clear that all the claims regarding the details of donations had come from these documents. It said that when its sister publication and one of its own journalists contacted SIU for comment, the spokesperson had accepted that an internal document had been unlawfully removed from the organisation and that the police were investigating the theft. In these circumstances, the newspaper said it was confident that the documents received were genuine.
9. It also said that, at the time of publication, the Electoral Commission had confirmed that it was reviewing donations received by SIU, as it was not yet clear whether they were in line with the guidelines. The newspaper said that it did, however, include a statement from SIU, stating that it was confident all its donations were in line with the guidelines. The Electoral Commission later confirmed that no further action would be taken in relation to the matter, as the donations were not received for the specific purpose of regulated campaigning. The newspaper said it had reported this in a subsequent article.
10. The newspaper
also said that its articles did not state that the ICO was investigating the
alleged leaking of the information; it said that after a data breach such as
this, it was natural to ask whether the organisation had the necessary measures
in place to protect donors’ personal information, as required by the ICO. It
also said that where the leaked documents revealed donors’ names, phone numbers
and other personal information, it was reasonable to claim that supporters were
likely to be angry and concerned. It also said a source with close ties to the
organisation had confirmed that donors were unhappy.
Relevant Code provisions
11. 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.
Findings of the Committee
12. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s wider concerns regarding the potentially unlawful removal of confidential internal documents.However, the question for the Committee to consider was whether the newspaper, when reporting on the information contained in the leaked documents, had done so accurately and in line with its obligations under the Editors’ Code.
13. The newspaper had received a copy of the documents which appeared to provide information about SIU’s donors and the amounts they had donated. Prior to publication, SIU had also given a statement to a sister publication, confirming that a document had been misused and stating that the police were investigating the matter, and that the ICO had been informed. In these circumstances, the newspaper had taken care in reporting information from the documents on the basis that they appeared to be genuine, and there was no breach of Clause 1 (i). The articles had made clear that the claims regarding the amount of donations received by SIU had been taken from the leaked spreadsheets, and there was no basis to find that the information contained in the documents had been reported inaccurately. Reporting the information contained in the documents did not breach Clause 1 (ii).
14. The articles had not stated that the Electoral Commission had found SIU to be in breach of its guidelines, but reported that the documents suggested that the organisation had received donations of more than £7,500 during the regulated spending period, and that this was being investigated by the Electoral Commission. At the time of publication, the Electoral Commission had confirmed that it was reviewing the matter, and its statement was included in the article. The article also included a statement from the organisation, expressing its view that all donations had been declared as required by the Electoral Commission’s guidelines. In these circumstances, the newspaper had taken care over the accuracy of the claim that the documents indicated that donations of over £7,500 had been received during the “regulatory period” and that this was being investigated by the Commission. The article had accurately reported that the Commission’s investigation was, at the time, ongoing, and did not state or imply that it had found that SIU had broken the guidelines, as the complainant complained. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
15. The newspaper had not reported that SIU was being investigated by the ICO in relation to the matter. Rather, it speculated that in circumstances such as this, where donors’ personal data had allegedly been shared with third parties, that the ICO may investigate, and noted the level of fines which the organisation was able to impose. The newspaper had taken care to clearly present this speculation as comment, and had not given the misleading impression that an ICO investigation was being undertaken. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. Also, as a number of donors’ personal information had potentially been shared without their consent, and a source close to the organisation had confirmed that this had caused anger and concern among donors, the reporting of donors’ reactions did not amount to a breach of Clause 1 on this point.
16. 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: 12/02/2018
Date decision issued: 19/07/2018