Resolution Statement – 02647-19 Police Scotland v Sunday Post
Summary of Complaint
1. Police Scotland complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Post breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles, all published on 3 February 2019:
2. The first article appeared on the front page of the newspaper. The other articles appeared on pages 10 and 11, as a double-page feature under the headlines listed above.
3. The first article reported that “senior police officers who led an elite crime-fighting force have announced their retirement” as a court judgement exposed “cover-up and mismanagement” at the agency. It said that the officers, which it named, had announced their departure “as it emerged officers at the now-defunct Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency [SCDEA] were told to burn piles of sensitive documents”. It said that both men said that their retirement was unconnected to the judgement.
4. The second article repeated the claims made in the first article, and explained that a civil action for damages by a whistle-blower had “revealed how senior officers ordered the incineration of secret and highly sensitive files after she reported serious concerns about the finances of a unit managing undercover operations”. The article stated that the retirement of one of the named officers [on whose behalf the complainant also acted] had been announced on 30 January, and that the next day the ruling into the whistle-blower’s civil claim had been published. The article quoted a representative of Police Scotland, who “said of [the deputy director’s] retirement: ‘It is not linked to the judgement in any way, shape or form. Absolutely not’”.
5. The third article described the alleged “cover-up” at the SCDEA, which it said had been described by the whistle-blower – known as Mrs K - during her civil action against Police Scotland. It stated that documents detailing the lives of undercover officers had been found by Mrs K in a state of disarray at a unit belonging to the SCDEA, and that she had “raised the alarm…after discovering financial documents in names of individuals not linked to any undercover operations”. The article stated that “it is unlikely…that anyone will ever know exactly what was found…because a clean-up operation was immediately ordered with officers told to buy a garden incinerator and petrol and burn the lot”. It said that ultimately the documents were burned in the SCDEA car park, at the behest of senior figures in the SCDEA.
6. The fourth article repeated the claims of a “cover-up” at the SCDEA. The fifth article reported on praise for Mrs K’s actions from politicians and the outcome of her civil action. It said that Police Scotland said that it was “considering the terms of the judgement”. The sixth article was an opinion piece written by the former head of the SCDEA in which he set out his response to the allegations reported in the other articles.
7. The articles all appeared online on the same day, in substantially the same format.
8. The complainant, acting on behalf of the former deputy director, said that the first article’s headline was inaccurate, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), because it suggested that his retirement – announced on 30 January - was linked to the publication of the judgement on the whistle-blower’s civil case, on 31 January. It said that the former deputy director had given notice of his intent to retire in December, and this had been announced publicly at a board meeting on 30 January. It said that it had informed the reporter that the retirement was unconnected with the judgement prior to publication.
9. The complainant also said that the articles were inaccurate to refer to a “cover-up”, and did not make clear that this claim was based on an interpretation of Mrs K’s evidence which had not been established as fact. It said that the judgement had made clear that a number of officers had been tasked with responding to the discovery of documents in disarray at the unit, including by means of a formal investigation at the time. The complainant said that the judgement had never referred to a “cover-up”, and the judge had not made any comment on the management of the documents that had been discovered.
10. The publication denied any breach of the Code. It said that the articles did not state as fact that there was a direct causal connection between the former deputy director’s retirement and the judgement; rather, they had accurately reported that the retirement had been announced the day prior to the judgement being published, and that the individual in question had been Deputy Director General at the time of the matters reported by Mrs K. It said that these facts were pertinent to the article, and noted that the articles had included the position of Police Scotland in respect of the retirement. The publication said that it was not provable that there was no connection between the retirement and the events described, and that the simultaneous nature of the retirement and the publication of the judgement was a matter of public interest, given the former deputy director’s direct involvement in the matters reported in the judgement.
11. The publication also denied that it was inaccurate for the articles to refer to a “cover-up”. It said that the judgement had criticised the quality of the internal investigations that had taken place in relation to the allegations made by Mrs K. It also noted that Mrs K, and others, including representatives of police forces, had given testimony which cast doubt on the quality of these investigations, and that her testimony in relation to the destruction of material had been unchallenged in court, and had led to calls from the Justice Minister for an independent investigation. It also noted that the complainant had not specifically denied the veracity of Mrs K’s evidence in relation to the destruction of documents.
12. The complainant said that it had not challenged the claims made in court because the hearing related to its duty of care towards the officer, and her standing to claim damages, not to specific evidence heard. It did not accept that the incineration of documents had occurred.
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. 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.
8. The complaint was not resolved through direct correspondence between the parties. IPSO therefore began an investigation into the matter.
9. During IPSO’s investigation, the newspaper offered to publish a clarification online and on p2 of its print edition, setting out the complainant’s position that the judge had made no finding in relation to the incineration of documents or whether a cover-up took place:
In articles headlined “Chiefs quit as police cover-up exposed”, published on 3 February, we told how a former officer sued Police Scotland, claiming to have been scapegoated by senior officers after uncovering a shambles at the now-defunct Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency. We believe the ensuing events, including the incineration of documents, was a cover-up but Police Scotland would like to make clear the judge made no finding in relation to the destruction of documents or whether a cover-up took place. Meanwhile, Police Scotland Deputy Chief Constable [name] announced his retirement in January, the day before publication of the judgement. The force would like to make clear his retirement was intimated to the Scottish Police Authority in December 2018 and, they say, was unconnected to the judgement.
10. The complainant said that this resolved the matter to its satisfaction.
11. As the complaint was successfully mediated, the Complaints Committee did not make a determination as to whether there had been any breach of the Code.
Date complaint received: 23/04/2019
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 09/07/2019