Decision of the Complaints Committee 03549-15 Blair v Daily Mail
Summary of complaint
1. Tony Blair complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Blair tried to wriggle out of MPs’ probe into IRA ‘comfort letters’”, published on 10 January 2015.
2. The article reported that the complainant had contacted the Speaker of the House of Commons after being summoned to appear before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry into so-called “comfort letters”, as part of an attempt to avoid giving oral evidence to the inquiry.
3. The article claimed that the complainant had been told by the Speaker that he was required to appear and characterised the call as an attempt by the complainant to “wriggle out” of giving evidence. It reported that the Speaker was said to have “ripped into” the complainant in response.
4. The complainant said this was inaccurate. He had explained to the Speaker that, while he had already given evidence on the issue to the Hallett Review and did not therefore believe that there was benefit in his repeating this evidence to the Committee, he would be attending. He sought advice on whether there was any scope to change the date he was required to attend the Committee, in light of restrictions on his diary, and had been advised to proceed with his proposal to offer two alternative dates.
5. The complainant said that the article was misleading in stating that he had limited his appearance before the Committee to an hour, when in fact this was at the suggestion of the Committee’s Chair.
6. The newspaper noted that the complainant had declined to give oral evidence to the Committee after being initially invited to do so in March 2014. The newspaper provided a letter sent by the complainant to the Committee’s Chair, dated 18 November 2014, in which he said he “had nothing to say which will be new”, and that “if you continue to insist on my attendance” he would ask his office to “look into dates in the new year”; however, given his other commitments this would be “challenging”. As a consequence, the Committee had felt it had to take the unusual step of summonsing him to appear before the Committee on 14 January 2015. The newspaper provided a copy of the letter from the Chair, dated 10 December 2014, notifying the complainant of the summons, which referred to the complainant’s “continuing lack of response to the Committee’s invitation” and stated that the Committee was “particularly disappointed” at the lack of response “since its members have noted that you have been in the UK regularly over the past few weeks, but you have not been able to find an hour or so to meet us”. The Chair described this as “extremely disrespectful to the House”. The conversation reported had taken place in this context.
7. The newspaper’s account of the conversation was based on information provided by well-placed confidential sources and clearly presented as claims. The newspaper had attempted to call the Speaker about the article, but the call was not returned; it had also contacted the complainant's office, which gave a blanket denial. This was published in full.
8. Prior to publication, the newspaper had also contacted three members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to put the story to them; while none were prepared to comment on-the-record, they gave no indication that any element of the article was incorrect. In response to this complaint the newspaper had contacted four named members of the Committee, who had confirmed that the article contained an accurate account of the conversation as it was reported to the Committee by its Chair, to whom it had been reported by the Speaker.
9. The newspaper had subsequently been contacted by the Speaker, who said that the complainant had at no time asked him to overturn an order that he appear before the Committee; neither had the Speaker "ripped into" the complainant. Their exchange was cordial and involved no disagreement. The newspaper argued that this was a limited denial which related only to those specific claims in the article. It said that this did not affect the article’s central claim: that the complainant had spoken to the Speaker in an attempt to avoid giving evidence as required, but was told he should attend. However, it offered to publish the following clarification to reflect the Speaker's position:
An article dated 10 January 2015 suggested that Tony Blair had begged the Speaker to overturn an order to appear before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and that the Speaker had ‘ripped into’ Mr Blair. Mr Bercow has confirmed to us that he was not asked to overturn an 'order' and that rather than 'ripping into' Mr Blair the conversation they had was a cordial one. The article also said that Mr Blair managed to limit his appearance to an hour. In fact, it was the Committee Chair who made that proposal.
10. The complainant did not accept this proposal. He said that the Speaker’s denial demonstrated that the article was inaccurate in its entirety and should be retracted in full.
Relevant Code Provisions
11. 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. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance.
Findings of the Committee
12. The newspaper had relied on accounts of the conversation provided by a number of confidential sources, viewed in the context of the complainant’s previous, documented, reluctance to give oral evidence to the Committee. It had contacted the parties to the call – and three members of the Committee – prior to publication to allow them an opportunity to comment on the claims and, in the complainant's case, had published his denial.
13. The article made clear that information about the conversation came from a “Westminster insider" rather than the complainant or the Speaker. It also made clear that the complainant disputed the account the newspaper had been given. The account was appropriately presented as a claim, or the newspaper's understanding of what had passed between the parties. The Committee was therefore satisfied that care had been taken to avoid misleading readers by suggesting that the newspaper had been in a position to establish that the claims published were true. While it was appropriate for the newspaper to have published the complainant’s denial, the fact of his denial did not mean it was not entitled to publish the allegations. There was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information and no breach of Clause 1 (i).
14. The complainant’s reluctance to give oral evidence – giving as his reason that he could add nothing new to the Committee's understanding – was demonstrated by his correspondence with the Committee, and the Committee's subsequent decision to summon him to appear on a specific date. On the complainant's own account, he had sought in the conversation with the Speaker to attend the Committee on another day to that required by the summons, and had repeated to the Speaker his belief that there was no benefit in his appearing. The newspaper had characterised his alleged conduct as having the appearance of his trying to “wriggle out” of the summons. In the full circumstances, and given the manner in which the newspaper presented these claims, this was not significantly misleading. The complaint under Clause 1 was not upheld.
15. The Speaker had not originally commented on the claims when these were put to him before publication, but had subsequently denied that there was any suggestion that he might "overturn" an order or that the conversation had been anything other than a cordial one. Given the potential for this claim to alter perceptions of the extent of the complainant’s cooperation, the Complaints Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification setting out the Speaker’s position.
16. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 08/05/2015
Date decision issued: 22/07/2015Back to ruling listing