Decision of the Complaints Committee – 04617-21 Hetherington v Scottish Sunday Express
Summary of Complaint
1. Ross Hetherington complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Scottish Sunday Express breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “SAY GOODBYE TO INDYREF 2, NICOLA / BORIS SAYS: FOCUS ON RECOVERY... NOT INDY”, published on 9 May 2021.
2. The article, which appeared on the front page of the newspaper and continued on to page 4, reported on the outcome of the May 2021 Scottish Parliament elections. The article stated on the front-page that the “SNP [Scottish National Party] had fallen short of an overall majority” and that “a dramatic second day of election counting […] effectively end[ed] Ms Sturgeon’s hope of a majority for her own manifesto.” It went on to report that “[t]here will be a pro-independence majority at Holyrood”, with the article continuing on page 4 that the Green Party had returned 8 MSPs, and that “the SNP and the Greens [had] include[ed] another independence referendum in their manifesto[s]”. The article also noted that “[n]evertheless, the lack of an overall majority for the SNP will make it much easier for Mr Johnson to continue to resist the calls for another [independence] vote.”
3. The complainant said that the front-page headline, “SAY GOODBYE TO INDYREF 2, NICOLA” was inaccurate and unsupported by the text of the article, in breach of Clause 1. He considered this to be the case because, whereas the headline stated that there would be no prospect of another independence referendum, the majority of MSPs elected were in favour of another independence referendum. The complainant noted that the article appeared to contradict the headline on this point, where it made reference to a “pro-independence majority” at Holyrood and the fact that the Green Party candidates had also run for election on an election manifesto which included another independence referendum.
4. The publication said it did not accept that the headline of the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. It first noted that the headline referred only to the SNP. It also said that it was not in dispute that they had fallen short of an overall majority and therefore did not have the mandate to call another independence referendum.
5. The complainant said that it was not the case that the SNP could not hold a referendum, where it was possible for the party to work with smaller parties – such as the Green Party, whose manifesto included support for second referendum – to pass legislation.
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.
Findings of the Committee
6. The Editors’ Code makes clear that newspapers are permitted to editorialise and campaign, provided they take care to distinguish between comment, conjecture, and fact. Therefore, newspapers are entitled to express partisan views, provided the Code is not otherwise breached.
7. The Committee considered that the headline of the front-page portion of the article was clearly framed as the newspaper’s partisan response to the outcome of the Scottish Parliament Election. It was the view of the newspaper that, without a majority, the SNP did not have a mandate for a second independence referendum. It was entitled to express this view, where the factual basis was made clear: There was a “pro-independence majority at Holyrood” where “the SNP and the Greens [had] include[ed] another independence referendum in their manifesto[s]”; however, the SNP had not gained a majority. The factual basis was made clear on the front page and was elaborated on further on page 4. Where the front-page headline was clearly framed as the newspaper’s view on the election outcome, there was no breach of Clause 1.
8. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 09/05/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 13/07/2021Back to ruling listing