Decision of the Complaints Committee 05608-18 McBride v Scotland on Sunday
Summary of complaint
1. Fiona McBride complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Scotland on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "Police forced to reveal fingerprint expert's full £740k payout" published on 29 July 2018.
2. The complainant
was involved in a series of court cases relating to her employment with the
Scottish Police Authority. She was found to have been unfairly dismissed by The
Employment Tribunal and a reinstatement order was issued. The SPA then appealed
to the Employment Appeal Tribunal which found the Employment Tribunal had erred
in making this reinstatement order. The complainant appealed this decision in
The Supreme Court and it allowed her appeal.
3. The article
reported that the Scottish Police Authority paid out more than £740,000 to the
complainant, a fingerprints expert. It claimed that the SPA were forced to pay
her £415,277 in compensation after the Supreme Court ruled she had been
unfairly dismissed. The article reported that the complainant was sacked over
her role in a fingerprints controversy affecting a murder case and that a
freedom of information request revealed the SPA had spent an additional
£328,138 in relation to complainant's court case. The article also featured
comments from a Conservative MSP criticising the figure, which had been spent
to get rid of a competent and professional employee.
4. The complainant
said the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) as she did not
receive a "£740k payout", the sum the employer paid her was £415,227.
The complainant said that the remainder, over £300,000, was a payment from the
SPA towards its own and other legal fees and the sum was not a "pay-out"
but an award made against the SPA. The complainant also said that it was
inaccurate for the article to report that she was sacked over her role in the
fingerprints controversy as she was sacked over an allegation of notoriety,
which had been fuelled by the press.
5. The complainant
also claimed that the newspaper had breached Clause 3 (Harassment) as it
published a series of articles concerning her employment over the course of
several years that she considered to be derogatory.
6. The newspaper
acknowledged that it was not the case as stated in the headline and first
paragraph of the article that the complainant received a "740k pay
out" but denied the article was significantly inaccurate when read as a
whole; the true position was made clear in the second and third paragraphs. It
said that the £415,227 compensation figure was a matter of public record and
the £328,138 figure for legal costs came from a press release issued by the
Scottish Conservative Party; this breakdown was featured in the article. The
newspaper said that it had taken care when sourcing the information, but had
failed to take care in the editing process; it had conflated the figures in the
headline and first paragraph.
7. The newspaper
said that the article had accurately summarised the complainant's dismissal. It
said the complainant was dismissed after she refused to accept a change to a
previous role, which would prevent her giving evidence in court cases. It said
this resulted from concerns from the prosecution service that the complainant's
involvement in the murder case could be used by defence lawyers to undermine
the chances of a conviction. The newspaper said the quotes featured in the
article made it clear that the complainant had been "wrongfully
dismissed" and that she was a "competent and professional
employee". In these circumstances, this was an accurate characterisation
of her dismissal.
8. The newspaper
offered to publish a correction regarding the details of the compensation
pay-out on page two of the newspaper. It offered the following wording:
Our report of Jul 29 entitled 'Police forced to reveal
fingerprint expert's full £740k payout' incorrectly stated that Fiona McBride
had received £740,000 in compensation over her unfair dismissal from the
police. She in fact received £415,227 in compensation with the remaining
£328,138 being additional expenses run up by the Scottish Police Authority. We
are happy to put the record straight.
Relevant Code Provisions
9. 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.
Clause 3 (Harassment)*
i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment
or persistent pursuit.
ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning,
pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on
property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must
identify themselves and whom they represent.
iii) Editors must
ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care
not to use non-compliant material from other sources.
Findings of the Committee
10. The headline and opening paragraph of the article reported
that the SPA had paid out £740k to the complainant, when in fact the
complainant had only received £415,227. The £328,138 went towards legal fees
and this was detailed in the press release provided to the newspaper. This gave
the significantly misleading impression that the complainant had received a
higher figure of compensation from a public body than was actually the case.
The second and third paragraph had broken the figure down to state that the
complainant had received £415,227, however this did not negate the misleading
impression in the headline and opening paragraph that the SPA had paid out more
than £740,000 to the complainant. This represented a failure to take care not
to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1(i). The newspaper
acknowledged the inaccuracy and offered to correct this point the same day it
received the complaint from IPSO. The wording offered during IPSO's
investigation addressed the inaccuracy; it made clear what the complainant
received and that the remainder went towards legal costs incurred by the SPA.
The newspaper had offered to publish this on page 2, the original article
appeared on page 3. The offered correction was therefore sufficiently prominent
to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).
11. The Committee acknowledged the complainant's position
that she had been sacked following her role in the fingerprints controversy and
not as a direct result of her involvement. However, it was not significantly
misleading to report, in what was a brief summary, that she was sacked “over
her role”, without explaining the full position, in circumstances where the
article made clear that she had been unfairly dismissed. There was no breach of
Clause 1 on this point.
12. The complainant raised concerns that the newspaper had
published a series of articles about her and her employment. Clause 3 generally
relates to the behaviour of journalists in the newsgathering process and the
conduct exercised by journalists when contacting members of the public; it is
meant to protect people from being repeatedly approached by the press against
their wishes. The newspaper was entitled to report on publicly available
details and publishing a series of articles over a period of several years did
not constitute harassment under the terms of Clause 3.
13. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).
Remedial action required
14. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.
15. The newspaper had offered a correction promptly and with
due prominence. The Committee found this correction was sufficient to meet the
requirements of Clause 1(ii). This should now be published.
Date complaint received: 17/08/2018
Date decision issued: 31/01/2019
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