· Decision of the Complaints Committee 05717-15 Elliott v The Times
Summary of complaint
1. Christopher Elliott complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Opportunity for reply) in an article headlined “Our military should stop passing the buck”, published on 3 September 2015. The article’s subheadline was “’We were only following orders’ just won’t wash. Defence chiefs must take their share of the blame for Iraq and Libya”.
2. The complainant was the author of a comment piece on the relationship between politicians and military high command in the UK. This complaint related the newspaper’s editing of the article prior to publication, and the selection of a headline and subheadline. The complainant said that as a result of the editing process, the article was a distortion of his views. He said that the headline and subheadline chosen by the newspaper were not supported by the text of the article, and misrepresented his position.
3. After the complainant had submitted his article, it was subject to editing via correspondence with a member of the newspaper’s staff. The complainant expressed his disagreement with some of the amendments made, and made clear that he did not give his consent for publication. After further correspondence, the complainant drafted a version of the article that he approved for publication. The published article differed from this version, and included some of the amendments the he had previously objected to.
4. The article the complainant originally submitted for publication began by discussing the delays to the publication of Chilcot inquiry, and referred to an explanation that had been put forward by Tom Bower by stating that “one line of argument Bower presents is that the military chiefs have batted criticism back to Sir John Chilcot, claiming that they were simply following orders issued by their political masters”. The complainant had referred to Mr Bower’s explanation as plausible, and stated that “if this is so, it is simplistic and maybe disingenuous so far as it applied to the later period [of the Iraq war]”. The published article included the sentences:
“Former commanders…were said to be furious when they saw early drafts of Sir John’s report. Given the chance to respond to his criticism, they have insisted that politicians should take the blame, not them. If true, this is simplistic and disingenuous”.
The complainant said that he did not know whether it was true that former commanders were “furious”; he said that the reference was sensationalist, and objected to its inclusion in an article under his name.
5. The complainant raised additional concerns at the inclusion of a reference to a book he had written; the addition of word “sadly” to describe the claim that there were still problems in the machinery of the high command; the replacement of “unwisely” with the word “notoriously” to refer to comments made by the defence secretary in 2006; the substitution of the phrase “having all the intelligence” with the phrase “knowing full well” in the sentence: “it was [the defence secretary’s] military advisers, having all the intelligence that [Helmand] was an ungoverned space…”. The complainant was concerned that the article contained text which he had not approved.
6. In relation to the headline and subheadline, the complainant said that prior to publication, had had made clear to the newspaper that he was not seeking to argue that military commanders were trying to shift the blame; rather, he was arguing that that the machinery of the high command was still not working correctly and that military commanders should accept their share of the blame. He had suggested the headline “Difficult Decision to Go to War”.
7. The newspaper said that the article was not a significantly misleading representation of the complainant’s views. The published article did not suggest that it was the complainant’s position that former commanders “were furious”; rather, it stated that “former commanders were said to be furious”. This was a factual statement relating to The Sunday Times article by Mr Bower, to which the complainant had referred in the opening paragraph of one of the original drafts he had submitted. The newspaper said that the article was not a misleading representation of the complainant’s position. It denied that the other amendments to the article were significant, or distorted the complainant’s argument. It noted that in the article submitted, the complainant had stated that “the politicians have largely taken the blame for all of this so far, but the military must accept their share too”. It said that the headline and subheadline concisely summarised the argument the complainant had made in the article he had approved for publication.
8. The newspaper said that a number of changes were made to the article which appeared in the second edition of the newspaper to bring the text more closely in line with final version approved by the complainant. In response to this complaint, the newspaper offered to publish a clarification to the effect that the complainant was unhappy with the final version of the article.
9. In relation to the changes made in the second edition, the complainant said that the newspaper had not changed the reference to former commanders being said to be “furious”, the use of the word “notoriously”, nor the headline. In response to the newspaper’s offer of a clarification, the complainant requested to have sight of the text that the newspaper would use.
10. The newspaper published the following clarification on 10 September, before the complainant made this complaint to IPSO, on its letters page:
Major General Christopher Elliott has asked us to clarify that, as published, his article (Opinion, Sept 3) gave more weight than he had intended to the reaction of former military commanders to the early drafts of the Chilcot report. We apologise for a misunderstanding during the editing process.
11. The complainant said that the clarification was published without his consultation, and without notice to him. He was not satisfied that the clarification corrected the alleged inaccuracies, and denied that there had been a “misunderstanding” during the editing process. The complainant said that he would consider the matter closed if the newspaper published a letter from him which noted his concerns that the article contained text he had not approved, and noting that the publication of the letter had been agreed to by the newspaper in recognition that the proper process was not followed.
Relevant Code Provisions
12. 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.
iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Clause 2 (Opportunity for reply)
A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for.
Findings of the Committee
13. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had introduced into the published article words and phrases that he had not approved. However, the Code does not create a requirement for copy approval, and these changes were insignificant; they did not significantly alter the tone of the article, or the arguments being made. The inclusion of the reference to former commanders being “said to be furious” did not attribute to the complainant an argument or opinion that he had not made in his approved drafts. For this reason, the amendments to the body of the text did not constitute a breach of Clause 1.
14. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that there was a distinction between identifying a failure in the decision-making process, and the military actively passing the blame to politicians. However, the complainant had referred to politicians having “largely taken the blame for [recent military decisions] so far, but the military must accept their share too”. Furthermore, in an earlier approved draft of the article, he had referred to Mr Bower’s explanation for the delay in the Chilcot inquiry as “plausible”, and had noted his line of argument that “military chiefs have batted criticism back to Sir John Chilcot, claiming that they were just following orders issued by their political masters”. In these circumstances, the headline and subheadline were not an inaccurate or misleading summary of the complainant’s position. This aspect of the complaint did not raise a breach of Clause 1.
15. No inaccuracies had been established as to raise a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), and the terms of Clause 2 (Opportunity for reply) were not engaged.
16. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 15/09/2015
Date decision issued: 03/11/2015Back to ruling listing