of the Complaints Committee – 07583-21 Mitchell v Stornoway Gazette
John Mitchell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation,
through a representative, that Stornoway Gazette breached Clause 1 (Accuracy)
of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Councillor in breach
of ethical code, says commission”, published on 8 July 2021.
article, which appeared on the front-page, reported on the decision of the
Standards Commission for Scotland in relation to an alleged contravention of
the Councillors’ Code of Conduct by the complainant. It reported that the
complainant had been “reprimanded” by the Standards Commission for using
“inappropriate language” about a fellow councillor. It stated that the
Commission had concluded that the actions of the complainant “amounted to a personal
attack” and a “breach of the code”. It said that the Commission acknowledged
that the complainant “had apologised timeously” to the other councillor and “no
formal hearing was deemed necessary”.
complainant said the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy).
He denied that the Commission had found him in breach of the Councillors’ Code
of Conduct; rather the Commission had concluded that it was neither
proportionate, nor in the public interest, to hold a hearing into the matter
given the sincerity of his apology and the nature of the potential breach. The
Commission had determined, therefore, to take no action and had not, therefore,
made a determination as to whether Councillors’ Code of Conduct had been
breached. The complainant expressed concern that the article damaged his
newspaper accepted that the headline incorrectly reported that the Commission
considered that the complainant was in breach of the Councillors’ Code. Rather,
it was the view of the Acting Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life
in Scotland (ESC); he concluded that the conduct of the complainant had
“amounted to a personal attack” against the other councillor and as a result “a
breach of paragraph 3.2 of the [Councillors’] Code [of Conduct]”.
newspaper accepted that the article had attributed this view to the Commission
itself, rather than the Acting Commissioner. Notwithstanding this, the
newspaper did not accept that this constituted a significant inaccuracy in
circumstances where the text of the article made clear that “no formal hearing
was deemed necessary”, and where it was not in dispute that the Commission had
reminded the complainant of his obligations under the Councillors’ Code.
newspaper added that once it had been made aware of this error by the
Commission, it had taken steps to address it: publishing a follow-up article on
22 July. This was headlined “Mitchell’s apology”; the headline referenced the
fact that no hearing had been conducted by the Commission because of the
complainant’s apology. This appeared on page 5 of the newspaper beneath a
photograph of the complainant, with the caption: “No hearing was conducted into
councillor Mitchell, although the commissioner indicated a breach of the code”.
The article stated that the ESC “have clarified that they didn’t conduct a
hearing into whether an island councillor breached the code of duty – partly
because he offered a full apology”. This article detailed the comments made by
the Executive Director of the Commission, explaining the circumstances of the
complaint and the Standards Commission’s decision not to hold a formal hearing
“even in cases where the Commissioner’s view is there has been potentially a
breach of the Code”. The last paragraph of this article stated that a “Gazette
headline should have read “commissioner says councillor breached code of
conduct”, rather than “commission”.
to IPSO’s investigation, the newspaper offered to publish a letter from the
complainant in order to resolve the matter. Then during the course of IPSO’s
investigation, the newspaper offered to publish the following correction on
page 4 of the newspaper with the headline: “Headline Correction”.
Stornoway Gazette issue of 8th July 2021, we carried a headline that stated
"Councillor in breach of ethical code, say commission". This was an
error. The Ethical Standards Commission, following an investigation, concluded
that no hearing was to be held into whether councillor John Mitchell of Harris
breached the Councillors' Code of Conduct. We are happy to set the record
newspaper made clear that it did not consider an apology appropriate or
necessary because the follow-up article clarified the outcome of his case with
the Standards Commission, and in any case in its report the Commission recorded
that it had “agreed that [the complainant] should be reminded of the importance
of adhering to the respect provision in the Code [of Conduct], in order to
ensure public confidence in the role of a councillor and the council itself is
complainant, however, did not consider that the steps taken by the newspaper
were sufficient. He did not consider that the follow-up article addressed the
inaccuracy, nor did he consider that the wording of the proposed correction was
adequate. The newspaper had not apologised for the error, and the proposal to
publish the correction on page 4 was insufficiently prominent, given that the
article – and inaccuracies – had originally appeared on the newspaper' front
Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted
information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
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
fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when
reasonably called for.
Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly
between comment, conjecture and fact.
of the Committee
publication accepted that the headline was inaccurate: the Commission had not
found the complainant in breach of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct
irrespective of the views of the Acting Commissioner. This represented a
failure to take care not to publish misleading information, in breach of Clause
1 (i). This was particularly concerning as this inaccuracy had been repeated
throughout the article. This would mislead readers as to the outcome of a
formal complaint about the conduct of a public official, which was, in the view
of the Committee, significant. As such, a correction was required under the
terms of Clause 1 (ii).
Committee then considered whether the actions taken by the publication were
sufficient to avoid a further breach of Clause 1 (ii). For corrective action to
satisfy the terms of Clause 1 (ii), it must be published promptly and with due
prominence. The corrective action should also make clear what information is
being corrected, and what the true position is.
newspaper had recognised the error after being contacted, and had published a
follow-up article, prior to IPSO’s involvement, which acknowledged the
inaccuracy and put the correct position on record. This had been published
within 14 days of the first article and appeared on page 5 underneath a large
image of the complainant. Notwithstanding this, the Committee was concerned
that the second article had not been clearly presented as a correction. Seven
days after the commencement of IPSO’s investigation, the publication offered to
publish a further standalone correction on page 4 that addressed this
particular issue. Taking into account that the second article had been
published on page 5 of the newspaper beneath a large picture of the complainant
and that he was named in the headline, and further taking into account that the
publication had offered to publish a standalone correction on page 4, headlined
as such, the Committee considered that, taken together, the inaccuracy in the
first article had been corrected with due prominence. The Committee
acknowledged the complainant’s position that an apology had not been offered;
however, in circumstances where the Acting Commissioner had expressed concerns
about the conduct of the complainant and the Standards Committee had felt it
appropriate to remind him of his obligations under the Code of Conduct, the
Committee did not consider that the newspaper had an obligation to apologise to
the complainant. For these reasons, the Committee concluded that the
requirements of Clause 1 (ii) were met, and there was not a further a breach of
complaint was upheld under Clause 1 (i).
correction which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and
was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.
complaint received: 16/07/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 15/12/2021Back to ruling listing