Decision of the Complaints Committee – 07583-21 Mitchell v Stornoway Gazette
Summary of Complaint
1. Cllr 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.
2. The 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”.
3. The 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 professional reputation.
4. The 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]”.
5. The 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.
6. The 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”.
7. Prior 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”.
“In the 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 straight. “
8. The 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 maintained.”
9. The 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 page.
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
10. The 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).
11. The 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.
12. The 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 Clause 1.
13. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1 (i).
Remedial Action Required
14. The correction which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.
Date complaint received: 16/07/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 15/12/2021Back to ruling listing