08251-19 Bates v The Scotsman

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 08251-19 Bates v The Scotsman

Summary of Complaint

1. Damian Bates complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Scotsman breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Trumps ‘frustrated’ by foreign projects ban” published on 26 October 2019.

2. The article reported on a meeting hosted at an evangelical church in Glasgow, in which the executive vice president of Trump International and her husband –who researched a book about President Trump– addressed approximately 120 people. It gave details of the speeches made by these two individuals, including their views on the President Donald Trump and his business dealings in Scotland. It reported that the husband of the executive vice president “lashed out” at media coverage of the Trump administration, criticised the BBC and urged people to “tune in to RT, the Russian government-funded broadcaster”.

3. The article also appeared online on 25 October 2019 with the headline “Trumps ‘frustrated’ at inability to pursue ‘foreign investment’ deals, says Trump Org executive”. This article was much longer than the print counterpart and gave much more information about what was said at the event, and the backgrounds of the executive vice president and her husband. For example, it quoted the executive vice president in reference to a successful planning application for new houses as saying that “If anyone wants to buy a house at the Trump Estate…” and her husband as adding “Or stay at the hotel”. Both the executive vice president and her husband went into details of their involvement with Trump International; the man had co-authored a book with President Trump and his wife described him as having been “sashaying in and out of the White House, so he has more access to [President Trump] these days than me”. The man also described a hotel owned by President Trump as “quality” and a “great deal” for the US military personnel who used it.

4. The complainant, the man named in the article as the husband of the executive vice president and as having researched a book about President Trump, said that the actions of the reporter breached Clause 10. He said that he was in attendance at the event and was unaware of the presence of the reporter. Having established post-publication that the reporter had gained access via a false email address and entered false name and audio recorded the event, he said that there was no public interest in doing so, or in publishing the remarks he made at the event. Furthermore, he said that he found this insulting and distressing as having taken place in a church. He said that it appeared that the reporter had taken this action without the knowledge of senior editorial staff – he provided an email from the editorial director of the publication, and six other titles, who said “I don’t know anything about this one. Let me look into it”.

5. The complainant also said that the article was inaccurate. He said that it was not the case that he “urged” attendees of the event to watch RT. In fact, he recommended that people should seek different sources of information and not to rely solely on one source – RT was one in a list of news outlets he suggested. He said that the comment was light-hearted, and not meant to be taken seriously. He said he did not say the quote attributed to him encouraging attendees to stay at a Trump hotel; instead it was said by a different speaker at the event.

6. The publication did not accept that there was any breach of the Code. It accepted that Clause 10(ii) was engaged to a limited degree but said that there was a sufficient public interest to justify the behaviour of the reporter. It said that it was understood to be the first time that any employee of the Trump Organisation had given a public address in Scotland since Donald Trump was elected President, and it was considered necessary for the reporter to attend and record proceedings in order to ensure that the event was accurately reported. It said that the reporter was experienced in reporting on Trump International Scotland’s activities, and as a result, had been blocked on social media by the business, and had been told by the complainant that he had “no interest in talking to [named reporter] for any future articles”. As such it said that it was reasonable to assume that if the reporter had taken an open approach, he would not have been granted admittance to the event.

7. The publication said that the reporter, who was highly experienced, discussed his plans for attending the event and the public interest considerations set out above with the news editor. It said that they considered the public interest in reporting on the event, and how the means by which the newspaper might be able to report on it would be proportionate to the public interest obligations set out under the Editors’ Code. As set out above, this included whether it was necessary for the reporter to attend the event at all, and whether the information required could be gathered by any other means. It also discussed whether any intrusion caused by the attendance of the reporter at the event would be proportional to the public interest served. Furthermore, it said that the news editor was one of the most senior employees at the newspaper, and regularly acted as its duty editor. It noted that the email provided by the complainant was from the editorial director, who had responsibility for six newspaper titles and was not generally directly involved in day-to-day editorial decision making. As such, the email from him which said that he “didn’t know anything about this one” did not mean that there was no senior editorial consideration given to the reporter’s actions prior to publication – instead, this responsibility was delegated to senior editorial staff. The event was ticketed but open to the general public; the journalist used a false name to book the tickets, but the newspaper said that at the event he was not challenged or took any steps to disguise his identity.

8. The publication did not accept that the article breached Clause 1. It provided a transcript of the complainant speaking at the event, in which he said “I’ll go to CNN or look at Fox, and I’ll step into Russia Today territory, RT. You should always try and find a different take. Actually, if you’ve got Sky, go and look at RT – oh my goodness, the difference is incredible”. It said that therefore, it was clear that the complainant was “urging” attendees to watch RT. It said that it was unclear from the reporter’s recording of the event whether the complainant or another speaker had said to the audience that they could “stay at the [Trump] hotel” – however, in light of the complaint, it accepted the complainant’s position that he did not say this. It did not accept that this was a significant inaccuracy requiring correction – the quote was small and uncontentious, and did not contradict the complainant’s support for Trump International Scotland.

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.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

10. Clause 10* (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.

ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

11. *The Public Interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

5. An exceptional public interest would need to be demonstrated to over-ride the normally paramount interests of children under 16.

Findings of the Committee

12. The reporter had accessed the event in a journalistic capacity for the purposes of writing an article. In doing so, he had obtained a ticket using a false name and the attendees were under the impression that he was a member of the public. As such, the terms of Clause 10(ii) were engaged. The reporter had then reported comments made by the complainant at the event.

13. The Committee considered that the level of subterfuge or misrepresentation a reporter may engage in falls on a sliding scale. In this instance, there was a public interest in reporting on the event, and this public interest and the proportionality of engaging in misrepresentation to attend the event was discussed at senior editorial level with the news editor before the reporter had attended: the complainant and other high-profile speakers would be discussing their experience of working with the President of the United States, Donald Trump, and his business dealings in Scotland. It was reasonable for the reporter to have assumed that an open approach would not have been successful; he was known to the complainant as having written previously about Trump International and had been blocked by them on their social media accounts. The complainant also named the journalist specifically as someone he had “no interest in talking to”. In attending the event, the reporter had engaged in a very low level of misrepresentation; he had used a false email address and name to obtain a ticket to an event open to the general public, which was open to the public and which promoted the complainant’s book. He had not accessed any information that was not available to any member of the public in attendance at the event. The action taken by the reporter was proportionate to the public interest served by reporting on the event. There was a public interest in publishing the comments made at the event, including the comments made by the complainant, as set out in the article; they related to the business dealings of President Trump and the activities of Trump International in Scotland. For all of these reasons, there was no breach of Clause 10(ii).

14. The Committee then considered the complainant’s concern that the reporter had used a clandestine listening device, and whether the terms of Clause 10(i) were engaged. The Committee was mindful of the requirement of Clause 1(i) to take care over the accuracy of information which is reported and recognised the benefit of creating an accurate, contemporaneous record of events. In this instance, the Committee considered that the audio recording had been made to serve as a contemporaneous record of what was said at a public meeting of approximately 120 people. The audio recording equipment was not being used as a covert recording device to obtain confidential information. As such, the Committee considered that the reporter did not use a clandestine listening device, and the terms of Clause 10(i) were not engaged.

15. It was apparent from the transcript of the event provided by the publication that the complainant had encouraged attendees to watch the news channel RT. Therefore, there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article by reporting that he had “urged” people to do so, and no significant inaccuracy requiring correction. The reporter had recorded the event, and in reporting this recording, had attributed a quote to the complainant which said attendees could “stay at the [Trump] hotel”. Although the publication accepted the complainant’s position that another speaker at the event said these words, the Committee did not find that attributing the quote to the complainant constituted a significant inaccuracy – the complainant was quoted elsewhere in the article praising a hotel owned by President Trump, and so attributing the quote to the complainant was not significantly misleading as his views on the matter. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

17. N/A

Independent Complaints Reviewer

18. The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the Committee had failed to explain how the public interest had been considered by the newspaper prior to the reporter attending the event. The Committee re-considered the complaint, in light of the Complaints Reviewer’s findings. The substance of the Committee’s decision was not affected by the findings. However, the summary of complaint and reasoning for the Committee’s decision was revised, to make clear the rationale for the Committee’s decision. 


Date complaint received: 26/10/2019

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 17/04/2020

 


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