Decision of the Complaints Committee – 08413-19 Trump International Scotland v The Scotsman
Summary of Complaint
1. Trump International Scotland complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Scotsman breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Harassment) 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 a “controversial” evangelical church in Glasgow, in which the Executive Vice President of Trump International Scotland and her husband – who researched a book about President Trump – addressed approximately 120 people in an event described as a “rare address” and a “rare public speaking engagement” for the Executive Vice President. It explained that attendees could also buy a copy of the man’s book. 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 Executive Vice President of the business said that President Trump’s personal “liberties and freedoms” had been curtailed because he could not visit his Scottish properties to play golf when he likes. It went on to quote the Executive Vice President in full: “It’s frustrating for the family, because they’re business people, so the presidency is... and also his liberties and his freedoms to be able to come and play golf when he wants”. The article also reported that the Executive Vice President told the event that “everybody in the Trump Organisation is going to write a book”, and included her full quote: “’Everybody in the Trump Organisation is going to write a book,’ she said. ‘Everybody’s writing a book about Trump whether they’re in the organisation or not’”.
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 more substantial than the print counterpart and gave much more information about what was said at the event by the Executive Vice President. It explained that this was understood to be the first time that any employee of the Trump Organisation, other than President Trump’s adult children, had given a public address since he became President. It also reported that the Executive Vice President and her husband shared “numerous private photographs” at the event, including images of the man dining with President Trump in the White House.
4. The online article also included information about the evangelical church which hosted the event, giving details of “contentious” speakers it had hosted, and its relationship with two other named churches.
5. The complainant was represented by the Executive Vice President of Trump International Scotland, who had spoken at the event and whose comments were reported in the article. The representative said that she was unaware of the presence of the reporter at the event and established post-publication that the reporter had gained access via a false name and email address and had audio recorded the event. She said that there was no public interest in doing this, or in publishing the remarks she made at the event – therefore, the actions of the reporter and the publication of her comments breached Clause 10. She said that she found the reporter’s actions insulting and distressing as having taken place in a church, and she said that the event was only for church members and friends interested in discussing their lives and careers within the context of their faith – she said that it not a public event. She said that she could have been approached directly and had previously dealt with media inquiries on behalf of the business, and that it appeared from correspondence she had seen that the reporter had acted without the knowledge of senior editorial staff.
6. The complainant’s representative also said that the article was inaccurate. She said that the comment she made about President Trump’s personal liberties and freedoms being “curtailed” was in reference to his life in general as President, not solely about “playing golf”. She said that the comment about “everyone writing a book” was made in jest and referred specifically to her husband who had written a book about President Trump. She said that the business was not given a right of reply, and it was not the case that this was the first speaking engagement by a Trump Executive since President Trump assumed office – for example, she said that the she had recently addressed Aberdeenshire Council at a major public committee meeting about the Trump Organisation’s business in Scotland. She also said that the images shown at the event were not “private” as they had already been published elsewhere.
7. The complainant’s representative also said that the article contained several inaccuracies about the church that hosted the event, including the article’s claim that it was “controversial” and had hosted “contentious” speakers. She also said that the article had inaccurately reported its relations with two other named churches, and some of the church’s teachings. Finally, she also said that the article had inaccurately reported details of the church’s finances.
8. The complainant’s representative also said that the attendance of the journalist at the event and his general coverage of Trump International Scotland constituted a breach of Clause 3. She said that he appeared to have an “agenda” against Trump International Scotland, and frequently criticised it on his social media accounts. She said that this had led to him being blocked by several of the business’ Twitter accounts due his “relentless negative and sarcastic remarks”.
9. 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 the reporter understood it 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 was also advertised as an event in which the speakers would discuss their recollections of working with President Trump. 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 husband of the representative that he had “no interest in talking to [named reporter] for any future articles”. It said that as such, it was reasonable to assume that if the reporter had taken an open approach, he would not have been granted admittance to the event.
10. The publication said that the reporter discussed his plans for attending the event with a senior member of editorial staff: the news editor. 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.
11. The publication did not accept that the article included any significant inaccuracies. It said that the article reported that it was “understood” that the event was the first time an employee of Trump International – aside from President Trump’s children – had given a public address since he assumed office. It said it was unaware of the representative or any other Trump employees having appeared as a key note speaker at a public event in this time – taking part in a council debate on a specific issue was clearly different in nature to a ticketed public speaking event.
12. The publication did not accept that this information it had reported about the church was inaccurate, namely the claims that it was controversial and had hosted contentious speakers. It also said that the article had accurately reported its relationship with two other named churches, its teachings, and details of the church’s finances.
Relevant Code Provisions
13. 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.
14. 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.
15. 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.
*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:
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
16. 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 at the event by the complainant’s representative in her capacity as an employee of Trump International Scotland.
17. 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 was discussed at senior editorial level with the news editor before the reporter had attended: the representative 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 and other speakers at the event as having written previously about Trump International and had been blocked by them on their social media accounts. The representative’s husband 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 which was open to the public and which promoted the representative’s husband’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 representative 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).
18. The Committee then considered the representative’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 reporter could have achieved the same ends by making notes of proceedings. The audio recording equipment was not being used as a covert recording device to obtain confidential information, and the only subterfuge was in using a false email address and name in order to gain access to the event. 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.
19. The representative did not dispute that the article had quoted her full comments accurately – the question for the Committee was whether the summary of these comments included in the article was significantly misleading. It was apparent from the full quotes included in the article that the representative had said that she believes that the fact that President Donald Trump was unable to play golf when he wants was an example of how his freedom and liberties had been curtailed by his presidency. Similarly, the representative did say that “everyone” would be writing a book about the President – the fact that she considered this comment to be in jest did not mean that the newspaper reported these comments inaccurately by reporting them in full. The article took care over the reporting of the representative’s comments, and there was no breach of Clause 1(i) or any significant inaccurate requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).
20. The online article reported that it was “believed” that the event was the first public address by a senior employee of Trump International Scotland – apart from the President’s own children – since the President assumed office. This was not a categorical claim that no senior employee had given such an address, but that this was the reporter’s own understanding. The publication explained that the reporter was unable to find similar events hosted by the complainant, and furthermore, the representative did not say that she had engaged in similar public addresses to ticketed audiences where she was the keynote speaker, discussing her experience of working alongside President Trump. As such, there was a basis to report in the online article that it was “believed” to be the case that the event was the first such public address by a senior employee of Trump International Scotland. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in reporting this, and no breach of Clause 1(i). The Committee recognised the representative’s position that she had spoken previously as a representative of the complainant. However, it considered that even if it were the case that she had given a similar address to a ticketed audience, discussing her recollections of working alongside President Trump, the Committee considered that reporting that the event at the church was “believed” to be the first of its kind, did not give rise to any significant inaccuracy as to the content and nature of the event. There was no significant inaccuracy on this point requiring correction under Clause 1(ii). The Committee considered that describing photographs as being “private” did not necessarily mean that they were not in the public domain and could also refer to the fact that they were owned and shared by the representative and her husband. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in describing the photographs as private, and no significant inaccuracy on this point requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).
21. In regards to the complainant’s concerns about the accuracy of the information reported about the church which hosted the event, the Committee had regard to IPSO’s regulations, which state that IPSO is able to consider complaints from an individual who has been personally and directly affected by the alleged breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice; complaints from a representative group affected by an alleged breach where there is a substantial public interest; and complaints from third parties about accuracy. In the case of third party complaints, IPSO needs to consider the position of the party most closely involved.
22. In this case, these particular alleged inaccuracies related directly to the church which hosted the event, and in order to make a decision on whether the Code was breached, it would have been necessary for the Committee to make published findings on the extent to which the church or its speakers had attracted controversy; the church’s relationships with other churches; its teaching and views, and its finances. This could have an effect on the public profile and reputation of the church, and the Committee was concerned about making such a ruling without the church’s involvement in IPSO’s investigation into this complaint, and without its consent. For these reasons, it was not appropriate for the Committee to make a finding on this aspect of the complaint.
23. The Editors’ Code makes clear that publications are free to be partisan, biased, and take a view on a particular issue, as long as the code is not otherwise breached. Newspapers are also free to select which subjects to cover or how much coverage to give an issue. The representative had not said that the reporter had acted in a way which was intimidating or harassing, or had failed to respect a request to desist from contacting the complainant or its representative directly – indeed the representative had argued that the reporter should have made a direct approach to the business, as opposed to engaging in misrepresentation in order to attend the event. As such, the fact that the reporter had written several articles critical of Trump International Scotland, or had criticised it on social media, did not engage to the terms of Clause 3.
24. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 30/10/2019
Date complaint concluded: 28/05/2020
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 process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.
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