Decision of the Complaints Committee – 08479-19 Forbes v express.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. David Forbes complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that express.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Nicola Sturgeon humiliated as Union Jack waving unionists protest independence rally”, published on 3 November 2019.
2. The article reported that a “rally…calling for a second independence referendum was met with a counter-protest from Scottish unionists” and that this counter-protest had left “Nicola Sturgeon humiliated”. It also contained 5 pictures showing the counter-protest.
3. The complainant said it was inaccurate to state that Nicola Sturgeon was “humiliated” in circumstances where the counter-protest was much smaller than the main independence march. He said that even by a conservative estimate, there were 16,000 independence marchers to around 100 counter-protestors, making the latter a fraction of the size of the main march. He also said that the photos used in the article were selected in such a way as to further distort the relative scale of the two protests. Finally, he complained that the article used photos provided by a biased source, a named unionist group, and that the article failed to mention that this group made far right gestures at the protest.
4. The publication did not accept that the article breached the Code. It stated that the headline was supported by the text because the fact that there was a counter-protest was a sufficient basis to state that Nicola Sturgeon, a leading proponent of independence, had been “humiliated” at the rally. It further stated that the size of the counter-protest was immaterial to whether or not she had been “humiliated” at the rally; and that it was entitled to characterise the counter-protest as a humiliation, especially as, under the Code, it was free to campaign and be partisan. Moreover, the publication stated that the photos had been taken at the event and had not been digitally altered in any way; and that the group that supplied them confirmed the same. It was unable to provide figures on how many people had attended either the main protest or counter-protest and did not dispute the complainant’s assertion that the counter-protest was a fraction of the size of the main protest. However, it said that the photographs of the counter-protest appeared to show a greater number than the estimate of 100 people made by the complainant. Finally, the publication stated that the article was not misleading as it made no claim as to the size of either protest; and, further, the article made clear the level of support enjoyed by the SNP in Scotland by mentioning they were forecast to “make gains” in the upcoming General Election.
5. The publication removed the article 2 days after publication and offered to republish an amended version which made clear the total number of protesters if this would resolve the complaint. The complainant did not accept this.
Relevant Code Provisions
6. 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 correction, promptly and with due prominence, and –where appropriate- an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
Findings of the Committee
7. Under the terms of the Editors’ Code of Practice, newspapers have the right to editorialise and campaign. The headline claim that Nicola Sturgeon had been “humiliated” at the rally represented the publication’s characterisation of the effect of the counter-protest. The article did not suggest that the claim that she had been “humiliated” related specifically to the relative sizes of the protests. In these circumstances, the publication had not failed to take care over the accuracy of the headline. Nor did it contain a significant inaccuracy or misleading claim relating to the size of the protests. The headline did not breach Clause 1.
8. It was not in dispute that the photographs which illustrated the article had been taken at the event. The selection and sourcing of material, including photographs, is a matter of editorial discretion, as long as publication of the material does not otherwise breach the Code. Publication of the photographs did not render the article inaccurate or misleading, where the images simply showed the counter-protest. Furthermore, the publication was not obliged to report on the behaviour of the counter-protestors; this omission did not render the article misleading or inaccurate. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1.
9. This complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 3/11/2019
Date decision issued: 5/5/2020