Decision of the Complaints Committee 08951-17 Monaghan v The Northern Times
Summary of complaint
1. Paul Monaghan complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Northern Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined, “Prospective MP accused of misusing public cash” published on 19 May 2017. The article was also published online with the headline “Prospective MP accused of misusing parliamentary resources”.
2. The article reported that a complaint had been made to the Compliance Officer for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, that the complainant had “misused public funds” because a Scottish National Party constituency meeting was “allegedly” held in his constituency office. It claimed that the meeting was called by the complainant’s office manager, and that it was unknown whether the complainant had attended the meeting. The article also reported that the meeting’s agenda included “the appointment of a campaign committee, the appointment of an election agent and discussion about campaign strategy and campaign expenditure”. It reported that it is apparently against IPSA rules to use parliamentary resources such as an office for campaign purposes, as the office is funded by the UK tax-payer.
3. The article reported details of the email exchanges between IPSA and the individual who made the complaint, which showed that an assessment was being conducted by the Compliance Officer to ascertain whether there was any merit in investigating the complaint. The article also included the complainant’s denial of the allegations.
4. The complainant said that the article was misleading because he had not misused public cash or parliamentary resources. He said that the basis of the complaint was the conduct of another SNP branch member, and that he was not the subject of an “investigated” IPSA complaint. The complainant was also concerned that the newspaper did not attempt to contact local SNP branches for their comment, and queried whether the newspaper had challenged the source of the allegations and their credibility.
5. The newspaper said that the article accurately reported on the fact that a complaint was made to IPSA. It said that the article made clear that IPSA was not investigating the complainant’s conduct, but that IPSA was assessing a complaint that it had received against him. The newspaper said that as public money was allegedly misspent, it was irrelevant whether physical “cash” was involved; inappropriate use of a constituency office is analogous to public cash being misused. It said that it was not their onus to investigate the validity of the complaint or the credibility of the complainer, particularly in circumstances where it was not the newspaper’s claim.
6. The newspaper said that it unsuccessfully attempted to contact the complainant’s office, including his office manager, on multiple occasions by email and telephone. As such, the newspaper contacted a reporter from a sister newspaper who had contacted the complainant, and it was provided with the complainant’s comments.
Relevant Code Provisions
7. 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
8. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the headlines were inaccurate, first because the complaint in question was not made against him, and second because there had been no misuse of public cash or public resources. A complaint was made to IPSA against the complainant, which was demonstrated in the emails provided by the newspaper, and the article made clear the basis of the IPSA complaint. Furthermore, in circumstances where the office is funded by the UK taxpayer, and where the nature of the complaint was made clear in the article, the Committee did not consider that it was significantly inaccurate to refer to “public cash”. The Committee did not consider that the headlines were not supported by the text, or that the article was misleading on these points. There was no breach of Clause 1.
9. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the article gave the misleading impression that IPSA was investigating the complaint, when it was conducting an assessment. The article reported that the complaint was being assessed by IPSA’s Compliance Officer. There was no breach of Clause 1.
10. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 22/05/2017
Date decision issued: 15/08/2017Back to ruling listing