12214-20 Salmond v Scotland on Sunday

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of correction

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 12214-20 Salmond v Scotland on Sunday

Summary of Complaint

1. Alex Salmond complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Scotland on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “’This is not over. Not by a long shot’”, published on 5 April 2020.

2. The article reported on Alex Salmond’s acquittal following charges of sexual assault. The headline appeared on the front page in quotation marks alongside a photograph of Mr Salmond’s face and the statement “Read [journalist’s name]’s inside story of the Alex Salmond trial and its impact on his accusers and the SNP”. The article, which continued on page 25 reported part of a statement Mr Salmond had given outside of the court: “There is certain evidence I would have liked to have seen led in this trial, but for a variety of reasons, this was not possible… Those facts will see the light.” The article went on to comment that “Everyone outside the court understands what this means. It's a threat. It’s a promise. He is saying “This is not over. Not by a long shot"”.  The article began by describing the scene outside the court following Mr Salmond’s acquittal and reported that he thanked “a jury of eight women and five men for acquitting him of 13 charges of sexual assault against nine complainers.” The article later reported each of the nine anonymised women’s accusations against Mr Salmond. The article also included a black and white image of a woman who looked upset. At the top of page 25 of the printed version, the article was described as having been published in association with another publication and, in a cutaway box embedded in the article, it was explained that the same publication had originally published the article and gave details about how readers could trial this publication.

3. The article had also appeared online on 8 July under the headline “Inside the Alex Salmond trial”. It had the opening line: "[journalist’s name] was in court every day of the Alex Salmond trial. Here she shares her insights on a landmark case that revolved around power and sex". It was substantially the same as the print article, but did not include the image of Mr Salmond’s face, nor did it contain the standalone headline of the wording “This is not over, not by a long shot”, although this wording did appear within the article, along with the same comment that “Everyone outside the court understands what this means. It's a threat. It’s a promise. He is saying ‘This is not over. Not by a long shot’.”

4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that the front page print headline presented in quotes next to an image of his face inaccurately suggested that he had said “This is not over. Not by a long shot.” The complainant supplied the full statement he had given outside the court:

“As many of you will know there is certain evidence I would like to have seen led in this trial but for a variety of reasons we were not able to do so. At some point that information, facts and that evidence will see the light of day but it won't be this day. And it won't be this day for a very good reason. And that is whatever nightmare I've been in over these last two years it is as of nothing compared to the nightmare that every single one of us is currently living through. People are dying, many more are going to die. What we are doing just now and I know you've got a job to do is not safe - I know it is your job but it ain't safe. And my strong, strong advice to you is to go home, those who can, are able to, take care of your families and may God help us all." 

The complainant said that the headline, rather than being something he had said, was a quote from the journalist, describing what he had said outside of the court. He said that this was not an accurate characterisation of his statement. The complainant noted that versions of the front page that were posted online had not included quotation marks around the statement.

5. The complainant said that the article had not made clear that it was a comment piece, and instead it was presented as a definitive account of the criminal court proceedings. He said that the article was biased and unbalanced, for example by interviewing the  complainers, who were entitled to anonymity, but not including the evidence  given by any of the female defence witnesses, or the views of anyone who supported the findings of the court. The complainant also complained that he had not been contacted prior to the article being published.

6. The complainant said it was misleading to publish the allegations made by each of the complainers, without also including an explanation that he had been acquitted and that each allegation had been dismissed by the court.

7. The complainant said that he believed the image of his face in the print version of the article had been deliberately edited in order to emphasise the stubble and grains in his face and to paint him in an unflattering light. He also found the use of the image of the woman looking upset in both versions of the article to be misleading as it was not made clear if it was a stock image or an image of one of the complainers.

8. The complainant also noted that the article had been published originally by another publication, and that it was misleading not to publish further details of the relationship between the two publications.

9. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the front page quotation, “This is not over. Not by a long shot” was the publication’s summary of the complainant’s comments outside court. It said it was a fair reflection of these comments and that the interpretation had been carefully considered by its experienced reporters prior to publication. It noted that the complainant’s exact words had been published within the article, and that his words: "There is certain evidence I would have liked to have seen led in this trial, but for a variety of reasons, this was not possible [...] Those facts will see the light" supported the publication’s position that the complainant had suggested that the legal proceedings would not be the end of the matter. It said that the removal of the quotation marks from the versions of the front page posted online did not change the meaning of the headline and therefore the quotation marks did not make it significantly misleading.

10. The publication said that the article was clearly an opinion piece from the perspective of one journalist. It said this was made clear in the opening line of the online article, which named the journalist and reported that she would share “her insights on a landmark case”. It said she had no obligation to approach the complainant for further comment after hearing all the evidence given by him during the trial and the subsequent public statement he made, and noted that in the statement he gave outside court, he made it clear he did not think it was an appropriate time to discuss the case further. It noted that the article referred to the evidence heard by the court and the jury’s conclusion.

11. The publication said that the details of the allegations against the complainant had been included as they were relevant to the issues being explored by the article, particularly those of power and sex. The publication also said that the article made clear that the complainant had been cleared of the charges.

12. The publication said that the image on the front page of the print article had not been manipulated in order to make it less flattering, and that in any event the editing of an image to highlight certain features would not be a failure to report accurately. It also said that the stock image was meant to represent the complainants, whilst also being unidentifiable. The publication said that its inclusion would not mislead readers that it was an image of one of the complainers, in particular as the identity of the woman in the image was obscured.

13. The publication said that the issue regarding payment for the article was not a matter which fell under the Editors’ Code of Practice, and that it had no impact on its accuracy.

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

14. The front cover of the print version of the article showed a picture of the complainant’s face alongside the following words in inverted commas: “’This is not over. Not by a long shot’”. The publication had said that this was an accurate summary of the statement given by the complainant outside court. Whilst the Committee noted that editors are entitled to abridge quotations, a published quote must accurately represent the words spoken. In this case, the Committee found that, on balance, the publication had gone too far and that the published quote was not an accurate representation of what the complainant had said; the quotation did not reflect the words chosen by the complainant and, as a consequence, gave the impression that the statement made by the complainant outside court was more sinister in nature than was the case. On this basis, the newspaper had failed to take care not to publish misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i). The quotation had appeared on the front page and was significantly misleading because it distorted what the complainant had actually said to appear more menacing. It therefore required correction under Clause 1(ii). No correction was offered, and there was therefore a further breach of Clause 1(ii). The quote did not appear in the online version of the article in the same format, and therefore the breach only pertained to the print version of the article.

15. Both versions of the article had referred to the journalist by name, with the print article being described as her “inside story” and the online article as “her insights” on the trial. Readers would recognise from these descriptions and from the tone and presentation of the piece that it was a feature article, rather than a traditional court report or news report, and that it would reflect the angle, opinions and analysis of its author. The article included an opinion in the stand first of the print article and the first person was frequently used throughout the article. The Committee was therefore satisfied that the publication had clearly distinguished between comment, conjecture and fact from the outset and there was no breach of Clause 1(iv).

16. The complainant had expressed concern that the article had not been balanced, quoting extensively from the complainers in the case but making no reference to the evidence given by the female defence witnesses. The Committee noted that the Editors’ Code does not address issues of bias or balance. It makes clear the press has the right to be partisan, to give its own opinion and to campaign, as long as it takes care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. Given the article was clearly presented as a comment piece, the Committee did not consider that this issue raised a breach of Clause 1(iv).

17. The article had included the allegations made by the nine complainers, and it was not in dispute that the complainant had been acquitted of all charges. The article made clear that the complainant had been acquitted “of 13 charges of sexual assault against nine complainers”, which was repeated multiple times in the article. On this basis, readers would be fully aware that the complainant had been acquitted of the allegations, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. The Committee noted there was a disagreement as to whether the photo of the complainant’s face had been edited to present him in an unflattering light and the Committee were not able to make a finding on this point. Newspapers are entitled to undertake some editing of images, provided that it does not amount to distortion of an image leading to inaccurate or misleading information. In this instance, it did not appear that the image had been distorted, and therefore it was not significantly misleading of the complainant’s appearance and there was no breach of the Code. In addition, the use of a stock image of a woman was not misleading as it would be understood to be a stock photo used to illustrate an anonymous, upset woman and not an image of one of the complainers. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

19. Finally, the Committee noted that newspapers are free to campaign and editorialise, and that there is no obligation under Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code to disclose the financing of an article. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

20. The complaint was upheld in part under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

21. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

22. The Committee found that the publication did not take the necessary care when publishing the quote which appeared on the front page of the print article because it did not represent the words which had been chosen by complainant, which rendered it misleading. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction to put the correct position on record.

23. The Committee then considered the placement of the correction. Whilst the misleading information had appeared on the front page of the print article, as the publication had changed the tone of what the complainant had said, but ultimately the phrase had derived from a statement produced by the complainant, the Committee was satisfied that publication of the correction in the established corrections and clarifications column would represent due prominence. The wording of the correction should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

 

Date complaint received: 04/08/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 01/02/2020

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