Decision of the Complaints Committee 13226-16 MacMaster v The Scottish Sun
Summary of Complaint
1. Frank MacMaster complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Scottish Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Taken for a ride”, published in print on 20 September 2016, and “Off the rails… £7billion ScotRail deal on the line after bosses are blasted over train service”, published online on 20 September 2016.
2. The front-page article reported that ScotRail, who it said was “raking in” more than £13million a week in taxpayer’s cash, face losing its £7billion contact over “soaring cancellations and delays”, and said that the firm would be asked to explain “why one in five trains were axed last month”. It said that a total of 450 trains were cancelled, and barely half of the trains on the Glasgow to Edinburgh line arrived on time. It also said that signalling faults caused chaos on the Fife Circle Line, and a broken freight train caused more delays. The article included a response from ScotRail, which said that it had been through a “challenging” period caused by industrial action, tunnel works and rail electrification. The article was accompanied by a panel which gave the annual figures for trains arriving late at 22 selected stations, as well as the figures for five selected routes.
3. The headline aside, the online article was substantively the same as the print version.
4. The complainant said that while the figures in relation to delays and cancellations appeared to be accurate, the figures quoted were misleading because they only included services that terminated at the stations mentioned in the article, and not those that made intermediate stops. Further, he said that the article reported figures relating to the percentage of trains arriving after 59 seconds of booked arrival time. He said that the measure on which a train company’s performance is usually based is the Public Performance Measure (PPM), which calculates the percentage of services which arrive within five minutes of the booked arrival time. He said that the failure of the article to make this clear gave a misleading impression of the extent of delays to services.
5. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to report that one in five services were cancelled; the said that the true figure was one in 150, which was less than one per cent of services. He said that the article was misleading because it failed to make clear that the responsibility for Scotland’s railway is shared between ScotRail, which operates the majority of the services, and Network Rail, which is responsible for the track and other infrastructure. He said that in not making this clear in the article, it implied that the delays and cancellations were entirely the fault of ScotRail. He also said it was misleading to report that the company “raked in” £13million a week, as this suggested that this was profit, rather than money given to provide the service.
6. The newspaper said that while it accepted that it was inaccurate to report that one in 5 trains were cancelled, that figure had been published on the ScotRail website, and the newspaper had been entitled to rely on what the company had said. It said that it had published a story the following day explaining that the figure was inaccurate, and made clear that one per cent of trains had been cancelled. Nonetheless, it offered to publish a further correction on this point. The newspaper said that it was not misleading to report statistics for late trains that were calculated on the basis of trains been late by 59 seconds or more; it said that the article made no claims to the degree of lateness of the trains. It also said it that it was not misleading to omit reference to other companies being responsible for signalling issues and the breakdown of a freight train, or to report statistics that only measured trains terminating at named stations, and not trains making intermediate stops at those stations.
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.
Findings of the Committee
8. The newspaper acknowledged that it was inaccurate to report that 1 in 5 ScotRail services had been cancelled. However, in relying on the figures put into the public domain by ScotRail, the newspaper demonstrated that it had taken care not to publish inaccurate information; there was no breach of Clause 1(i). Further, in circumstances where the article contained a general criticism of the company, which included highlighting the number of late services, as well as criticism from a Government source, the reporting of this figure was not significantly misleading; there was no breach of Clause 1(ii). Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s decision to publish a story the next day setting out the figure, as well as the offer to publish a stand-alone correction.
9. The Committee acknowledged that the reported figures used different parameters to measure late trains than the PPM. However, in circumstances where the article did not suggest that the figures were calculated using the PPM measure, and these figures were originally published by ScotRail, the Committee did not consider that the article was misleading on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1. Nonetheless, the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification on this point.
10. In circumstances where the article published ScotRail’s explanation of the performance statistics, which included reference to industrial action, tunnel works and rail electrification, the Committee did not consider the omission of any reference to Network Rail gave a significantly misleading impression of who was responsible for the delays and cancellations on Scotland’s railways. There was no breach of Clause 1.
11. It was not misleading to report delay figures for trains that terminated at stations, and not figures for trains that made intermediate stops at those stations. Further, the Committee did not consider that the reference to the company “who rakes in more than £13million a week in taxpayers’ cash” gave an impression that this sum was profit, particularly where the article later reported that the Scottish Government “gives Abellio approximately £13.4million a week of public cash to run the service”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on either point.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 13/11/2016
Date decision issued: 28/02/2017
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