Decision of the Complaints Committee – 18053-23 Blackman v The National
Summary of Complaint
1. Dr Jonathan Kiehlmann, acting on behalf of Kirsty Blackman, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The National breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Those who raised questions about SNP finances were never answered”, published on 14 April 2023.
2. The article – which appeared on a double-page spread across pages 12 and 13 – was a column by Joanna Cherry. The column dealt with Ms Cherry’s experience of losing her front bench role in the Scottish National Party (SNP) in February 2021 after she “started asking awkward questions about the party’s internal management”. It said that: “Others, including Kirsty Blackman, made it clear from their social media attacks on me that I was being sacked for ‘transphobia’. I am still waiting to hear the evidence in support of these attacks which were, of course, in breach of the party’s code of conduct.” It also referred to comments made by other party members about her departure: “There was only a terse comment from Ian Blackford that I was guilty of ‘unacceptable behaviour’ and ‘Joanna is leaving us’, as though I had somehow been kicked out of the group rather than simply not taking up a role as spokesperson. He has yet to specify what he meant by that”.
3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline, “Those of us with questions about SNP finances were shouted down”.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 as it had claimed that Ms Blackman had “made it clear from their social media attacks on [Ms Cherry] that [she] was being sacked for ‘transphobia’". The complainant said that Ms Blackman had never claimed on social media that the Ms Cherry had been “sacked for ‘transphobia’”.
5. The complainant acknowledged that, in 2020, Ms Blackman was critical of Ms Cherry's behaviour towards trans people, which she believed led many young and LGBT people to leave the party, and that, later in 2021 after Ms Cherry’s removal from the front-bench, Ms Blackman supported calls for action against Ms Cherry for her alleged transphobia. However, in relation to the specific claim made in the article, he said that at no stage had Ms Blackman claimed on social media that Ms Cherry was sacked for transphobia, nor had she commented on the reasons for her removal from the front-bench. The complainant said that, given the article described the online abuse faced by politicians, it was important that the record be put straight.
6. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It said that the article had not claimed that Ms Blackman had said Ms Cherry’s dismissal was due to transphobia on social media. Rather, it had said that Ms Blackman was among those who had “made it clear from their social media attacks” that she was being sacked due to “transphobia”. It said that this was Ms Cherry making a point around the “wider political climate” behind her removal from the front-bench, in the context of a column clearly distinguished as her personal view of the decision to remove her from her role; it was not a claim of fact that Ms Blackman had claimed this on social media, but was clearly distinguished as Ms Cherry’s interpretation of Ms Blackman’s social media posts.
7. The publication provided a tweet posted by Ms Blackman in November 2021 to support its position; it said that posts such as these were the basis for Ms Cherry’s view, which was set out in the article. The post said:
• why do you keep publicly criticising Joanna Cherry’s views on trans issues?’
• complaining through the proper channels, repeatedly, for years, has resulted in nothing happening and these views still being expressed - and still causing harm to so many people. 🤷’”
8. the complainant said that, while the claim regarding Ms Blackman’s social media posts may have appeared in a comment-piece, it was a claim of fact regarding posts made by Ms Blackman, amid four paragraphs which set out facts of what had happened. The complainant said that there had been no indication in the article that this claim was comment or conjecture.
9. The complainant disputed that the article was referring to the tweet the publication highlighted. He further said that the tweet supported his argument that Ms Blackman had not stated Ms Cherry was sacked due to transphobia. He said it was posted seven-and-a-half months after Ms Cherry’s removal and acknowledged that no action has been taken regarding Ms Cherry’s views on trans issues.
10. In response to the publication’s argument about the wider political climate, and its position that this was what the disputed reference was commenting on, the complainant said that reporting around the time of Ms Cherry’s sacking speculated on various reasons why she had been sacked, and that this speculation was not limited to allegations about transphobia.
11. The complainant then said that the publication should publish a correction and apology, due to the nature of the claim made against Ms Blackman.
Relevant Clause Provisions
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
12. The Committee considered the complainant’s position that the passage in issue was a statement of fact which, if significantly inaccurate, required the publication of a correction in order to comply with Clause 1(ii). It noted the context in which the passage appeared; it was included in a column, written in the first-person from a polemical point-of -view by an elected figure, in which she set out her opinion about the reasons for her removal from her frontbench role. The column included her view that there is a lack of transparency about decisions taken by the party about members and she cited a comment made about her removal by a senior party member which she said has not been properly explained. The writer then referred to the social media posts of Ms Blackman, which the publication had argued criticised her for views she had expressed previously on trans issues. The Committee also considered the precise wording of the passage under complaint. It considered that the manner in which it was phrased – “Others, including Kirsty Blackman made it clear from their social media attacks on me that I was being sacked for “transphobia””- fell short of being a factual assertion about the precise content of such posts. Rather, the writer was expressing her view as to what the posts represented. The article had, therefore, sufficiently distinguished the passage as the writer’s interpretation of Ms Blackman’s social media posts in compliance with Clause 1 (iv). For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 1.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 25/05/2023
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 02/10/2023
Independent Complaints Reviewer
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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