Decision of the Complaints Committee 19525-17 Sarwar v The National
Summary of complaint
1. Anas Sarwar MSP complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The National breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “LABOUR CLOSES RANKS OVER SARWAR PAY SCANDAL”, published on 21 September 2017.
2. The article was the main story on the newspaper’s front page. The headline was accompanied by the subheadline “Leadership hustings BANS questions on personal affairs amid pressure over failure to pay living wage and kids’ private schooling”. It was accompanied by a large picture of the complainant, but no further text appeared on the front page. The article was published during the complainant’s campaign to be leader of the Scottish Labour Party.
3. The full article appeared on pages 2 and 3 of the newspaper. It reported that the complainant’s fellow leadership contender, Richard Leonard, “took a sideswipe at [the complainant] when he pointedly underlined that one-fifth of Glasgow workers earn less than the £8.45 real Living Wage”. It reported that the complainant’s leadership campaign has been “plagued by issues over his wealth, his family’s business United Wholesale (Scotland) Ltd, and the failure of the company to ensure all staff are paid the Living Wage”. It reported that the complainant owned around a quarter of the shares in the company, but that “it emerged some staff at the firm are paid £7.50 an hour, lower than the £8.45 real Living Wage championed by Scottish Labour”. The article reported that “the issue dominated political discussions all day yesterday after [the complainant] suggested during a morning radio interview that his family’s company did not pay the Living Wage as it was not mandatory to do so”.
4. The complainant said that the front page sub-headline’s reference to a “failure to pay living wage” would be reasonably understood by readers to be a reference to his own parliamentary staff’s pay, where no explanation was given as to his connection to his family’s company. He said that since being elected as an MSP, he has paid his parliamentary staff the National Living Wage and the Real Living Wage, and that the subheadline was therefore inaccurate. The complainant said that his family’s business pays its staff the National Living Wage, but not all staff are paid the higher Real Living Wage. He said that he had shares in the company at the time of publication, but was not a director.
5. The newspaper said that the pay practices of the complainant’s family business had been widely reported in the days prior to publication, including in a major radio interview on the day before publication. In this interview, the complainant had said that the company did not pay all employees the Real Living Wage, as it was voluntary, although he wished to make it mandatory. The newspaper said that in the context of the coverage at the time, the headline and subheadline on the front page were clearly referring to the complainant’s family business, not the pay he gave his parliamentary staff. In addition, the newspaper said that the front page was a headline and stand first to the article on the inside pages, and that it must be read in the context of the article as a whole. It said that the main text fully explained the position, which was that the complainant was a very significant shareholder in a business, which did not pay all employees the Real Living Wage. The newspaper said that a living wage is defined as the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their needs. It said that in the UK this is set by the Living Wage Foundation, and this is what the article was referring to, rather than the legally mandated “National Living Wage”.
6. The newspaper said that the article was not inaccurate, but to resolve the complaint, it offered to publish the following wording in its corrections and clarifications column, on page 24 of the newspaper:
Our front page article of 21 September said that there was pressure on Anas Sarwar over a “pay scandal” and “failure to pay living wage”. This was very clearly referring to the widely reported failure of Mr Sarwar’s family business to pay its staff a voluntary living wage, as advocated by the party he wished to lead. No informed reader could interpret it otherwise.
However, for the avoidance of any doubt, we are happy to clarify that this was not a reference to the wage paid to his parliamentary staff. In addition, there was no suggestion that the company in question was failing to pay the legally mandated “National Living Wage”. Our article related to the fact it did not pay all employees the higher “Real Living Wage”, as defined by the Living Wage Foundation.
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 headline referred to a “pay scandal”, and the sub headline summarised the “scandal” as a “failure to pay living wage”. The complainant’s business interests were a legitimate subject of scrutiny, and had formed part of the media coverage of him, prior to publication of the article under complaint. In that context, the Committee considered that the subheadline’s reference to a “failure to pay living wage” did not represent the more specific claim about the pay arrangements for the complainant’s parliamentary staff. It represented a broader claim that he was linked to a “failure to pay living wage”. The Committee therefore considered whether this claim was supported by the text of the article.
9. The article explained that the complainant owned a significant share in his family business, and that this business did not pay all its employees the real living wage. It explained that the complainant had publicly responded to this issue the previous day, saying that the company did not pay the “Living Wage” as it was not mandatory, but that he supported a mandatory real living wage. Given the complainant’s relationship to the company, and his public response to its pay arrangements, the subheadline reference to a “failure to pay living wage” was sufficiently supported by the text of the article. There was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in relation to the sub headline, such as to raise a breach of Clause 1 (i). The subheadline was not significantly misleading, such as to require a correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The Committee nevertheless welcomed the newspaper’s offer of a clarification.
10. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received : 01/11/2017
Date decision issued: 21/12/2017
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