Decision of the Complaints Committee – 19645-17 Blair v Scottish Daily Mail
Summary of Complaint
1. Elizabeth Blair complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Scottish Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Decade of waste”, published on 6 November 2017.
2. The article reported that the Scottish Government had “wasted more than £2billion on doomed projects and extravagant socialist giveaways during a decade of reckless public spending”. The article reported on a “catalogue of waste”, and listed a range of “examples” of projects and items of spending. In a breakout box, the article listed further items under the heading “Millions blown on flops and failures”.
3. The complainant said that the items listed in the article totalled only £823m, not £2bn. She also said that many of the items included could not reasonably be characterised as “waste”: this included spending on the Scottish independence referendum; on foreign aid; on redeveloping the Royal Hospital for Sick Children; and on reducing carbon output. She also said it was misleading for the article to include the £30m spent on the Glasgow Airport Rail Link, given that this project was instigated by the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat government, and that the SNP had cancelled the Rail Link on coming into office. She also argued that the use of the headline “decade of waste” was unreasonable when the total government spending for the period was £300bn, of which the £2bn figure represented just 0.7%.
4. The publication explained that the basis for the £2bn figure was a broader list of items, which it provided, totalling some £2.08bn. The newspaper argued that it was entitled to take editorial decisions as to which items of “waste” to include in the article, and said that the article only included examples of such waste, as indicated by the phrase “High profile examples include”. It said it would have been impractical due to space restrictions to publish the full list. It also argued that what constituted “waste” was inherently a subjective matter, and that all the items listed had either been widely criticised as examples of “waste”, had failed, or had run over budget. The newspaper said that the £30m Glasgow Airport Rail Link could be considered as waste because, when the scheme was cancelled by the SNP government, it sold back land at a loss of £800,000.
5. The complainant also noted that the three largest items of expenditure the newspaper listed in its correspondence – totalling £1.2bn - had not been included in the article. She argued that this was misleading, particularly with respect to £285m in PFI repayments for contracts initiated by the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat government. She said that, with respect to claims of “waste”, the newspaper should have considered the costs of alternatives, and the benefits of projects which had yet to be evaluated.
6. The publication denied that these NDP/PFI expenditures had been omitted in order to create a misleading impression, and argued that the complexity of the PFI/NDP items was the reason for their omission. The newspaper denied that it had breached the Code, but offered to issue the following clarification, on page 2 of the newspaper:
“An article on November 6 headlined ‘Decades of waste’ said the SNP had squandered £2bn on a number of projects over the last ten years. We are happy to clarify that the article and accompanying graphic only highlighted some examples from a list of ‘wasteful’ projects. Among the examples not included were a £402m bill for Dumfries Hospital; £425m for grants to councils for schools; and £285m NHS Scotland repayments to private firms. We are also happy to make clear that the full list incorporated those projects that have been criticised as being poor value for money, inefficiently funded, unnecessary, over budget or having failed, and that the article did not intend to suggest that they had provided no benefit at all.”
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.
v) A publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published.
Findings of the Committee
8. The article noted that the newspaper had a “dossier of waste”, and did not suggest the article presented this list in full; the phrases “High-profile examples include…” and “The catalogue of waste includes…” were used to introduce sections of the article which listed “wasteful” expenditures, indicating that readers were being presented with selections from a wider list, which the newspaper was able to provide. Where the newspaper was able to show the basis for the £2bn claim, including only some examples of “wasteful” spending did not make the article significantly misleading, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. The Committee nevertheless welcomed the newspaper’s offer of a clarification.
9. The newspaper was free to characterise items of expenditure as waste, where it provided the basis for the characterisation, and where it was clearly expressing its own view. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant strongly disagreed with this characterisation, but it considered that, by stating that the items were “flops”, “failures”, “socialist giveaways”, “doomed projects”, “failed initiatives”, “indulgent Left-wing schemes”, “using public funds inefficiently” and “overspending”, the newspaper had made the basis for its characterisation clear. The newspaper was entitled to express its view that these projects were “wasteful”, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
10. Finally, the Committee noted the complainant’s view that certain items listed, such as the Glasgow Airport Rail Link and PFI repayments, were not the responsibility of the SNP government, and should not therefore have been included in the list. In the context of the overall list of expenditures, which the newspaper was entitled to characterise as waste, and which totalled in the region of £2bn, it did not consider that the inclusion of these two items - which had both incurred costs to the SNP government, even if it had not initiated the projects - represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article under the terms of Clause 1 (i).
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 06/11/2017
Date decision issued: 02/02/2018Back to ruling listing