Decision of the Complaints Committee 20114-17 Salmond & Ahmed-Sheikh v The Herald
Summary of complaint
1. Alex Salmond and Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Herald breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Salmond sparks ‘fake news’ row with new TV show”, published online on 16 November, and in an article headlined “Russian gay rights abuses ‘make ex-MP’s equalities role untenable’”, published on 18 November 2017, in print and online.
2. The 16 November article reported that on the first edition of ‘The Alex Salmond Show’, broadcast on the network RT UK, Mr Salmond had “sparked a ‘fake news’ row. The article reported that Mr Salmond had read out a series of Tweets, which he claimed had been sent to him in advance of the programme. It reported that one of the tweets read out was “ostensibly from a Twitter account called ‘@ellalorenR’”, but that no such account exists. It reported that another tweet read out was from the account “@thegodfather12”, but that this account had never tweeted. The article reported that a Liberal Democrat politician had said “it’s clear that Moscow tweet bot central is working overtime”.
3. The 16 November article was first published at 11:15, and amended throughout the day, while correspondence was exchanged between the parties. At 11:00, the newspaper contacted the complainant, asking for its explanation for the two tweets referred to in the article. Between then and 1200, the article was amended to report that another tweet read out on the show, purportedly from “@admrobrts”, was not tweeted until 11:08, three and a half hours after broadcast.
4. At 1202, the complainants responded to the newspaper’s request for comment, by saying that “we have screenshots which establish the genuine nature of the tweets. Your story is quite simply wrong. Please remove your story immediately”. The newspaper then requested copies of the screenshots refereed to, and the complainant sent a screenshot of a tweet from @ellalaurenr. The newspaper responded questioning why the programme had referred to @ellalorenR. It also requested screenshots for the accounts @thegodfather12 and @admrobrts. The complainant responded saying “the tweets are clearly genuine as the screenshot demonstrates”, to which the newspaper said “unless you provide proof that all the tweets we referred to are genuine the story will stay on the website”. Around this time, the article amended to report “the show blamed part of the confusion on a caption error and said there were simple explanations for the rest, but assured The Herald that all tweets were genuine”.
5. At 1507, the newspaper asked the complainant why one of the tweets was from the director of the programme. The article was amended to report that a tweet was read out asking about when President Trump would be on the programme, which had been tweeted from the private account of the programmes ‘series director’.
6. At around 1600, the headline was changed to “Salmond under pressure to explain mystery tweets on TV show”, on the basis of advice given by the newspaper’s lawyer. At 1755, the complainant sent a legal letter to the newspaper, objecting to the article. At 1810 the newspaper emailed the complainant asking “will you be supplying the screenshot proof you mentioned or a statement?”. The complainant responded saying:
i. @ellalorenR” was mis-transcribed from “@ellalaurenr”.
ii. The question broadcast as being tweeted from “@admrobrts” was in fact a question sent to the programme in correspondence. The individual in question tweeted the question after he had seen it broadcast.
iii. The tweet apparently from “@thegodfather12” was sent in by a person that had asked that this Twitter handle be used, presumably to protect his anonymity.
iv. The tweet from the programme’s producer had been left in by accident, from an earlier rehearsal.
The newspaper then added these responses to the article.
7. The 18 November article reported that a disability rights campaigner had made a statement on Twitter urging the Scottish National Party to remove Ms Ahmed-Sheikh from her role as the SNP’s Women an Equalities Convenor, because it was “not compatible with any form of business relationship with RT”, which he referred to as “a TV channel funded by a government that overtly oppresses the rights of LGBTI people….[and] actively undermines democracy and potentially contributes to the escalation of racial tension in BAME communities in America”. The article reported that Ms Ahmed-Sheikh declined to respond to the criticism.
8. In relation to the 16 November article, the complainants said that an allegation of “fake news” is an allegation of a systematic attempt to distort the news agenda with false information. They said that the article’s use of this term was totally unjustified by either the text of the article, or the facts of the case. All of the emails, tweets and queries used on the programme were real questions from real people. It noted that the newspaper’s own legal adviser shared this view, when he advised that the words “fake news” be removed from the headline.
9. The complainants said that when the journalist was presented with the screenshot of @ellalaurenr tweet, which was evidence there had been an entirely innocent transcription mishap, the newspaper continued to use the term “fake news” in the headline for a further four hours. The complainant said that the newspaper only became aware of the tweet from the programme’s director, accidentally left in from the rehearsal, four hours after first publishing the article. It said that it was not reasonable to interpret this mistake as part of a “fake news” agenda. The complainants objected to the fact the article first appeared online only 15 minutes after it was asked to respond to questions about two of the tweets broadcast on the show, giving the programme no time to check or explain.
10. The newspaper said that the article noted discrepancies in the provenance of tweets on the programme, which had been presented as spontaneous tweets from ordinary members of the public. It said that although these were relatively minor transgressions, in each case, viewers were to a greater or lesser extent misled; most seriously in the case of a tweet from a director of the programme, which had been left in from rehearsal. It said that the four tweets referred to in the article, were four out of six tweets broadcast, chosen from what had been described as an “avalanche” of tweets.
11. The newspaper said that “fake news” was a contrived term, which was why it was placed in inverted commas in the article. It said that its meaning could not be confined in the manner suggested by the complainant; “fake news”, it said, is spread just as easily by careless journalism as it is by design. It said that the headline reference to “fake news” was clearly supported by the text of the article, which dealt with questions about the reliability of RT’s output. It said that the headline was altered to remove reference to “fake news”, because it was trying to strike the right tone overall, but that this should not be regarded as an admission that the first headline lacked justification.
12. The newspaper said that the fact the newspaper was seeking a response from the programme’s production team was not a reason to delay publication online; that the complainants had explanations for the errors did not make them any less errors. It said that the first response it received demanded removal of the article, without explaining how the discrepancies had arisen, but that as the complainants provided further information throughout the day, the article was updated accordingly.
13. In relation to the 18 November article, the complainants said that it was inaccurate to report that Ms Ahmed-Sheikh had “declined to respond to the criticism”. The complainants said a journalist left a voicemail on Ms Ahmed-Sheikh’s mobile phone at 1148 on 17 November, in which he said he had a query about the Alex Salmond show, and asked for a call back. At 1344, the same journalist sent an email to the show’s email address, quoting the campaigner’s comments, and asking “I was just wondering if Tasmina would like to respond to this”. In response, the journalist was told:
“Slainte media have initiated formal proceedings against The Herald newspaper due to the inaccuracy of reporting and clear breaches of the IPSO code. It would be inappropriate to respond further until these matters are resolved.
The complainants said that while the newspaper may not have like the comment that was given, it was inaccurate to claim that Ms Ahmed–Sheikh had “declined to respond to the criticism”.
14. The newspaper said that Ms Ahmed-Sheikh may have provided a reason why she decided not to respond to the criticism, but this did not itself represent a response to the criticism. In any event, it said that the subject of the 18 November article was unrelated to the earlier article, and responding to criticism of her SNP role could not conceivably have prejudiced the complaint about the earlier article.
Relevant Code provisions
15. 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
16. There were discrepancies in relation to the two comments broadcast on the complainant’s television programme, as reported in the 16 November article when first published. In one case, it appeared that the Twitter account did not exist. In the other, the comment purported to have been tweeted by an account that had never in fact tweeted. Soon after publication, a further discrepancy came to light; namely, that one of the broadcast tweets was only tweeted after broadcast.
17. The newspaper emailed the complainant about these tweets 15 minutes before publication. This provided the complainants a very limited opportunity to respond, prior to publication. However, in this case, it was reasonable for the newspaper to consider that the tweets should have been as they had been presented in the broadcast, and to note the discrepancies; this was not a case where the available facts were ambiguous, and in which there was a failure to explore whether there was an explanation showing that no error had been made.
18. The article set out the discrepancies clearly. In that context, the headline claimed that Mr Salmond had “sparked a ‘fake news’ row”. The article made clear the basis of this claim; namely, that there were discrepancies between what appeared on Twitter, and what the programme had claimed had been tweeted, which had given rise to criticism of the programme. Where the programme appeared to have broadcast inaccuracies about the tweets it had received, the publication had a reasonable basis for characterising the response to this as a “’fake news’ row”. There was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information such as to raise a breach of Clause 1 (i). The Committee did not consider that the first article contained a significant inaccuracy, such as to require correction under Clause 1 (ii). There was no breach of Clause 1.
19. In relation to the 18 November article, the equalities campaigner had made specific criticisms of Ms Ahmed-Sheikh’s role as the SNP Equalities Convenor, on the basis of her alleged connection, via RT, to the Russian Government. The comment provided by the complainant did not engage with this criticism; but criticised the newspaper instead. The newspaper’s interpretation of Ms Ahmed-Sheikh’s response to its enquiries was not unreasonable, and there was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, such as to raise a breach of Clause 1 (i). It was not misleading to report that Ms Ahmed-Sheikh had “declined to respond to the criticism”, such as to require correction under Clause 1 (ii). There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
20. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 16/11/2017
Date decision issued: 16/03/2018
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