Decision of the Complaints Committee 20496_17 Wiggin v Hereford Times
Summary of complaint
1. Bill Wiggin MP complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Hereford Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Tory MP dragged into offshore row / Opposition questions MP’s morals”, published on 9 November 2017.
2. The article reported that the complainant, the MP for North Herefordshire, was “facing questions of morality over his decision to be a Managing Director of an offshore financial company”. It said that “figures disclosing how much the county’s MPs earn from outside financial interests have been revealed in the most recent register released by parliament”, and that this register had shown that the complainant was “a director of two fund platforms in the Caymans and two in Bermuda”. The article stated that one of these funds had “Is the sub-fund subject to any tax in the platform’s jurisdictions?” listed as a ‘frequently asked question’ on its website. The article also detailed the complainant’s political opponents’ views on his outside earnings: a Labour Party politician was quoted as asking “Where is the morality in elected politicians being involved in tax arrangements for people legally not to pay tax?” Another Labour source was quoted as saying “Bill Wiggin receives payments from companies specialising in offshore tax schemes dedicated to reducing tax paid by corporations and individuals. This may not be illegal but it is questionable morally.” The article also stated that the complainant “receives £5,000 a year as the non-executive director of Philip T English International Financial Services Ltd”.
3. The complainant said that the article, by stating that he had been dragged into an “offshore row”, inaccurately implied that he was implicated in the allegations of tax avoidance detailed in the Paradise Papers. These Papers had been made public on 5 November 2017, and detailed allegations of legal tax avoidance against a number of individuals. He said that he had no links to the law firm involved in the Paradise Papers. He said that people in his constituency had been misled by the article into believing that he was implicated in the Paradise Papers, and provided letters he had received as the basis for this position. He said that the newspaper had subsequently published similar letters, indicating that the implication that he was involved had been intentional. However, the complainant made clear that the letters themselves did not form part of his complaint.
4. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to say that his outside earnings had been “revealed” in the latest Register of Members’ Financial Interests, where his entry had been largely unchanged for 9 months, and where the latest update did not reveal anything new about the “offshore” aspects of his earnings. He argued that the subject of the article was not therefore “news”, as the article merely repeated information which the newspaper had already reported on. He also said that it was inaccurate to say he received £5,000 a year from Philip T English International Financial Services Ltd, when he had ceased to work for this company on 10 October 2017.
5. The publication denied any breach of the Code. It said that the article had not made reference to the Paradise Papers, and no link to Mr Wiggin had been implied. It said that the headline referred to Mr Wiggin being dragged into a conflict over his outside earnings with his political opponents. The publication said that the story was being prepared prior to the publication of the Paradise Papers, on the basis of a suggestion from a manager that publications look into the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a source of stories, and that this timing was purely coincidental. The article also made clear that the source of its information was not the Papers, but the Register. The newspaper denied that it was responsible for its readers misinterpreting the information in its article. It said that it had put the comments from the Labour Party figures to Mr Wiggin, but he had declined to comment. He had, however, used his weekly column in the paper to rebut the allegations on 7 December; this edition of the paper had also included a follow-up article setting out the complainant’s position.
6. The newspaper also said that the reference to the information being “revealed” was justified: it was entitled to update its readers on their MP’s outside interests, and the suggestion that they had “missed their chance” to do so when the information first came to light was not justified. Nonetheless, it offered to publish a letter from Mr Wiggin setting out his position, or to provide him with additional column space in which to do so.
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.
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
7. The newspaper published a number of letters in response to the article. The complainant had confirmed that he did not wish to complain about the accuracy of information contained in the letters, but he said that the letters indicated that the article had given the misleading impression that he had been involved in the Paradise Papers allegations. The consideration for the Committee, however, was not whether some readers had been misled by the article, but whether the newspaper had taken care over the accuracy of the article in compliance with Clause 1.
8. The article’s headline made no reference to the Paradise Papers and, read alone, did not make clear the nature of the “offshore row” the complainant was involved in. This meant that it had to be considered in the context of the full article. The article made clear that the basis for the suggestion that the complainant had been involved in an “offshore row” was the information contained in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, not the Paradise Papers. Neither the headline nor the article text made the implication that Mr Wiggin was involved in the tax avoidance practices revealed in the Paradise Papers, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
9. The article stated that the complainant “receives” £5,000 from a financial services company, when in fact his employment with this company had terminated approximately a month prior to the publication of the article. Where this employment had ended so recently, and where the complainant does not dispute that he was remunerated by this company for the period to October 10, this did not represent a significant inaccuracy such as would require correction under the terms of Clause 1. There was therefore no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
10. The information the article was based on was not new: it had been in the public domain for several months, and the newspaper had previously reported on it. However, publications are entitled to continually update their readers on stories, even where information has long been public. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that the information had not been “revealed” in the most recent Register. However, having previously noted the contents of the Register, the newspaper was reporting in an in-depth manner on its “offshore” contents for the first time, in the context of a new Register having been recently released. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the use of the word “revealed” represented a significant inaccuracy such as would require correction under the terms of Clause 1, and there was no breach of the Clause on this point.
11. The complaint was
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 05/12/2017
Date decision issued: 02/03/2018
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