Ruling

00294-17 Brown v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      15th May 2017

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00294-17 Brown v The Daily Telegraph

Summary of complaint

1. Gordon Brown complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “’For hundreds of years, Britain’s commitment to a free press has helped make this country a beacon of freedom for the world…But all this is now under threat from MPs and Lords’”, published on 24 December 2016 and republished on 27 December 2016.

2. The article said that the freedom of the press was under threat from the possible enforcement of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. It said that Section 40 would mean that newspapers that refused to subscribe to an officially recognised regulator would have to pay the costs of anyone who brought legal action against them, even if they won the case. It said this legislation would “make it impossible to conduct serious investigative journalism, since people whose wrongdoing was exposed would be able to bring ruinously expensive legal actions against newspapers”. It said that it was “only because of the Telegraph that voters learned how MPs were abusing their expenses”, and it appealed to readers to respond to the government’s consultation on the implementation of Section 40.

3. The piece was illustrated by three small images of front-page stories: The Daily Telegraph’s first front page relating to the expenses scandal, which was headlined “The truth about the Cabinet’s expenses” and included an image of the complainant and his brother, and two further front pages, from other newspapers, as illustrations of public interest journalism.

4. The article was also published online on 23 December 2016, but the image of The Daily Telegraph’s front page was cropped to omit the lower section of the story.  

5. The complainant expressed concern that the newspaper had published an image of an article, which had originally been published in 2009, that included his and his brother’s photographs and stated “Brown paid his brother more than £6,000 for ‘cleaning expenses’”. He said the article had failed to make clear that following the original publication of this story, the newspaper had accepted that it had inaccurately reported that he and his brother had abused the MPs’ expenses system, and it had agreed to publish this correction:

For the avoidance of doubt, The Daily Telegraph does not allege that the Prime Minister’s brother, Andrew Brown, received any improper benefit from the Prime Minister’s expense claim for cleaning services. The Daily Telegraph accepts that the sums received by him from the Prime Minister were duly paid to their shared cleaner for services rendered to the Prime Minister and his wife.

6. The complainant said that the newspaper had also agreed that the story would not be published again without an accompanying correction.

7. The complainant said that the republication of the front page in the context of this article about public interest journalism had given the significantly misleading impression that he was an example of someone “whose wrongdoing was exposed”. He noted that the opening of the article had asked “why would those in power want to constrain the press unless they are doing something that they do not want the public to know?”. He also noted that the newspaper had asserted that its “revelations about MPs expenses” had been accurately reported, and he argued that readers would not have considered that the examples of public interest journalism, which had been used to illustrate the piece, had included journalistic mistakes. He said it was deeply upsetting to be used as an example alongside stories about alleged murderers and disgraced Lord Sewel when he had been found guilty of no wrongdoing whatsoever.

8. The complainant also expressed concern that when he raised his concern with the newspaper directly, it had failed to correct the inaccuracy promptly, and had merely offered to republish the 2009 correction. He considered that the online article should have been taken down immediately, and a new correction acknowledging the newspaper’s error and including a generous apology should have been published in print and online. He also expressed serious concern that the newspaper had failed to make clear that the article under complaint had appeared in print on two separate occasions until the end of IPSO’s investigation.

9. The complainant suggested the following wording for publication in print, with a similar form to be appended to the online article:

Gordon Brown and Andrew Brown

In two recent advertisements we used an image of our front page published on the first day of our coverage of the MPs expenses scandal which featured pictures of Gordon Brown and his brother. We are happy to confirm that there is no suggestion of wrongdoing on Mr Brown's part or that of his brother. A few days after the first article in May, 2009 we published the following statement:’ For the avoidance of doubt, The Daily Telegraph does not allege that the Prime Minister’s brother, Andrew Brown, received any improper benefit from the Prime Minister’s expense claim for cleaning services. The Daily Telegraph accepts that the sums received by him from the Prime Minister were duly paid to their shared cleaner for services rendered to the Prime Minister and his wife’. We are happy to do so again.  We also accept that in our website coverage of the expenses issues we should have made clear in every article referring to Mr Brown’s claims for cleaning services that there was no wrongdoing on the part of Gordon Brown or his brother.  We apologise to Mr Brown and his brother for not making this clear in all the relevant articles.

10. The complainant also expressed concern that the article had been tweeted by the newspaper, and an image of the article, including his image, remained on the newspaper’s Facebook page even at the end of IPSO’s investigation. He considered that the newspaper had made him a poster boy for press exposure of very serious and appalling wrongdoing.

11. The newspaper said it was sorry if its article had caused the complainant upset. This had not been its intention.

12. It said that the image under complaint was one of three partial front covers used as generic examples of public interest journalism. It considered that each of the front covers had become iconic, including its own which had been the first to launch its investigation into MPs’ expenses and had become emblematic of the whole of its expenses coverage.

13. The newspaper did not consider that its use of this front page had given the impression that it had exposed the complainant engaging in wrongdoing. It considered that the article was not about the complainant; it was about the threat to freedom of expression and the free press.

14. The newspaper considered that the only visible words in the print article had been “The truth about the Cabinet’s expenses”, and in the online version, as well as the headline, the sub-headline “The Prime Minister. Brown paid his brother more than £6,000 for cleaning ‘expenses’”, could be read.

15. The newspaper said that the 2009 coverage of the complainant’s cleaning expenses claim had been both fair and accurate. It had never accepted that there was any need for a correction or an apology; rather, it had offered to publish some additional wording as a clarification.

16. The newspaper rejected the complainant’s contention that it had failed to respond to his complaint appropriately. It said that it had received the complaint on 29 December 2016, and the online article had been amended the following day. It said that it could not agree to publishing the complainant’s suggested wording for a correction as it had not accurately reflected the events of 2009. Instead, on 31 December 2016, the newspaper offered the following wording for publication on page two in print, with a similar form for publication online

Gordon Brown and Andrew Brown

In two recent advertisements we used an image of our front page published on the first day of our coverage of the MPs expenses scandal which featured pictures of Gordon Brown and his brother. We are happy to confirm that there is no suggestion of wrongdoing on Mr Brown’s part or that of his brother. A few days after the first article in May 2009 we published the following statement: For the avoidance of doubt, The Daily Telegraph does not allege that the Prime Minister’s brother, Andrew Brown, received any improper benefit from the Prime Minister’s expense claim for cleaning services. The Daily Telegraph accepts that the sums received by him from the Prime Minister were duly paid to their shared cleaner for services rendered to the Prime Minister and his wife. We are happy to do so again.

17. The newspaper considered that this remedial action was sufficient; an apology was not required.

18. The newspaper said that its investigation into MPs’ expenses had not – in the main –related to criminality; the scandal was that the expenses system had been so generous that it had become commonplace for MPs to receive payments for items or services that a normal working person would consider unethical given that it was public money. It noted that an investigation carried out by Sir Thomas Legg had concluded that the system was “deeply flawed”, and following Sir Thomas’s report, the complainant had repaid £12,000 of the cleaning expenses he had claimed, and had made further repayments including one for the repainting of a summer house at his constituency home.

19. The newspaper said that it had not intentionally misled IPSO regarding the number of occasions the article had been published, and it noted that the correction it had offered to print had referred to “two recent advertisements”. When alerted to the Facebook posting, it removed it.

20. The complainant said that Sir Thomas Legg had made an assessment that a London cleaner should only be paid minimum wage, whereas he had paid the living wage including a London supplement. He had therefore made a voluntary repayment of £12,000. He said there was never any suggestion by Sir Thomas of impropriety on his part, and his record on expenses and on refusing to accept public money offered to him had been beyond reproach.

Relevant Code provisions

21. 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

22. There was disagreement between the parties as to whether the newspaper had agreed in 2009 that its front page story was inaccurate and that any future publication of it would be accompanied by a particular form of wording. However, in 2009, the newspaper had accepted that the complainant’s claim for cleaning expenses had not been improperly paid to his brother, and it had therefore agreed to publish a clarification.

23. The article under complaint argued that Section 40 represented a threat to the free press, and it said that it was only because of the newspaper’s investigation that the public had learned how “MPs were abusing their expenses”. The Committee considered that the use of the complainant’s image under the heading “The truth about the cabinet’s expenses” in this context had given the significantly misleading impression that he was one of those MPs who had been found to have abused the expenses system. The use of inverted commas in the sub-headline to the 2009 article had suggested that he had paid his brother for cleaning services improperly.

24. Given that it had been accepted in 2009 that the complainant had not been guilty of any wrongdoing in relation to the payment to his brother for cleaning expenses, the repeated use of his image in this context represented a serious failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i). A correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

25. Two days after the complainant contacted the newspaper to express his concerns, it had offered to publish a correction in print, 16 pages further forward than the original article had appeared, and the online article had been amended. While the newspaper had acted promptly, the wording merely repeated the clarification published in 2009 and failed to acknowledge that it had effectively made a fresh allegation of ”abuse” against the complainant. This was a serious, unjustified, allegation, and an apology was required under the terms of 1 (ii). The newspaper’s refusal to apologise constituted a further breach of the Code.

Conclusion

26. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

27. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

28. The newspaper had offered to publish a correction, but given the seriousness of the breach of Clause 1 (i) and the newspaper’s failure to offer a published apology, the publication of an adjudication was an appropriate remedy.

29. The headline of the adjudication must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, and refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed in advance. The article had been published on page 18 on 24 December 2016, and on page 19 on 27 December 2016. As such, the adjudication should appear on page 18 or further forward.

30. It should also be published on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the full adjudication appearing on the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. The terms of the adjudication for publication are as follows:

Following an article published in the Daily Telegraph on 24 and 27 December 2016, headlined “’For hundreds of years, Britain’s commitment to a free press has helped make this country a beacon of freedom for the world…But all this is now under threat from MPs and Lords’”, Gordon Brown complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO upheld the complaint and has required the Daily Telegraph to publish this decision as a remedy to the breach.

The article said that the freedom of the press was under threat from the possible enforcement of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. It said that Section 40 would “make it impossible to conduct serious investigative journalism, since people whose wrongdoing was exposed would be able to bring ruinously expensive legal actions against newspapers”. It said that it was “only because of the Telegraph that voters learned how MPs were abusing their expenses”. The piece was illustrated by three small images of front-page stories, including the Daily Telegraph’s first front page relating to the expenses scandal, which was headlined “The truth about the Cabinet’s expenses” and included an image of the complainant and his brother.

The complainant said that the publication of the image of the 2009 article, which included his and his brother’s photographs and stated “Brown paid his brother more than £6,000 for ‘cleaning expenses’” had given the significantly misleading impression that he was an example of someone “whose wrongdoing was exposed”. The article had failed to make clear that following the original publication of this story, the newspaper had accepted that it had inaccurately reported that he and his brother had abused the MPs’ expenses system, and it had agreed to publish a correction. The newspaper had failed to correct this further inaccuracy promptly, and the correction it had offered to publish had failed to include an apology. 

The newspaper said that the image under complaint was one of three partial front covers used as generic examples of public interest journalism. Its use of this front page had not given the impression that it had exposed the complainant engaging in wrongdoing; the article was not about the complainant; it was about the threat to freedom of expression and the free press. The newspaper said that the 2009 coverage of the complainant’s cleaning expenses claim had been both fair and accurate. It had never accepted that there was any need for a correction or an apology; rather, it had offered to publish some additional wording as a clarification.

The Committee considered that the use of the complainant’s image to illustrate a piece which referred to MPs “abusing their expenses” had given the significantly misleading impression that he was one of those MPs who had been found to have abused the expenses system.

While the newspaper had offered to publish a correction promptly, it had failed to acknowledge that it had effectively made a fresh allegation of “abuse” against the complainant. This was a serious, unjustified allegation, and an apology was required under the terms of the Code. The complaint was upheld.

Date complaint received: 16/01/2017
Date decision issued: 04/05/2017