Ruling

01443-22 Risk Management Authority v Scottish Daily Mail

    • Date complaint received

      27th October 2022

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01443-22 Risk Management Authority v Scottish Daily Mail

Summary of Complaint

1. The Risk Management Authority (RMA) complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Scottish Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following three articles:

· An article headlined “£125,000 quango boss who’s supposed to keep public safe”, published on 19 November 2021.

· An article headlined “In week that monster got 19 years, SNP quango maintains: ‘It’s disrespectful to call sex offenders high risk... it ignores their strengths’, published on 20 November 2021.

· An article headlined “Stopping sex fiends: It’s like guessing weather, says SNP quango”, published on 31 January 2022.

2. The first article reported on the staffing costs for the RMA which it described as an “SNP quango” set up to manage high-risk offenders, adding that the organisation produced standards and guidelines for risk assessment and risk management of all violent and sexual offenders in Scotland.

3. The second article reported that in new guidelines, produced by the “SNP quango”, the RMA, had recommended that “sex offenders should not be branded ‘high-risk’ because it is disrespectful and overlooks their ‘strengths’”. It reported that the RMA document, titled ‘Framework for Risk Assessment, Management and Evaluation’, [hereafter FRAME] stated: “If we describe people as ‘high risk’ we may diminish our appreciation of the individuals, their lives, challenges, strengths and personal characteristics to a collection of risk factors. Conversely, a person described as ‘low risk’ may seem to merit little recognition. Neither would be consistent with the commonly held value of ‘respect’ or ‘unconditional positive regard’.” The article then stated that, according to the RMA, “good practice would suggest that we should use [terms such as very high, high, medium and low] sparingly, if at all, when communicating about concepts such as “risk of harm”, for which a range of definitions exist”. The article included a statement from Scottish Conversative Justice Spokesperson, who described the guidance as “yet another attempt by an SNP Government quango to wrap criminals up in cotton wool” and the risk posed by offenders should be made as clear to the public as possible – not obscured by “warn and fuzzy language”. The article also included a response from the RMA which said that using labels such as “high risk” should be used “cautiously”, with the risk an individual poses “communicated accurately” when describing the “pattern, nature, seriousness and likelihood of offending” to ensure that the term is “not open to interpretation”.

4. The opening sentence of the third article reported that an “SNP quango” had admitted its work trying to “stop high-risk sex criminals reoffending [was] as accurate as a weather forecast”. It then stated that the RMA had “compared its activities – attempting to limit the chances of paedophiles and rapists striking again – with predicting changes in the weather”. The article said that according to advice issued by RMA “weather forecasting has been explored as an analogy that is helpful in understanding risk communication”, as it provides a “synthesis of scientific detail in a manner that can be understood by the intended audience” and “the detail and scope of the forecast will vary depending on the needs of the audience and the risks involved”, adding that more detailed forecasts might be needed for those “operating in potentially hazardous environments such as marine or mountain”. It reported that the document stated: “There are clear parallels when we consider the challenge of developing and communicating about proportionate risk practice [in relation to sex offenders], adding that the “analogy has been critically examined by some but nonetheless it raises valuable questions about our communication of risk”. The article included the following statement from a spokesperson for the RMA: “The forecast analogy is used to reinforce that communication risk needs to be clear, so that risk is understood and decisions and action can be taken.” It also included a statement from the Scottish Government and the Scottish Conversative Justice Spokesperson, with the latter saying that the “strange analogy from the [RMA] will hardly inspire confidence in their work among the public”. It also reported that the RMA had “previously recommended against branding sex offenders ‘high risk’ because it [was] ‘disrespectful’”.

5. The complainant said each of the three articles were inaccurate, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), to describe it as an “SNP quango”; it was an independent authority, not affiliated to any political party. It was a non-departmental public body (NDPB) which had a role in the processes of national government but was not a government department or part of one.

6. The complainant further said that the headline of the second article inaccurately and misleadingly presented the latter part as a direct quote from the organisation; it denied saying that it was “disrespectful” to call sex offender’s high risk.  This was not an accurate reflection of the organisation’s position or the FRAME policy referenced within by the article.

7. With regard to the third article, the complainant said the headline was inaccurate; the RMA had not said that “stopping sex fiends” was “like guessing [the] weather”. While the complainant accepted that forecasting had been used as an analogy with the FRAME guidance, the policy document did not state that the risk assessment of sex offenders was as “accurate as a weather forecast” or akin to “guessing weather”; instead, the weather analogy was used to stress the fundamental importance of clear and proportionate communication of risk. Further, the complainant said it had clarified to the publication exactly what was meant by the forecasting analogy prior to the article’s publication: “FRAME indicates that risk should be communicated in terms of the pattern, nature, seriousness and likelihood of offending to inform decisions. The forecast analogy is used to reinforce that communication risk needs to be clear, so that risk is understood and decisions and action can be taken”.

8. The newspaper did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It did not accept that the articles were inaccurate or misleading to describe the RMA as a “SNP quango”. It noted that the term “quango” was widely understood to be an informal shorthand for a public body, rather than making a specific claim about its independence or legal status. In order to demonstrate this usage, the newspaper provided a number of recent articles. Further, it said that the RMA was “set up” by the Scottish Government (which was currently controlled by the SNP).

9. The newspaper did not accept that the headline of the second article was inaccurate or misleading. It said that the quotation was the publication’s own summary and characterisation of the complainant’s position; it paraphrased the main idea of the text below and that this was a standard journalistic practice – quotations marks were not only used to present verbatim quotes. The article quoted directly from the FRAME policy document which stated that describing an offender as “high risk” would not “…be consistent with the commonly held value of ‘respect’ or ‘unconditional positive regard’”; it was not misleading to summarise this as “disrespect”. Further, it noted that the complainant had been provided with an opportunity to comment, prior to the article’s publication, and the full comments provided by the organisation included within the text of the article.

10. In addition, the newspaper did not accept that the third article was inaccurate or misleading. It argued that the central point of the headline – that stopping sex offenders (re)offending involved an element of the unknowable – was made clear by the text of the article, and was an accurate characterisation of the advice issued by the complainant. The FRAME document had used weather forecasting as an analogy for conveying the risk of a sex offender; the newspaper did not accept there was a significant difference between “forecasting” and “guessing” the weather. Further, the document made clear that there were “clear parallels” between assessing the risk of sex offenders and predicting the weather, and had described the analogy as “helpful”. It noted the article quoted extensively from the advice issued by the RMA, and had included the statement issued by the complainant. The newspaper added that in its enquiry to the complainant, prior to the article’s publication, it had set out its characterisation of the advice issued, and this had not been disputed by the organisation’s press office. The newspaper said it was therefore reasonable to assume that the RMA accepted this characterisation.

11. Notwithstanding this, at the start of IPSO’s investigation and in order to resolve the complaint, the newspaper offered to publish the following wording in its established Corrections and Clarification column:

“An article on January 31 about the Risk Management Authority (RMA) said that it had admitted that its work trying to stop high-risk sex offenders was “as accurate as a weather forecast”. The RMA has since clarified that its reference to weather forecasting was in the context of communicating the risk of reoffending, rather than assessing its work”.

12. The complainant said that the publication’s offer was inadequate, as it failed to acknowledge and address the other points of complaint. As such, the matter was passed to the Complaints Committee for adjudication.

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

13. The Committee first considered the third article. While the Editors’ Code grants editors considerable latitude in the characterisation and presentation of source material, Clause 1 (Accuracy) is explicit in its requirement that care is taken not to publish inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information and for headline statements to be supported by the text of the article.

14. The Committee reviewed the FRAME report and noted that while it included a description of the value of a weather forecasting analogy, this was clearly made in the context of how risk was communicated; the detail and scope of individual pieces of communication about the likelihood of a particular event occurring should be adapted to the needs and levels of technical understanding of the target audience. The report did not, in any way, compare the processes or the consequent level of accuracy between weather forecasting and preventing reoffending. Further, while the publication had taken care to approach the RMA for comment prior to the article’s publication, the response made clear that the forecast analogy was used in the context of how risk was communicated rather than the accuracy of its assessments; the RMA had clarified the intention and meaning of the analogy and made clear that it did not accept the characterisation put forward by the publication. In this context, the headline claim that the complainant had compared “stopping sex fiends” to “guessing [the] weather” misrepresented the advice issued and went beyond a legitimate editorial interpretation or characterisation of the FRAME report. This was further compounded by the text of the article. The guidance did not say, as the opening sentence of the article suggested, that the RMA had “admitted” that “stopping sex fiends” was “as accurate as a weather forecast” or “predicting changes in weather”, as suggested further in the article. Consequently, the Committee considered that the headline and text of the article mispresented the advice issued and the position of the complainant which had formed the basis for the article. On this basis, the newspaper had taken insufficient care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information in breach of Clause 1 (i).

15. This was considered significant, where it formed the central basis for the article and created  the misimpression that the complainant had conceded that its work preventing the reoffending of sex offenders was like “guessing [the] weather”, which it had not. The article therefore required correction under Clause 1(ii).

16. The newspaper had offered to publish a clarification at the start of IPSO’s investigation. This had been offered promptly and its proposed placement – in the newspaper’s established Corrections and Corrections column – was appropriately prominent. However, in the view of the Committee, the wording offered was insufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The newspaper’s characterisation of the guidance was inaccurate and misleading, and the newspaper ought to have addressed this directly in a correction. Instead, the offered clarification referred to the complainant as having “since clarified” that its advice was in the context of communicating the risk of reoffending, rather than the assessments of its work. As such, there was a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

17. The Committee did not consider that the other points raised by the complainant raised a breach of Clause 1. It did not consider that describing the complainant as a “SNP quango” was inaccurate or misleading. It noted that the term “quango” referred to quasi autonomous non-governmental organisations which received support from the government; the RMA had been established by the Scottish government, which was currently led by the SNP, and had a Convener responsible to Scottish Ministers and Board members appointed by Scottish Ministers. Taken in this context, the newspaper’s description of the complainant in such terms did not demonstrate a failure to take care over the accuracy of the articles under complaint, or constitute a significantly inaccurate or misleading statement requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

18. With regards to the second article, the Committee acknowledged that quotations marks may be used in headlines for a variety of reasons, including to summarise a subject’s position. In this case, the headline was clearly the newspaper’s characterisation of the advice issued by the complainant. This stated that describing an offender as ‘high risk’ may diminish “appreciation of the individuals” and that such a description would not “be consistent with the commonly held value of ‘respect’”. In this context, the Committee was satisfied that the comments made by the complainant, and relied upon by the newspaper, provided a sufficient basis for the manner in which it had characterised the complainant’s view; it was not a failure to care over the accuracy of the article, to report that the complainant had said it was “disrespectful” to call sex offender’s ‘high risk’. Further, the text of the article included the full extracts of the complainant’s comments so that readers would be able to see the precise words summarised by the newspaper in the headline. The Committee did not consider that the newspaper’s characterisation of the advice issued by the complainant on this point was significantly inaccurate or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusion(s)

19. The complaint was upheld in part.

Remedial Action Required

20. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

21. The Committee considered that the article had significantly misrepresented the advice issued by the complainant and the complainant’s position. While the clarification offered by the newspaper had been insufficient, it had shown a willingness to resolve the complaint and correct the matter. Therefore, on balance, the Committee considered that a correction, putting the correct position on record was the appropriate remedy.

22. The Committee then considered the placement of this correction. This correction should appear in the newspaper’s established Corrections and Clarification column. The wording of this correction should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it had been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.


Date complaint received: 03/02/22

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 31/08/22



Independent Complaints Reviewer

The publication complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Reviewer found that the IPSO process was flawed as one piece of relevant correspondence was not included within the material reviewed by the Committee when it decided on the complaint, due to an oversight in the collation of the file. The complaint was therefore returned to the Committee for consideration with this correspondence and an amended decision then issued.