Ruling

01712-17 Mears Group v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      17th October 2017

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01712-17 Mears Group v The Times

Summary of complaint

1. Mears Group complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in relation to articles headlined “Police to investigate Glasgow corruption”, published on 21 February 2017 in the Scottish edition of the newspaper, and “SNP inquiry into Glasgow council dismissed by Labour as gimmick”, published on 22 February 2017 in the Scottish edition of the newspaper. The articles were also published online.

2. The first article reported that “police are being called in to investigate allegations of corruption and cronyism at Scotland’s largest local authority”, Glasgow City Council (GCC). It reported that this followed the resignation of the executive director of land and environmental services, in relation to an internal investigation into alleged “procurement irregularities”. It reported that this individual’s assistant was the partner of an executive with Mears Scotland, that she had been questioned as part of the investigation, that she had been “counselled” about her conduct, and “moved to a different role”. It reported that another employee of the same department was the son of the complainant’s managing director. It reported that sources had confirmed that this employee had also resigned after being questioned.

3. The article reported that a “council insider” had said that “internal audit are currently looking into a number of the same people and contractors who were involved in the corruption scandal in North Lanarkshire”, and that there were parallels between the two authorities.

4. The article reported that Mears’ ties to the council “are being examined – along with a number of other firms – by the authority’s chief internal auditor”. The article went on to report that “a council source confirmed that ties with Mears and a number of other firms were being looked at by the council’s internal auditor”. It reported that a spokesperson for the complainant had said that it did not have any current contracts with the council department concerned, and that “people are entitled to have whatever friendships they want outside of work, provided they do not impact on any professional business”.

5. The second article reported on political debates between Labour and the Scottish National Party about the running of GCC, amid claims of “a culture of cronyism, backroom deals and malpractice”. In that context, it repeated claims made in the first article about the council department. It reported that a council insider had said that “Mears was a name that ‘undoubtedly’ would be raised and discussed by the council’s internal auditors”. It reported that a spokesperson for the complainant had said that “Mears has had it confirmed by both Police Scotland and Glasgow City Council that there is no investigation under way that involved our company”.

6. The complainant said that the first article insinuated that it had received favourable or inappropriate treatment from GCC, and specifically the department of land and environmental services. This was inaccurate and misleading, not least because Mears does not do any work for the department named in the article, and implied that it had been involved in corrupt practices. That implication was given significant weight by the inaccurate allegation that it was the subject of an internal investigation by GCC auditors. The complainant said that it had had it confirmed by both Police Scotland and GCC that there was no investigation taking place involving Mears. 

7. The complainant said that the headline of the first article was misleading, as it referred to police investigating “corruption”, rather than an “allegation of corruption”. The complainant said that the articles were inaccurate and misleading in that they implied that it was the beneficiary of serious misconduct, arising from cronyism and nepotism at GCC.

8. The newspaper said that the articles did not claim that the complainant received inappropriate treatment from GCC, or that it behaved corruptly. It said that the article reported on allegations which had prompted an investigation into procurement practices at GCC and explained that the complainant’s dealings with the GCC were being examined as part of those allegations. The fact that the complainant did not work for the department at the centre of the allegations did not demonstrate that the article’s claims were inaccurate, as the investigation into wrongdoing went beyond that department.

9. The newspaper said that it had taken care over the accuracy of the claim that the complainant’s ties to the council were being examined by the internal auditor. It said that it understood from a senior source within GCC that Mears featured, or had featured, in its investigation. It said that while the council’s official position was that it could not share any information with the newspaper, GCC provided its journalist with sufficient reassurance to be confident in the accuracy of the claim that the complainant’s dealings with the council were being examined by the internal auditor. It said that the journalist was told that the provision of this information was authorised by the then leadership of the council.

10. The newspaper said that it contacted the complainant prior to publication of the first article, first by telephone, and then by email, outlining the allegations, and to ensure it had the opportunity to reply. In its email, the newspaper stated that “we are running an article in tomorrow's paper about Glasgow City Council launching an internal investigation into procurement and its Land and Environmental Services (LES) department”. The email noted that one LES employee had resigned, and that another had moved to a different role within the council, and that both of these individuals had close familial connections with the complainant. The email then said “my editor is very keen to offer you the opportunity to respond to the suggestion that Mears may have received favourable treatment from the LES department of Glasgow City Council”, and asked for a statement. The statement it received in response was published in the article. Following publication of the first article, it said that the complainant provided an updated statement containing its position that it had had it confirmed by both the council and the police that there was no investigation underway that it was involved in. This updated statement was published in the second article. 

11. The Committee considered the complaint at its meeting on 26 July 2017, and subsequently issued its decision to the parties. In response to the issued decision, the newspaper provided an email from the GCC, commenting on the references to the GCC in the Committee’s decision.

12. The Committee does not as a matter of general practice consider further information, after issuing its decisions. However, in this case, the Committee had been given further information from a third party, commenting on the accuracy of references made to it in the Committee’s decision. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that it was appropriate to consider the further information, to ensure fairness to the third party. This ruling is the outcome.

13. The email from the GCC said that it had no evidence that it had given the complainant an assurance that it was not subject to an investigation, and that it would not be its policy to do so. In this email, the GCC’s representative said that he had been told that the complainant had been told that, as it was not a contractor of the council, the council would not be able to launch an investigation directly into them. However, the GCC said that there was no discussion with the complainant of any investigation which was considering “ties” between the complainant and the council. The email from the GCC made clear that it should not be taken as a confirmation of anything in the articles under complaint.

14. In response to this further material, the complainant maintained it had been told by the council that it was not the subject of any investigation. It said that it was clear that the GCC representative who had written the further email provided by the newspaper would not have provided this assurance. However, the complainant said that this was not relevant.

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. The newspaper had referred to the complainant as part of broader coverage of an investigation into allegations of corruption at GCC. The central claim about the complainant was that its ties to the council were being examined by the council’s internal auditors. This was a serious claim, as it gave credibility to the allegation that the complainant was involved in corrupt or improper practices, by implying that the auditor believed that there were grounds to investigate.  

17. In reporting the claim about the complainant, the newspaper had relied on information from confidential sources. The newspaper had contacted the council prior to publication, which it said declined to comment on the record. It also contacted the complainant. However, although the newspaper had referred to there being an internal investigation into procurement, and had asked for the complainant’s response to the allegation it had received favourable treatment, it did not ask for the complainant’s response to the specific claim that its ties to the council were the subject of an investigation.

18. As a result, the complainant was unaware that this would form part of the published allegations against it. It was therefore not in a position to include its denial of this point in its response. It only did so following publication of the first article, at which point it provided a statement setting out its position that both Police Scotland and GCC denied that it was involved in an ongoing investigation.

19. In these circumstances, the failure to put to the complainant the allegation that it was under investigation was a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article and a breach of Clause 1 (i).

20. Reporting this as fact – and in combination with the statement from Mears which consequently did not deny this – was significantly misleading. The newspaper had not offered to publish any clarification in response to the complaint; this was a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

21. The article made clear it reported on allegations which were under investigation. The sub-headline to the first article referred to “allegations” and the headline referred to the ongoing investigation. That headline was supported by the text, and did not breach Clause 1 (i).

22. The complainant’s updated position was reflected in the second article, which did not report as fact that the internal auditors were examining the complainant’s connection to the council, but reported that a “council insider” had said that its name would “undoubtedly” be “raised and discussed”. The newspaper had taken to care to present the claim of the source appropriately, and alongside the complainant’s denial. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point, and the article was not significantly misleading.

23. The Committee noted the complainant’s broader concern that both articles suggested that it had been involved in corruption and “alleged procurement irregularities”. The basis on which the complainant was referred to was made clear in both articles, which was that council employees with which it was connected had been questioned, and in one instance, resigned after being questioned. In the first article, the claim that the council’s chief internal auditor was examining the complainant’s ties to the council was a further reason for the reference to the complainant. In the second article, the claim that a council source had referred to the complainant being a name that would “undoubtedly” be raised and discussed by the council’s internal auditors was a further reason for the reference to the complainant in that article. The Committee was satisfied that neither article claimed that Mears had been the beneficiary of misconduct. In addition, both articles made clear the complainant’s position that it did not have contracts with the council department that appeared to be subject of the investigation. The articles were not misleading in the manner alleged, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusion

24. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action required

25. The newspaper had breached Clause 1 (i) and not complied with its obligation to clarify under Clause 1 (ii). The appropriate remedial action was therefore the publication of an adjudication.

26. In deciding where the adjudication should be published, the Committee had regard for the fact that the first article had appeared as the lead story on the newspaper’s front page. However, although the newspaper had failed to put the key allegation (that relating to the investigation) to the complainant, it had appropriately sought comment before publication. The seriousness of the breach was limited. In light of this, the Committee did not consider that a requirement to publish all or part of the adjudication on the front page was proportionate. The adjudication should therefore be published on page 2, and on the newspaper’s homepage online, where it should remain for 24 hours before being archived in the normal way.  

27. The adjudication should appear beneath a headline, which makes clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, identifies the publication by name, and refers to the subject matter of the complaint. It should be agreed with IPSO in advance. In relation to the online version of the first article, if the newspaper intends to continue to publish the article without amendment of the misleading statement identified by the Committee in paragraph 16 of the decision, the full text of the adjudication should also be published on that page, beneath the headline. If amended, a link to the adjudication should be published with the article, explaining that it was the subject of an IPSO adjudication, and noting the amendments made.

28. The text of the adjudication to be published is as follows:

Following an article published by The Times on 21 February 2017, headlined “Police to investigate Glasgow corruption” in the Scottish edition of the newspaper and online, Mears Group PLC complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO upheld the complaint and has required The Times to publish this decision as a remedy to the breach.

The article reported that “police are being called in to investigate allegations of corruption and cronyism at Scotland’s largest local authority”, Glasgow City Council (GCC). The article reported that Mears’ ties to the council “are being examined – along with a number of other firms – by the authority’s chief internal auditor”. The article went on to report that “a council source confirmed that ties with Mears and a number of other firms were being looked at by the council’s internal auditor”. It reported that a spokesperson for the complainant had said that it did not have any current contracts with the council department concerned, and that “people are entitled to have whatever friendships they want outside of work, provided they do not impact on any professional business”.

The complainant said that it had been confirmed by both Police Scotland and GCC that there was no investigation taking place involving Mears. The complainant had also not been given the opportunity to deny the allegation that it was the subject of an internal investigation by GCC auditors.

The Times said that it understood from a senior source within GCC that Mears featured, or had featured, in its investigation. It said that while the council’s official position was that it could not share any information with the newspaper, the GCC provided its journalist with sufficient reassurance to be confident in the accuracy of the claim that the complainant’s dealings with the council were being examined by the internal auditor. It said that the journalist was told that the provision of this information was authorised by the then leadership of the council.

The newspaper said that it contacted the complainant prior to publication. It had not specifically asked whether Mears was the subject of an investigation. The statement it received in response was published in the article.

The newspaper had failed to put the specific claim to the complainant that its ties to the council were the subject of an investigation. As a result, the complainant was unaware that this would form part of the published allegations against it. It was therefore not in a position to include its denial of this point in its response.

In these circumstances, the failure to put to the complainant the allegation that it was under investigation was a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article and a breach of Clause 1 (i).

Reporting this as fact – and in combination with the statement from Mears which consequently did not deny this – was significantly misleading. The newspaper had not offered to publish any clarification in response to the complaint; this was a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Review

The newspaper complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.  

Date complaint received: 06/03/2017
Date decision issued: 07/08/2017