Ruling

02430-16 Prescott v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      14th July 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02430-16 Prescott v The Times

Summary of complaint

1.    Lord Prescott complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Big John back on terracotta in zero year”, published on 12 June 2015.

2.    The article was a political sketch which drew on an interview the complainant had given the previous day. It noted that he is known for his use of language, and described his interview as a “joy to hear”.

3.    As the complaint was submitted more than four months after publication, it was considered against the online version of the article only.

4.    The complainant said that the article’s reference to his once having remarked, after disembarking from an aeroplane, that it was “great to be back on the terracotta” was inaccurate; he had never said those words. He said that in 2014 he had made public his position in his Daily Mirror column, and the Daily Mail had published a correction that same year. The complainant said that The Times had not contacted him in advance of publication to check the accuracy of the quotation, and the complainant was concerned that there had been a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information.

5.    The newspaper said that to the many well-documented examples of the complainant’s “verbal creativity”, it appeared that another had been added for which no source could now be found. It said that public figures renowned for their way with words have always had memorable phrases attributed to them, even when they might not have said them in the way in which they are now remembered. It said that it was genuinely difficult to know what might reasonably constitute taking care over the accuracy of quotations in such circumstances. It questioned whether, for example, journalists should always check transcripts of Winston Churchill’s speeches before quoting something which he is universally thought to have said.

6.    The newspaper said that an online search for the phrase complained of produced dozens of results which attributed the phrase to the complainant, the earliest having apparently been published in the Guardian in April 1999, 16 years before publication of this article, and 15 years before the complainant first challenged it. It said that the phrase had been quoted in many profiles published since then, including in a panel of quotations which accompanied a profile of the complainant written by the same journalist as the article under complaint, and published in the same newspaper, in 2006; it was not aware of any complaint about the material at that time.

7.    The complainant had initially raised concerns about the article with the journalist directly, but had written to the newspaper’s previous address and so his letter took some time to be received. As soon as the newspaper knew that the complainant was not satisfied with the journalist’s response and wished to pursue his complaint, the newspaper published his denial in print and as a footnote to the online article. Upon receipt of the IPSO complaint, submitted ten months after publication of the article, the newspaper amended the online article to remove any reference to the disputed quotation, including from the headline. It also moved the published denial so that it appeared before the text of the article itself. It read as follows:

“This article has been amended to take account of the following published correction:

Correction: We said in a parliamentary sketch (June 12) that Lord Prescott had once, on alighting from an aeroplane, expressed relief at being ‘back on terra cotta’. Lord Prescott assures us that he did not utter these much-quoted words. We are happy to put this on record.” 

Relevant Code provisions

8.    Clause 1 (Accuracy)

(i)  The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

(ii) significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.

Findings of the Committee 

9.    The complainant was alleged to have said the disputed words at least 16 years prior to publication of the article under complaint. During that period, they had been widely published and regularly included on lists of quotations from the complainant, including most notably in the same newspaper in 2006 (in a panel which accompanied a sketch by the same journalist). It had not been challenged on that occasion. Given the passage of time, the newspaper was unable to provide material to support its position that the quotation was accurate, and for the same reason the Committee was ultimately unable to establish what exactly the complainant had said. The newspaper was, however, able to demonstrate that the quotation had previously been widely reported, and for a long time had gone undisputed. While the complainant had written in his newspaper column in 2014 that the quotation had been misattributed, by that time it had already become closely associated with him. The article was a political sketch which characterised the complainant’s use of words as an endearing trait; it was not unkind in tone. In these particular circumstances, the newspaper was not required to put the quotation to the complainant in advance of publication, and the failure to identify the published correction did not constitute a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i).

10. The complainant is known for his use of language, and the article was a light-hearted look at the phraseology he employs in his position as a prominent political figure. In the Committee’s view, it was not significantly inaccurate or misleading to attribute the quotation to him, without also making clear that he had denied having said it. While the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s recognition of the complainant’s concerns, and its positive responses to the complaint, the publication of his denial was not required under the terms of the Code. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusions 

11. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 18/04/2016

Date decision issued: 28/06/2016