Ruling

02512-21 Mitchell v Sunday Mirror

    • Date complaint received

      21st October 2021

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02512-21 Mitchell v Sunday Mirror

Summary of Complaint

1. Scott Mitchell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Mirror breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Boris has betrayed my Babs / You promised Babs funding.. so pay it Boris”, published on 31 January 2021.

2. The complainant was the husband of the late Dame Barbara Windsor. The article reported on comments he made regarding government spending on research into dementia. The front page of the newspaper featured a reference to the article: “Boris has betrayed my Babs; star’s widower blasts PM” and directed readers to page 9 for the full article. The main article repeated that the complainant had “blasted Boris Johnson”, described his “fury”, and that he had “hit out” after seeing the figures spent on dementia funding. The article also included the following quotes attributed to the complainant: “It’s disappointing to see the Government is not doing more for people affected, despite the promises he made to me and Barbara in 2019 […] While I fully understand the Government has had to prioritise dealing with the pandemic – and my heart goes out to every person affected by the virus – we cannot lose sight of the need to find life changing treatments for people affected by dementia. It is one of the UK’s leading causes of death, and will continue to be so without greater research investment. While we knew nothing could be done to save Barbara from this cruel condition, we were passionate about making sure action would be taken to save other families from the heart break it causes. I worry we are moving backwards, rather than forwards. More than a year ago, the Government promised to double its funding for dementia research yet we have seen no further commitment to this pledge. So I’m asking people to sign Alzheimer’s Research UK’s petition calling on the Government to deliver on its promise.”

3. The article also appeared online under the headline “Barbara Windsor's distraught husband blasts Boris Johnson for breaking dementia vow” on 30 January in substantially the same format, with the exception of the word “fury”.

4. The complainant said that the article inaccurately portrayed his emotions and the quote he had given to the newspaper: he denied that his comments expressed feelings of “betrayal” or “fury”. He said he had chosen to use the term “disappointing” deliberately so as not to convey anger, and that he could not be described as having “blasted” the Prime Minister. He said he had not employed any of those terms.

5. The complainant provided IPSO his correspondence with the publication prior to the publication of the article. He had been asked for a comment on recent government spending on research into dementia, which he had provided via a charity. This was included in the article, with only minor stylistic amendments. In correspondence with the journalist, the complainant had singled out the part of his statement relating to the Covid-19 pandemic and said it was important that it was printed in its entirety as he did not want to dismiss the impact of Covid-19. The complainant asked the publication if there were any “shock headlines” and was informed that the headline would be: “You promised Babs funding...so pay it Boris”. The complainant replied that he hoped it would be clear that these were not his own words, to which the publication responded that his words would be “exactly as you said them”.

6. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It said that the complainant’s quote was produced in full in the article and would allow readers to take their own view on his comments, and therefore the article had clearly distinguished between comment, conjecture and fact. It also said that the disputed words were widely used tabloid terms, and that they accurately reflected the quote he had given. It noted that the complainant had expressed concerns regarding the undelivered promise on funding for dementia, and had commented that the Government was “moving backwards, rather than forwards” and there was “no further commitment to the pledge” which the publication said could be characterised as criticism. It also noted he had observed that the Government was “still not doing more despite the promises made” and ultimately called on the public to petition the government to “deliver on its promise”. It said that this could be summarised as saying that the complainant felt “betrayed”. The newspaper said that when informed of the headline for page 9, the complainant had commented that it did not reflect his exact words but that “hopefully that will be clear that it's not my actual words” and that it “should be ok”, which the publication took as consent to publish the headline.

7. The publication offered to remove the terms disputed by the complainant from the online article, and amend the headline to read: “Barbara Windsor's husband disappointed with Boris Johnson for breaking dementia vow” and text to state: “Barbara Windsor's husband is disappointed with Boris Johnson for betraying the late star after Alzheimer's funding plunged.”

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

8. Editors have latitude in how they characterise or present source material, so long as they do not distort it in a way that breaches Clause 1. The complainant denied that his comments expressed “fury” or “betrayal”; he also denied having “blasted” the prime minister. The complainant said that the publication was well aware of his position before publication, both from the statement he had provided (which formed the subject of the article) and from the correspondence he had with the publication before publication.  

9. The article contained the full quote that had been provided by the complainant. This meant that readers would be aware of what the complainant had said. The Committee emphasised however that this was not in itself sufficient to correct any characterisation that distorted the sentiments expressed by the complainant.

10. The Committee considered each of the terms in turn, starting with “fury”, used in the print version of the article. It noted that the complainant had provided the publication with a statement which used the milder term “disappointment” to convey his feelings on the matter. He had emphasised, in the statement and in the separate correspondence with the publication, that he acknowledged the impact of Covid-19 on potential funding. The subject of the complainant’s comments, the funding for treatment of dementia, was highly personal to the complainant as it was a condition from which his late wife had suffered and, in the statement he provided to the publication, the complainant was careful in expressing his feelings on the subject. While recognising, as stated above, the right of editors to exercise latitude in presenting material for publication, the Committee was not able to identify grounds to support the characterisation of the complainant’s comments as expressing “fury”. It concluded that this reference was a distortion of the complainant’s position in breach of Clause 1(i). The distortion was significant in light of the subject matter and required correction under Clause 1(ii).

11. The Committee next considered the use of the term “betrayed”. The Committee noted that the complainant had expressed disappointment that “the Government is not doing more for people affected, despite the promises [the Prime Minister] made to me and Barbara in 2019”. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainant had not used the word "betrayed” in his statement, it noted that he had made the point that the Government had promised to double its funding but had failed to show commitment to the pledge. The Committee found that to characterise this sentiment as feeling “betrayed” was not a significant distortion of the complainant’s position, particularly as the complainant’s comment had been included in the article. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

12. The Committee finally considered the terms “hit out” and “blasted”. It considered that these were general terms that imply criticism. Where the complainant had referred to the Prime Minister in his statement in critical terms for not committing to a promise he had made, the characterisation of the complainant's reaction as having “hit out” or “blasted” him was not a significant distortion of his position.  There was no breach of Clause 1 with regard to these terms.

Conclusions

13. The complaint was partly upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

14. 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.

15. The Committee found that the publication did not take the necessary care when characterising the complainant’s statement as it did not reflect the words which had been chosen by complainant, which rendered the article a misleading distortion of his comments. However, the Committee recognised that this represented a fine judgment. It also noted that the article had quoted the complainant’s comments, putting them on record. In these circumstances, the Committee concluded that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction making clear that the complainant denied that his comments expressed “fury” or that he felt “furious” about the matters discussed in the statement.

16. The Committee then considered the placement of the correction. Whilst part of the article had appeared on the front page, the distorted information had appeared on page 9of the print newspaper. The Committee was satisfied that publication of the correction in the established corrections and clarifications column would represent due prominence. The wording of the correction should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

 

Date complaint received: 08/03/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 27/07/2021