Ruling

02572-15 Office of the First Minister v The Daily Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      10th June 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

      Decision of the Complaints Committee 02572-15 Office of the First Minister v The Daily Telegraph

Summary of complaint 

1. The Office of the First Minister of Scotland complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Sturgeon’s secret backing for Cameron”, published on 4 April 2015 in print and online. 

2. The article reported the contents of a leaked Government memorandum which claimed to report details of a private meeting between the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, and the French Ambassador, Sylvie Bermann, the previous week. The memorandum had been written by a senior British civil servant on 6 March, immediately following a conversation with the French Consul-General. It claimed that Ms Sturgeon had said that she would rather see David Cameron win the general election than Ed Miliband, because she believed Mr Miliband was not “prime minister material”. 

3. The article said that these comments undermined Ms Sturgeon’s public support for a “progressive alliance” with Mr Miliband, and confirmed “growing speculation” in Scotland that the SNP privately favoured a Conservative government because it would make a vote for Scottish independence more likely in a future referendum. 

4. The complainant said that the claims contained in the memorandum, and repeated by the newspaper, were categorically untrue: Ms Sturgeon had not expressed a preference for a Conservative government or any views about Mr Miliband’s suitability as Prime Minister. Ms Bermann had publicly denied that Ms Sturgeon had expressed a preference for who should win the election. The complainant regarded the newspaper’s decision not to contact Ms Sturgeon for comment prior to publication as a breach of Clause 1 and noted that, as the article explained, the author of the memorandum recorded that he or she had initially doubted the accuracy of the account and had checked whether there might have been a translation problem. 

5. Shortly after the article’s first publication online, Ms Sturgeon issued a denial of the claims, publicly and via email to the newspaper. The newspaper included the denial in its second print edition that evening, but did not add them to the online version of the article until the following afternoon. 

6. The newspaper said it had confirmed the authenticity of the document with two well-placed sources before publication. It was a contemporaneous note made by an experienced civil servant, and the newspaper had no reason to doubt its accuracy. It denied having any obligation to contact Ms Sturgeon for comment before publication: it was entitled to publish an accurate account of the document. 

7. The newspaper said it had included the complainant’s denial at the earliest opportunity in the print article, and had immediately taken steps to have the denial added to the online article. Unfortunately, due to human error, the denial was not in fact added until the next day. The newspaper had followed up on the story, including by publishing an article reporting Ms Sturgeon’s demand for an inquiry. It did not accept any breach of the Code.

Relevant Code Provisions

1. Clause 1 (Accuracy) 

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

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and - where appropriate - an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance. 

Findings of the Committee

9. The memorandum did not represent a first-hand or contemporaneous account of the conversation between Ms Sturgeon and Ms Bermann. Rather, it contained – at best – a second-hand account given a week later. The newspaper had confirmed the authenticity of the document, but its sources were not in a position to comment on the accuracy of its contents. 

10. The newspaper was entitled to report on the memorandum, but it was obliged to take care not to mislead readers in doing so, including regarding the status of the allegations it contained. 

11. The account was contentious, so much so that the author of the memorandum had recorded concern that the account was mistaken, stating “I have to admit that I’m not sure that the First Minister’s tongue would be quite so loose on that kind of thing in a meeting like that”. The account’s implications were serious: it suggested that Ms Sturgeon had had acted disingenuously by publicly calling for a “progressive alliance” while privately hoping for a Conservative government. Nonetheless, the newspaper had published it as fact, without having taken additional steps prior to publication – such as contacting the parties involved for their comment – to verify its accuracy. 

12. The presentation of the account contained in the memorandum as fact, in these circumstances, represented a failure to take care not to mislead, and a breach of Clause 1 (i) and (ii) of the Code. The newspaper had failed to make clear that it did not know whether the account it presented was true; as a consequence the article was significantly misleading. The complaint under Clause 1 was upheld.  

Conclusions

13. The complaint was upheld. 

Remedial Action Required

14. The Committee required the newspaper to publish an adjudication upholding the complaint. The adjudication should be published on page 2 of the print edition of the newspaper. Given the prominence of the original article, and the nature of the breach, a reference to the adjudication must be published on the front page, directing readers to page 2, which should include the headline. The headline must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, and refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed in advance. It should also be published on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the full adjudication appearing on the homepage for 48 hours; it should then be archived online in the usual way. 

15. The terms of the adjudication to be published are as follows: 

Following the publication of an article in The Daily Telegraph on 4 April 2015, headlined “Sturgeon’s secret backing for Cameron”, the Office of the First Minister of Scotland complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. 

IPSO established a breach of the Editors’ Code and has required The Daily Telegraph to publish this decision as a remedy. 

The article reported the contents of a leaked Government memorandum which claimed that at a private meeting the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, had told the French Ambassador, that she would rather see David Cameron win the general election than Ed Miliband. The memorandum had been written by a senior British civil servant a week later, after a conversation with the French Consul-General. 

The article said that these comments undermined Ms Sturgeon’s public support for a “progressive alliance” with Mr Miliband. 

The complainant said that the claims were categorically untrue: Ms Sturgeon had not expressed a preference for a Conservative government or any views about Mr Miliband’s suitability as Prime Minister. The complainant regarded the newspaper’s decision not to contact Ms Sturgeon for comment prior to publication as a breach of Clause 1. 

The newspaper said it had confirmed the authenticity of the document with two well-placed sources before publication. It was a contemporaneous note made by an experienced civil servant, and the newspaper had no reason to doubt its accuracy. It denied having any obligation to contact Ms Sturgeon for comment before publication: it was entitled to publish an accurate account of the document. 

The Complaints Committee noted that the memorandum represented – at best – a second-hand account given a week after the meeting, which contained the serious implication that Ms Sturgeon had been disingenuous in her public statements. 

The newspaper did not know whether the account contained in the memorandum was accurate. Nonetheless, it had published this as fact, without having taken additional steps prior to publication – such as contacting the parties involved for their comment – to verify its accuracy. 

The Committee established that the newspaper’s presentation of the account contained in the memorandum, in this context, represented a breach of the Editors’ Code. 

Date complaint received: 08/04/2015

Date decision issued: 10/06/2015