Ruling

03096-14 Purcell v The Herald (Glasgow)

    • Date complaint received

      28th April 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

·      Decision of the Complaints Committee 03096-14 Purcell v The Herald (Glasgow)

Summary of complaint 

1. Steven Purcell complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation via his solicitors that The Herald had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Cowboys hold few fears for retiring city boss”, published on 15 December 2014. 

2. The article was an interview with the retiring chief executive of Glasgow City Council. The complainant had resigned as council leader in 2010, and the article discussed the challenge the media coverage following the complainant’s resignation had posed for the interviewee. The article stated that “within days, the nature of Purcell’s unexpected emotional breakdown had gone public”. It continued “Alcohol dependency, cocaine, gangster connections, suicide attempts, cronyism and good-old fashioned corruption would underpin the media narrative around Glasgow City Council for the rest of the year”.  The article went on to state: “Surely though, the Purcell saga only exacerbated negative perceptions of Glasgow? For many it has, largely unfairly, become a byword for and standout example of ‘council sleaze’ and ‘shady dealings’. Rather than the New Labour stamp of successive leaders, outsiders cling to an image of a Glasgow run by a politburo of ageing overweight men receptive to the brown envelope culture”. 

3. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate because it alleged that he had attempted suicide, when he had only contemplated doing so. He denied what he took to be the implication that he had “gangster connections”, or that he had taken part in “cronyism and good old fashioned corruption”.  In addition, he said that the article inaccurately connected him to “shady dealings” and a “brown envelope culture”. He said that he had admitted to alcohol dependency in the past, and admitted to having occasionally taken cocaine. However, he said that the police had fully investigated whether he had been involved in any improper activity whilst at the council, and that no charges had been brought. He was concerned that he had not been approached by the newspaper, prior to publication. He said that he is now a company director, and the alleged inaccuracies would damage his professional reputation. 

4. The newspaper referred to an article which said that it had been revealed that the complainant “ended up in a river last month after walking out of a drink and drug rehab clinic. Friends fear it was a suicide attempt”.  Another article reported that “according to some, Purcell re-emerged at the clinic soaking wet, having apparently fallen into a lake”. The complainant had been reported as saying “by Saturday, I was contemplating suicide”, in a third article.  Nevertheless, it accepted that the complainant may not have attempted suicide, and that greater care should have been taken to differentiate between attempting and contemplating suicide. It offered to amend the online version of the article and publish a print clarification on this point. 

5. The newspaper referred to a number of news articles to corroborate the other claims about the media narrative around Glasgow City Council following Mr Purcell’s resignation.  This included an article which reported that a “gangster” had been connected to a police probe, which was looking into allegations that the complainant had used “undue influence”, to help a friend obtain the right to run a venue in Glasgow. The second, stated that “police and council chiefs are investigating claims that [the complainant] helped a politician pal get £50,000 of public cash to run The Castro venue in Glasgow”. A third article reported that “[the complainant] is being investigated over claims he used undue influence to help Black win the right to run [a venue]” A fourth article reported that a Member of Parliament had written to the police to “urge them to investigate [the complainant] amid fears he could have been subject to undue influence during his time at the helm of the City”. 

6. The newspaper also referred to newspaper articles which had reported that that officers from the Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency (SCDEA) had met the complainant and told him that he could have become the target of a blackmail plot, after a drug dealer claimed to have mobile phone footage of him taking cocaine. In one of these articles, Mr Purcell was reported as saying that “[the SCDEA] told me that during the course of an investigation they came across information that could mean I was subject to blackmail because of the use of cocaine”. In another, it was reported that “[the complainant] had confessed to using cocaine after police warned him he was the target of a gangland blackmail plot”. 

7. In relation to the complainant’s concern that the article had connected him to “brown envelope culture”, the newspaper said that this was a reference to the perceptions which outsiders held about the council, and that the  article went on to report that the interviewee did not recognise this image of the council. Furthermore, it said that the complainant was a young council leader, and well known to be the second youngest in Scotland; the reference to “ageing overweight men” being receptive to the “brown envelope culture” meant that this would not be understood as an allegation against the complainant. 

8. The newspaper referred to the article’s statement that it was largely unfair that the events surrounding the complainant’s resignation were perceived as an example of “council sleaze”. Nonetheless, the newspaper said that the description of the media narrative around Glasgow Council in the year following the complainant’s resignation conflated a number of issues such that it created a picture which was, on balance, not warranted. It therefore offered the complainant the opportunity to be interviewed in the newspaper, to set the record straight. 

9. The complainant was not satisfied by the newspaper’s offer to resolve his complaint. He said that the newspaper articles referred to by the newspaper were not established fact, and that at the time that they were published, he had not been in the position to challenge their accuracy due to his ill health. 

Relevant Code Provisions

10. 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. 

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) 

i) A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for. 

Findings of the Committee

11. The summary of the media coverage that had followed the complainant’s resignation had framed a discussion of the reputational challenges faced by the interviewee during his time as chief executive of Glasgow City Council. The newspaper had reported on past coverage, and did not make direct allegations or assertions about the complainant’s past conduct. Nevertheless, in reporting on this coverage, the newspaper was required to take care not to give a misleading account of the events that had surrounded the complainant’s resignation. 

12. In the coverage referred to by the newspaper, there had been speculation of an attempted suicide. However, to report that “suicide attempts” was one of the themes which would “underpin the media narrative around Glasgow City Council”, was a distorted account of the media coverage, and contained a significant implication about the complainant’s personal life, which the newspaper accepted was inaccurate. This gave a significantly misleading impression, and demonstrated a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. 

13. Although the complainant challenged the claims which had been made in the articles which had been published to which the newspaper referred, given their context the newspaper was entitled to report that “gangster connections”, “cronyism” and “good old-fashioned corruption” were issues that had underpinned the media narrative following the complainant’s resignation; whilst this was a robust characterisation of the coverage, it was not a significantly misleading one. The Committee noted that the article had made clear that the coverage had appeared over “the rest of the year” and had identified issues that were said to relate to Glasgow City Council and so would not have been understood to be references solely to the reasons for the complainant's resignation. The complainant accepted that some elements of the narrative related to his situation at the time of his resignation or referred to allegations which had subsequently been made against him, which he denied.  Taken as a whole, and in light of the nature of the piece, the Committee did not find that the article gave a significantly misleading impression of the events surrounding the complainant’s resignation. 

14. The Committee then turned to the second passage under complaint, which drew a link between the events surrounding the complainant’s resignation and the public perception of Glasgow. Given the media coverage referred to by the newspaper, it was not significantly misleading to report that Glasgow had “largely unfairly, become a byword for and stand-out example of ‘council sleaze’ and ‘shady dealings’”. There was no breach of the Code on this point. 

15. The complainant had not contended that it was inaccurate to state that “outsiders cling to an image of a Glasgow run by a politburo of ageing overweight men receptive to the brown envelope culture”; rather, he said that the article had implied, inaccurately, that he was part of the “brown envelope culture”. The reference to a “brown envelope culture” formed part of a general discussion of Glasgow’s reputation and referred to “ageing overweight men”, who were identified as the parties supposedly “receptive to a brown envelope culture”, Given the complainant’s  relative youth, the Committee reached the view that the reference would not be understood to be a reference to the complainant. The article, therefore, did not contain the alleged inaccuracy.

16. The newspaper received this complaint on 23 December 2014, and on 12 January 2015, offered to publish a correction making clear that the complainant had not attempted suicide. On 23 January, the newspaper offered the complainant the opportunity to be interviewed so that he could “set the record straight”, and “talk about his new career”. The Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offers, and there was no breach of Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply).  

Conclusions

17. The complaint was upheld in part.

Remedial Action Required

18. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1(i), the Committee considered remedial action required. The Committee has the power to require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication, the nature, extent and placement of which is to be determined by IPSO. It may also inform the publication that further remedial action is required to ensure that the requirements of the Editors’ Code are met.

19. In the circumstances, and taking into account the nature of the breach of the Code and of the publication, the Committee concluded that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction with due prominence. The newspaper should now, as offered, publish a correction which makes clear that it was inaccurate to suggest that Mr Purcell had attempted suicide.  This should be published on page 10, or further forward in the newspaper.

Date complaint received: 19/12/2014

Date decision issued: 28/04/2015