Ruling

05608-18 McBride v Scotland on Sunday

    • Date complaint received

      21st February 2019

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 05608-18 McBride v Scotland on Sunday

Summary of complaint

1. Fiona McBride complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Scotland on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors' Code of Practice in an article headlined "Police forced to reveal fingerprint expert's full £740k payout" published on 29 July 2018.

2. The complainant was involved in a series of court cases relating to her employment with the Scottish Police Authority. She was found to have been unfairly dismissed by The Employment Tribunal and a reinstatement order was issued. The SPA then appealed to the Employment Appeal Tribunal which found the Employment Tribunal had erred in making this reinstatement order. The complainant appealed this decision in The Supreme Court and it allowed her appeal.

3. The article reported that the Scottish Police Authority paid out more than £740,000 to the complainant, a fingerprints expert. It claimed that the SPA were forced to pay her £415,277 in compensation after the Supreme Court ruled she had been unfairly dismissed. The article reported that the complainant was sacked over her role in a fingerprints controversy affecting a murder case and that a freedom of information request revealed the SPA had spent an additional £328,138 in relation to complainant's court case. The article also featured comments from a Conservative MSP criticising the figure, which had been spent to get rid of a competent and professional employee.

4. The complainant said the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) as she did not receive a "£740k payout", the sum the employer paid her was £415,227. The complainant said that the remainder, over £300,000, was a payment from the SPA towards its own and other legal fees and the sum was not a "pay-out" but an award made against the SPA. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate for the article to report that she was sacked over her role in the fingerprints controversy as she was sacked over an allegation of notoriety, which had been fuelled by the press.

5. The complainant also claimed that the newspaper had breached Clause 3 (Harassment) as it published a series of articles concerning her employment over the course of several years that she considered to be derogatory.

6. The newspaper acknowledged that it was not the case as stated in the headline and first paragraph of the article that the complainant received a "740k pay out" but denied the article was significantly inaccurate when read as a whole; the true position was made clear in the second and third paragraphs. It said that the £415,227 compensation figure was a matter of public record and the £328,138 figure for legal costs came from a press release issued by the Scottish Conservative Party; this breakdown was featured in the article. The newspaper said that it had taken care when sourcing the information, but had failed to take care in the editing process; it had conflated the figures in the headline and first paragraph.

7. The newspaper said that the article had accurately summarised the complainant's dismissal. It said the complainant was dismissed after she refused to accept a change to a previous role, which would prevent her giving evidence in court cases. It said this resulted from concerns from the prosecution service that the complainant's involvement in the murder case could be used by defence lawyers to undermine the chances of a conviction. The newspaper said the quotes featured in the article made it clear that the complainant had been "wrongfully dismissed" and that she was a "competent and professional employee". In these circumstances, this was an accurate characterisation of her dismissal.

8. The newspaper offered to publish a correction regarding the details of the compensation pay-out on page two of the newspaper. It offered the following wording:

Our report of Jul 29 entitled 'Police forced to reveal fingerprint expert's full £740k payout' incorrectly stated that Fiona McBride had received £740,000 in compensation over her unfair dismissal from the police. She in fact received £415,227 in compensation with the remaining £328,138 being additional expenses run up by the Scottish Police Authority. We are happy to put the record straight.

Relevant Code Provisions

9. 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.

Clause 3 (Harassment)*

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii)  Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Findings of the Committee

10. The headline and opening paragraph of the article reported that the SPA had paid out £740k to the complainant, when in fact the complainant had only received £415,227. The £328,138 went towards legal fees and this was detailed in the press release provided to the newspaper. This gave the significantly misleading impression that the complainant had received a higher figure of compensation from a public body than was actually the case. The second and third paragraph had broken the figure down to state that the complainant had received £415,227, however this did not negate the misleading impression in the headline and opening paragraph that the SPA had paid out more than £740,000 to the complainant. This represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in breach of Clause 1(i). The newspaper acknowledged the inaccuracy and offered to correct this point the same day it received the complaint from IPSO. The wording offered during IPSO's investigation addressed the inaccuracy; it made clear what the complainant received and that the remainder went towards legal costs incurred by the SPA. The newspaper had offered to publish this on page 2, the original article appeared on page 3. The offered correction was therefore sufficiently prominent to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

11. The Committee acknowledged the complainant's position that she had been sacked following her role in the fingerprints controversy and not as a direct result of her involvement. However, it was not significantly misleading to report, in what was a brief summary, that she was sacked “over her role”, without explaining the full position, in circumstances where the article made clear that she had been unfairly dismissed. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

12. The complainant raised concerns that the newspaper had published a series of articles about her and her employment. Clause 3 generally relates to the behaviour of journalists in the newsgathering process and the conduct exercised by journalists when contacting members of the public; it is meant to protect people from being repeatedly approached by the press against their wishes. The newspaper was entitled to report on publicly available details and publishing a series of articles over a period of several years did not constitute harassment under the terms of Clause 3.

Conclusion

13. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial action required

14. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

15. The newspaper had offered a correction promptly and with due prominence. The Committee found this correction was sufficient to meet the requirements of Clause 1(ii). This should now be published.

Date complaint received: 17/08/2018
Date decision issued: 31/01/2019