Ruling

05814-15 Brocklehurst v The Sun

    • Date complaint received

      7th December 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

·       Decision of the Complaints Committee 05814-15 Brocklehurst v The Sun

Summary of complaint

1. Rosemary Brocklehurst complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) in an article headlined “Court Jezter”, published on 15 September 2015.

2. The front page article reported that Jeremy Corbyn MP had agreed to join the Privy Council following his election as Labour leader. It stated this was “so he can get his hands on £6.2million of state cash”, in the form of “Short money”, which is funding allocated to opposition parties for parliamentary duties. It also reported that Mr Corbyn was a “hypocrite” because he would “kiss Queen’s hand to grab £6.2m”. It noted that “it is claimed” that a refusal by Mr Corbyn to accept Privy Council membership “would have triggered a constitutional crisis and jeopardised £6.2million of annual Labour funding”. It quoted a QC who commented that “rejection of Privy Council membership could raise issues relating to the constitutional status of the official opposition”.

3. The article was also published in the same form online.

4. The complainant said that there was no basis for the claim that Mr Corbyn had accepted Privy Council membership in order to secure £6.2million of funding. She said that Short money is available to all opposition parties with seats in Parliament, provided that its members have sworn the Oath of Allegiance. The complainant said the article had misleadingly used the quotation from the QC to suggest a link between Privy Council membership and Short money eligibility; in fact there is no requirement for Privy Council membership.

5. According to a Houses of Parliament Library document, Short money is available to all opposition parties that secured either two seats, or one seat and more than 150,000 votes. For the period 2014/15, £16,689.13 is paid to qualifying parties for every seat won (with an additional payment for every 200 votes gained). £777,538.48 is available to the Leader of the Opposition’s office, with an additional sum split between the opposition parties for travel expense.

6. The complainant was also concerned that the article contained a digitally produced image showing Mr Corbyn wearing a jester’s hat and denied that there was any evidence to support the assertion that Mr Corbyn was a “leftie who hates the royals”.

7. While accepting that it could have been clearer in certain respects, the newspaper defended its coverage overall as legitimate speculation based on accurate information. It emphasised that the article had referred to Privy Council membership as the only way Mr Corbyn could “secure” his position as Leader of the Opposition. In its view, this was justified by the following reasoning: had he refused Privy Council membership – and therefore not been party to the important information discussed during Privy Council meetings – he would not have been able to carry out his duties as Opposition Leader, and his position as Leader would not have been “secure”. This would raise constitutional concerns regarding his – and by extension, the Party’s – role in Opposition, as referred to by the QC. This, in turn, could affect his party’s entitlement to Short money, which is intended to support the party’s Opposition role.

8. The newspaper argued that there was a direct link between the Office of the Leader of the Opposition and Short money: around £700,000 of the total would be allocated to the running costs of its Leader’s office and would be available only if he secured his position as Leader of the Opposition by joining the Privy Council; had Mr Corbyn failed to do so, the entire £6.2m available to Labour could have been at risk.

9. The newspaper said that, since it was able to demonstrate a link between Privy Council membership and Short money, it was entitled to speculate that Mr Corbyn had accepted membership in order to secure this funding.

10. The newspaper accepted, however, that the article had not made clear that only around £700,000 of the total sum received by the Labour Party would fund the Leader of the Opposition’s office. It therefore offered, shortly before the Committee’s consideration of the complaint and at the conclusion of IPSO’s investigation, to publish the following clarification in print on page two in the newspaper’s “Corrections & Clarifications” column, which also noted that Privy Council membership does not form part of the formal criteria for Short Money:

Jeremy Corbyn and the Privy Council

In an article of 15th September, headlined “Court Jezter”, we said that Jeremy Corbyn decided to join the Privy Council in order to get his hands on Short Money, the fund (in total amounting to £6.2million) provided by the State for the Opposition. This was based on our argument that his Privy Council membership was integral to his role as Leader of the Opposition. We are happy to make clear that only £700k of Short Money goes directly to the Office of the Leader, with the remainder paying for other aspects of the official opposition, including research and the Whips’ Office. The formal criteria for Short Money does not explicitly include reference to membership of the Privy Council at all. Some experts have said that Corbyn’s non membership would have had no impact on Labour’s receipt of the money.

The newspaper made this offer more than a month after being notified of the complaint.

11. The newspaper denied that the image of Mr Corbyn was misleading; it had obviously been manipulated to lampoon him. Further, given his previous public statements opposing the monarchy and his political position generally, it was not misleading to characterise him as a “leftie who hates royals”.

Relevant Code Provisions

12. 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.

Findings of the Committee

13. The Editors’ Code specifically protects the right of the press to be partisan; critical and robust political commentary is a characteristic feature of many newspapers and magazines. The newspaper was entitled to speculate about the potential consequences of a refusal by Mr Corbyn to join the Privy Council, and whether similar reasoning had played a role in his decision to accept membership.

14. These were not, however, the terms in which the article was framed. It stated that Mr Corbyn had joined the Privy Council as “the only way … [he] could secure his position as the official Leader of the Opposition – with all the perks that go with it”. The front-page headline said he “WILL kiss Queen’s hand to grab £6.2m”. This amounted to a factual claim that the party’s receipt of Short money was conditional on Privy Council membership. While the article included some explanation of the link the newspaper had drawn between the two – including the quotation from the QC – it did not acknowledge that Short money is not formally conditional on Privy Council membership. The presentation of the claims in this form, without clarifying information, constituted a failure to take care not to publish misleading information.

15. Further, the article had referred repeatedly to the sum of £6.2m in the context of Mr Corbyn’s role as Opposition Leader, but had not clarified that the great majority of the funding relates to the Party as a whole, as an opposition party, rather than the Leader of the Opposition specifically. It had also failed to clarify that Short money is allocated based on the number of seats won by a party in opposition, rather than any specific role leading the Opposition, and would therefore be unaffected by any concerns over Mr Corbyn’s status as Opposition Leader. This represented a further failure to take care not to publish misleading information.

16. It was significantly misleading to claim, as fact, that Labour’s access to Short money (either the £6.2m, or the £777,538.48) was conditional on Mr Corbyn’s joining the Privy Council; the two were not directly connected. The correct position on the requirements for obtaining Short money and the basis on which it is allocated was available in the public domain.

17. The coverage was significantly misleading; in such circumstances, the newspaper’s offer to publish a correction was appropriate. However, it had only made the offer of correction at a late stage in the complaints process, more than a month after being notified of the complaint, and only after IPSO had notified both parties that the matter would be passed to the Committee for a ruling. Given the nature of the misleading statements the complaint demonstrated, the newspaper had failed to make the offer sufficiently promptly, and this represented a breach of Clause 1(ii).

18. The image of Mr Corbyn wearing a Jester’s hat, and the characterisation of Mr Corbyn as a “leftie who hates royals” were not significantly misleading, given his political stance, and his views on the monarchy. These concerns did not raise a breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

19. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

20. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code it can require the publication of a correction and/or adjudication, the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO. The newspaper had not offered a correction promptly and therefore had failed to comply with its obligations under Clause 1 (ii). The Committee required the publication of an adjudication.

21. The Committee considered the placement. The misleading information identified was repeated throughout the article, and appeared as the lead story on the newspaper’s front page. It was significantly misleading, formed the principal basis for the personal criticism of Mr Corbyn set out in the article, and resulted from a significant failure to take care not publish misleading information, given that the factors that formally affect the allocation of Short money were known to the newspaper. For these reasons, the Committee required that a reference to the adjudication be published on the front page, directing readers to the full adjudication, which should appear on page four or further forward. Both the headline to the adjudication inside the paper and the front-page reference should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, and refer to its subject matter. The headline, the placement on the page, and prominence, including font size, of both the adjudication and the front page reference 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 24 hours; it should then be archived online in the usual way.

22. Should the newspaper intend to continue to publish the article in its current form, the adjudication should also be published in full beneath the headline.

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

Following the publication of an article in The Sun on 15 September, headlined “Court Jezter”, Rosemary Brocklehurst complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. The complaint was upheld, and IPSO required the newspaper to publish this adjudication.

The front page article reported that Jeremy Corbyn had accepted Privy Council membership after becoming Labour leader “so he can get his hands on £6.2m” of Short money. It said that, had Mr Corbyn refused membership, a “constitutional crisis” would have been triggered, jeopardising the £6.2m.

The complainant said that Labour’s access to Short money was not determined by its leader’s Privy Council membership. Instead, most of it is made available based on the number of seats secured by Labour in the last election.

The Sun said that the article could have been clearer, but was based on accurate information. If Mr Corbyn had not accepted Privy Council membership, his position as Opposition Leader would not have been “secure” – this would have triggered the “constitutional crisis”, and risked his party’s access to the £6.2m. Nonetheless, it offered at a late stage in the complaint to publish a clarification which made clear that the criteria for Short Money does not include reference to Privy Council membership.

IPSO’s Complaints Committee found that it was significantly misleading to claim that Labour’s access to the £6.2m depended on whether Mr Corbyn was a member of the Privy Council. The two were not formally connected and the article did not make clear how a majority of the funding was in fact allocated. The Committee upheld the complaint as a breach of Clause 1.

The newspaper failed to correct the significantly misleading coverage promptly and IPSO required The Sun to publish this adjudication.

Date complaint received: 19/09/2015
Date decision issued: 07/12/2015