Ruling

06556-22 Crossman v thetimes.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      12th January 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 06556-22 Crossman v thetimes.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. David Crossman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thetimes.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Nicola Sturgeon’s chief scientist 'presides over an old boys' club at St Andrews faculty'”, published on 26 September 2021.

2. The sub-headline reported that St Andrews University’s School of Medicine was “accused over lack of women in senior roles”. It said that a “growing dominance of middle-aged men in senior positions [had] been noted by some staff and prompted claims” that the complainant, the dean of the School for the past seven years, was “presiding over an ‘old boys’ club’”. It said that “since 2014, the ratio of male to female professors [at the School] has slipped from 6:3 to 12:1”, noting that “while staffing levels and the gender mix ebb and flow in any organisation, eyebrows have been raised at the university’s medical school amid claims that during Crossman’s tenure, the only staff to be promoted have been men”. The article included comments from a feminist policy and advocacy organisation operating in Scotland criticising the institution for the imbalance and a spokesperson from the University, with the latter saying that the “senior leadership at the School of Medicine comprised of Crossman and five men and five women”, with “the directors of postgraduate teaching and research” being “one man and one woman”. The article was accompanied by a photograph of the complainant, captioned “David Crossman, dean of St Andrews University’s School of Medicine, is also the chief scientist for health in the Scottish government”.

3. The full article appeared behind a paywall, and only the first three paragraphs of the article appeared in full to users who did not have paywall access.

4. The complainant said that the article wrongly and unfairly implied that he was primarily responsible for a gender imbalance at the School, and for cronyism in the appointments made. He said that promotions and appointments in the School were overseen by a broad range of people, drawn from within the School, and from the wider University, and within well-defined human resources policies and procedures; he did not “preside” over the appointments. He said that this inaccurate and misleading impression was given by the headline, the text of the article and the use – and prominence – of the photograph of him. Further, he said that the headline claim that he “preside[d] over an ‘old boys’ club” was unsupported by the text of the article. The complainant also denied that “the only staff” during his tenure “to be promoted have been men”. He said that, when considering promotions for all roles, five women and four men were promoted. He expressed concern that the University was not approached for comment on this claim prior to the article’s publication.

5. The complainant also expressed concerns that the statement from the University rebutting the claims was only visible below a paywall, meaning that some readers would not be able to see the University’s position.

6. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. It said the headline and sub-heading were supported by the text of the article. It said the use of single quotation marks in the headline and text of the article indicated the status of the allegation that the complainant “preside[d] over an ‘old boys’ club”; it had not presented it as fact. It added that these were claims made by a confidential source, with the text of the article making clear that since 2014, when the complainant was appointed to his position as Dean, “the ratio of male to female professors at the [School had] slipped from 6:3 to 12:1” – a point which the University did not dispute when it was approached for comment prior to publication, on 17th September.  That request for comment also invited a response to the concern that “the increase in male professors is partly explained by promotions awarded to some male staff members and new appointments to posts that were not advertised (which, if true, potentially prevented applications from suitably qualified females).”

7. In addition, the newspaper said the text of the article made clear it was reporting the “claims” that “the only staff to be promoted have been men” during the complainant’s tenure as Dean; it was not presented as fact. It said that the article also made clear this claim specifically related to “professorships” at the School; it did not address more junior roles, or staff elsewhere in the University. While the newspaper did not accept that readers would be misled on this point, it offered, upon receipt of the complaint, as a gesture of goodwill, to amend the online article to restate that this referred specifically to professorships at the School and to publish a clarification to make the same point.

8. Further, the newspaper did not accept that the article misrepresented the complainant’s position at the School. He was appointed Dean in 2014 and led the School’s Senior Leadership team which a spokesperson for the University had confirmed on 22nd September in response to the newspaper’s enquiry on 17th September, “fill[ed] appointments” at the School: “the School's Senior Leadership team, the definitive group which leads the School, makes all key strategic decisions, line manages all academic staff and fills appointments, comprises the Dean supported by five men and five women”. In its enquiry, the publication said that “the predominance of male professors in the medical school has been recognised by university staff”, and informed the university that it had been told that “the increase in male professor[ships at the School] is partly explained by promotions awarded to some male staff members and new appointments to posts that were not advertised (which, if true, potentially prevented applications from suitably qualified females).”

9. However, the newspaper highlighted what it said were contradictory messages from the complainant and the University itself in relation to the role of the Senior Leadership Team in appointments at the School. It noted that following the article’s publication, on 14th December, another University spokesperson told the newspaper that “it [was] not the [senior] leadership team which fills appointments.” While the complainant confirmed, during the course of IPSO’s investigation on 6th July, that “the leadership team in the School fills some appointments but below a certain grade”, he said that the leadership team did not directly appoint or promote professors within the School, and this position had not changed since the article’s publication.

10. Upon receipt of this, the publication offered to publish the following clarification in its Corrections and Clarification column, on all platforms, and as a footnote to the online article:

“We reported a claim that only men had been promoted during Professor David Crossman’s tenure as Dean of St Andrews University’s School of Medicine (“Nicola Sturgeon’s chief scientist ‘presides over an old boys’ club at St Andrews faculty’”, News, September 26). We have been asked to make clear that this claim applied only to senior academic roles. Professor Crossman has since informed us that the School’s Senior Leadership Team, on which he sits, does not directly appoint professors within the school. We are happy to set this on record.”

11. The complainant, however, did not consider that this wording was sufficient to resolve his complaint; it did not address the central point that he did not “preside” over the matters of promotions and appointments the School or include an apology for the inaccuracies. Further, it referenced “senior academic roles” rather than professorships. The matter was passed to the Complaints Committee for adjudication.

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

12. The Committee noted the publication’s position: it was reporting claims related to the gender balance at the School of Medicine and specifically the promotion of only male “professors” during the complainant’s tenure; this was the substance of its pre-publication enquiries to the University and a position which, it argued, was made clear by the text of the article. However, the complainant’s view was that the article suggested that it was referring to staff more generally at the School, particularly in its reference to those who had been “promoted” during his tenure.

13. The Committee acknowledged that the second paragraph began with the claim that “since 2014 the ratio of male to female professors […] has slipped from 6:3 to 12:1” and considered that it was therefore clear about the group to which those ratios related. However, a single sentence referred in general terms to the “growing dominance of middle-aged men in senior positions” and the article also included the claim, repeated in the headline, that the complainant was “presiding over an old boys’ club”. Those claims were not specific to the particular academic role of professor and gave the impression that the article’s concerns ranged wider than that particular role. Of particular concern to the complainant was the report that “claims that […] the only staff to be promoted [during the complainant’s tenure as Dean of the School] have been men”. In the view of the Committee that claim, in the context of the article, did not appear to be referring to professorships only and seemed to be referring to a much wider group of “staff”. The publication had not been able to substantiate this specific claim and this constituted a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, in breach of Clause 1 (i).

14. In an article which claimed to document a gender imbalance at the School and to ascribe that in part to promotions during the complainant’s tenure as Dean this was a matter of significance and thereby required correction under Clause 1 (ii).

15. The publication had offered, upon receipt of the complaint, to amend the online article and to publish a clarification addressing this point. The clarification had been offered promptly and the proposed location – in its established Corrections and Clarification column – was appropriately prominent. While the publication did not specify the exact wording of this clarification, it had made clear that this would put the correct position on record: the claim related specifically to professorships at the School. Though the Committee noted that a further clarification had been offered by the publication during IPSO’s complaints process with specific wording – and which would appear in its Corrections and Clarification column, on all platforms, as well as a footnote to the online article – it considered that this item was insufficient: it incorrectly stated that the claim related “only to senior academic roles”. Notwithstanding this, the Committee considered that the initial clarification offered by the publication, upon receipt of the complaint, which made clear the claim related to “professorships”, was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1 (ii). There was no breach of Clause 1(ii).

16. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concern that the article reported he was “presiding over an ‘old boys’ club’” at the School. The Committee noted that it was not in dispute that the complainant had been appointed Dean of the School in 2014 and led the School’s Senior Leadership Team which had at least some remit over appointments. This was clearly a reference to his leadership role as the head of the faculty and did not constitute a specific claim that he had played a direct role in recruitment of other relevant staffing changes. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainant did not agree with the characterisation of those holding the position of professorship as an “old boys club”, the publication was entitled to publish it and to state that the complainant presided over those individuals. Further, the Committee had regard to the presentation of this claim. The Committee recognised that quotation marks may be used in headlines for a variety of reasons, including to indicate that the article is reporting a claim which has been made by a source. In this case, the headline and text of the article made sufficiently clear that the publication was reporting a claim; it had not been adopted, or presented, as fact by the publication. There was no breach of the Code on this point.

Conclusion(s)

17. The complaint was partially upheld under Clause 1 (i).  

Remedial Action Required

18. The initial clarification which was offered by the publication put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.


Date complaint received: 28/04/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 17/11/2022


Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Reviewer found that the IPSO process was flawed as the Committee had not clearly identified which of the two clarifications offered by the publication should be published. The complaint was therefore returned to the Committee to consider further this aspect of its decision. An amended decision was subsequently issued.