Ruling

11269-22 The Alba Party v The Times Scotland

    • Date complaint received

      17th November 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 11269-22 The Alba Party v The Times Scotland

Summary of Complaint

1. The Alba Party complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times Scotland breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Bigoted Minority”, published on 18th August 2022.

2. The article reported on a protest held outside Perth Concert Hall during hustings for the leadership contest of the Conservative and Unionist Party two days prior.

3. The article was an editorial, with the sub-heading stating: “Sturgeon must do more to distance her party from extremists”. The text of the article went on to describe the demonstration by “nationalist agitators” as a “reminder that no nationalist movement [is] free from bigotry”. It reported that during the demonstration “eggs were thrown”; a young Conversative activist had subsequently said that she had been called a “Tory whore”; and the “mob” suggested that the Scottish Editor of the BBC was a “traitor”. It then went on to describe the scenes in Perth as an “advertisement of nationalist excess and a warning” adding that the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) “espouses a civil nationalism; it must forever be mindful of the need to keep it that way”. The article stated that “[n]ot all of those picketing the husting were SNP supporters. A fair proportion of them appeared to be followers of Salmond’s Alba party and other fringe movements.” It then said: “But the vast majority of independence supporters remain loyal to Nicola Sturgeon, and the SNP still dominates the broader nationalist movement.”

4. The article also appeared online under the headline “The Times view on nationalist protests: Bigoted Minority”. The text of the online article was substantially the same as the print version.

5. The complainant said that the publication had breached Clause 1 as it inaccurately reported that “a fair proportion” of those protesting were “followers” of the Alba Party. It said that the party did not organise a presence at the protest, nor did any Alba banners appear at the demonstration. It said that, as a result, the publication had published an unsubstantiated and unverified claim that incorrectly associated the extreme behaviour reported at the protest, and by extension bigotry, with the Alba Party.

6. The publication did not accept a breach of the Editors’ Code. While the publication was unable to provide a precise figure as to the number of Alba Party “followers” at the protest, it said its assessment of the proportion of those in attendance that supported the party was based on videos, photographs, and comments posted on social media. The publication provided a number of examples in order to demonstrate this, including an image of an individual at the protest wearing an Alba Party badge and social media posts by individuals in attendance who were either known to be connected to the party or had publicly described themselves as members. Further, the publication said that its description of a “fair proportion” was qualified by the next sentence of the article; its description was intended to convey the sense of a small minority, but one substantial enough to be heard.

7. Notwithstanding this – on 18th August, upon receipt of a direct complaint from the Alba Party, and in a gesture of goodwill – the publication amended the online article to remove the word “fair”, so that the article instead read that “a proportion of [demonstrators] appeared to be followers of Salmond’s Alba party and other fringe movements”, and published the following footnote clarification:

“This article was amended on Aug 18. We had overstated the number of Alba supports who took part in the demonstration outside the Conservative hustings in Perth on Tuesday evening.

8. The publication also published the following clarification in print, in its established Corrections & Clarifications column, on 20th August:

Our leading article “Bigoted Minority” (Comment, Aug 18) overstated the number of Alba supporters who took part in the demonstration outside the Conservative hustings in Perth on Tuesday evening.

9. The complainant, however, did not consider that the steps taken by the publication were sufficient to address its concerns; the wording did not correct the unsubstantiated claim made against the party, the items did not appear in a  sufficiently prominent location, and they did not include an apology. It proposed the publication of the following wording (in print and online) to resolve its complaint:

Yesterday in ‘The Times View on nationalists protests: bigoted minority’ we stated that: ‘Not all of those picketing the hustings were SNP supporters. A fair proportion of them appeared to be followers of Salmond’s Alba party and other fringe movements.’ We are happy to clarify that we had no evidential basis to substantiate the statement that a fair proportion of those protesting the Conservative Leadership hustings were followers or supporters of Alba Party led by Alex Salmond. We retract this statement and apologise to Alba Party.

10. This proposal was not accepted by the publication and the matter was therefore 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

11. The Committee had regard to the context of the article; it was an editorial which described the fragmentation in the Scottish nationalist movement, the presence of what it saw as “fringe groups” and which argued that the Scottish First Minister should distance herself from those groups. The Committee also noted that the disputed claim as a whole stated, “Not all of those picketing the hustings were SNP supporters. A fair proportion of them appeared to be followers of Salmond’s Alba party and other fringe movements”. The Committee therefore considered that the claim was not only about supporters of the Alba party; it also related to those of the SNP as well as “other fringe movements”. Taken in this context and where a “fair proportion” was clearly a subjective measure, the Committee considered that the claim only suggested that there had been some, rather than a large number of, Alba party supporters present at the protest. This assessment had been based upon publicly available videos, photographs, and posts sourced from social media, which sufficiently demonstrated that a number of individuals who had taken part in the picketing “appeared” to be affiliated in some way to, or were supportive of, the Alba Party. In these circumstances, it was not incumbent on the publication to contact the complainant for comment prior to publication. There was no breach of Clause 1.

12. The complainant was also concerned that the article associated the behaviour at the hustings with the Alba party. However, the article made clear that it was “nationalist agitators” in general who were demonstrating; none of the three examples of the “extreme” behaviour cited by the publication were ascribed to members of the Alba Party. Nor did it suggest in any way that the party itself was responsible for, or promoted, the unrest. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point, but the Committee welcomed the steps taken by the publication to resolve the matter.

Conclusion(s)

13. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

14. N/A


Date complaint received: 19/08/22

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 31/10/22