Ruling

13839-16 Baroness Scotland v Daily Mail

    • Date complaint received

      24th July 2017

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 13839-16 Baroness Scotland v Daily Mail

Summary of Complaint

1. Baroness Patricia Scotland complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in relation to articles headlined:

1) “GUY ADAMS: Fit for public office? Dubbed Baroness Shameless for cosy links with evil tyrannies, the Commonwealth's new boss is spending appalling amounts of public money self-promoting herself and chums”, published online on 23 July 2016

2) “Woman with no shame: Links with tyrants. Jobs for the boys. Profligacy with public money. In recent days we have exposed the disturbing activities of the new British boss of the Commonwealth. Is she apologetic? Dream on”, published online on 29 July  2016

3) “Baroness Shameless used aide on £16k a month to organise garden party”, published in print on 2 November 2016. The article was also published online with the headline: “Baroness Shameless used aide on £16,000 a month to organise a garden party and arrange refurbishments of her mansion”.

4) “Chandeliers, cronies, £33k of paint – and a whistleblower hounded for exposing naked greed”, published in print on 4 November 2016. The article was also published online with the headline: “Is Baroness Scotland more shameless than ever? A £1,200 bill for ‘relocating a chandelier', £33,000 on paint for her grace-and-favour Mayfair home – and a whistleblower hounded for exposing eye-opening details of her spending”.

5) “Baroness Shameless 'snubbed by Queen'”, published on 28 January 2016. The article was also published online with the headline: “'Queen snubs' Baroness Shameless: Monarch said to be staying away from annual reception after a string of scandals at the Commonwealth Office”.

2. Adopting the numbering above, the first article set out a number of allegations about the complainant, in her capacity as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, apparently on the basis of leaked documents. It reported that a project to refurbish the complainant’s grace-and-favour apartment in Mayfair had been approved before the complainant had taken office, with a budget of £230,000. It reported that the complainant had “brought in a [named interior designer], who offered advice as a favour and is not being paid by the Commonwealth”. It claimed that the refurbishment was being “partly overseen”, by this individual. It reported that “by May, an increased budget of £450,000…was being discussed by worried Commonwealth staffers”, and claimed that the home was being “completely remodeled”. It reported that the £450,000 figure did not include electrical work and a new chandelier, which were provisionally estimated to add another £75,000. It reported that the Commonwealth was refusing to say how much it was spending, and that it was unclear how much of the work discussed in the leaked emails was going ahead. It reported that in May, a member of the Secretariat’s staff had sent a memo saying “additional works, plus the bathroom, will increase the total cost for the refurbishment from the original £230,000 to near £450,000”. The article stated “that was more than two months ago. So what is now being spent on the building project? It’s impossible to say”.

3. The first article also reported the complainant had “added a number of personal friends and political allies to her organisation’s pay roll, including PR advisers – who are being paid £16,000 a month”. It reported that this added to concerns which raised questions about whether the complainant was fit for public office, and explained that in “recent weeks”, it had “emerged” that the complainant had hired a company owned by a named peer, described as “an old friend”, to “advise on how to run the Commonwealth Secretariat, at an initial cost of £30,000 a month”, and that this firm was “to be paid an additional £325,000 to ‘implement changes’ at the organisation”. In response to statement that the appointment of this company represented value for money, the article stated: “at £30,000 a month (plus a further £325,000)? We’ll have to take them at their word!”. The article also reported that in 2009, when the complainant was the Attorney General, she had been “exposed for employing an illegal immigrant from Tonga… as a cleaner”. It reported that she was “duly prosecuted for breaking immigration laws that she herself helped draft, and fined £5,000”.

4. The second article repeated a number of the claims made in the first article. It reported that shortly before she became the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, the complainant “took a mysterious ‘working visit’ to Kazakhstan”. It reported that Kazakhstan was a “personal fiefdom” of its president, who was a “deeply oppressive autocrat”, but that the complainant’s visit to the country was a “PR coup for the regime”.  The article also reported that “one of her first moves after taking office was to hold meetings with the brutal regime in charge of the Maldives, which had previously paid her £7,500 a day to do legal work”. 

5. The third article reported that one of the complainant’s aides, who it claimed was paid £16,000-a-month, had been used by the complainant to “help refurbish her mansion and organise a garden party”. The article repeated a number of claims made in the first and second article.

6. The fourth article reported that the complainant’s “profligacy”, had become “headline news again this week after a leaked letter revealed her organisation is in a ‘dire financial position’”, and summarised the newspaper’s previous coverage of her tenure at the Commonwealth. In summarising this coverage, the article claimed that the complainant was “handing out lucrative publicly funded jobs to political cronies”. The article gave as an example the recruitment of two named individuals, who were described by the newspaper as “Left-wing political fixers”. The article also claimed that the newspaper had “revealed plans by [the complainant] to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on her grace-and-favour Mayfair home”, and said that this was “reminiscent” of the MPs expenses scandal. It claimed that the newspaper had been leaked documents, which included a “wish-list” for the property, which included the “relocation of a chandelier to a “swanky new dining area” for a cost of £1200. The article reported that the day before, the complainant had appeared on The Today Programme on Radio 4, and rejected a series of allegations about her. It reported that she had said that the total cost of the refurbishment was “maybe £330,000”.

 7.7. The fifth article reported that the Queen was “staying away from a major Commonwealth event in a snub to its controversial chief [the complainant]”. It reported that sources had told the BBC’s diplomatic editor that the Queen would not attend because of her “displeasure at the way the Commonwealth Secretariat was now being run”. The article also reported that “Buckingham Palace sources….insisted it was down to logistics and not displeasure with Lady Scotland”. The article reported that the Commonwealth Secretariat had been “named as one of the worst performing bodies funded from Britain's foreign aid budget” by the Department for International Development.

8. The complainant said that the articles under complaint had formed part of a partisan campaign against her. She said that the articles were distorted, and contained a number of inaccuracies in order to serve that partisan purpose. She said that the Commonwealth Secretariat had consistently responded to the newspaper’s enquiries, but despite this, they continued to publish articles it knew, or ought to have known, were false.

9. The complainant said that the process of refurbishment was required by the lease, and was in keeping with the standard practice of refurbishing the interior of the official residence of the Secretary-General in between Secretaries-General. She said that the refurbishment was put out to tender, and a contractor selected before she took office, for a figure of £265,000. The budget was then increased to £300,000 for the financial year 2016/2017. The complainant said that the documents the newspaper had been relying on contained “additional proposed costs”. She said that proposals may be made, but this does not mean they are agreed. She said that “most” of these proposals were not implemented. She denied that the residence was being “completely-remodeled”, or that there was “a swanky new dining area”, and said that she had ordered that there be no extravagance. The complainant said that the interior designer named in the first article had generously offered to give free advice to the Secretariat in relation to the refurbishment. She denied that the refurbishment of her house was being overseen by this designer, or that this designer had been “brought in”.

10. The complainant provided the correspondence exchanged with the newspaper. She said that in this correspondence, the Commonwealth Secretariat was asked about “additional proposed costs” for the refurbishment of the property, and made clear that the existence of proposals did not meant that they would necessarily happen, and that the figures and assumptions being made were not accurate.

11. The complainant denied that the company owned by the named peer had been paid £325,000. He had been paid £90,000 for a three month contract, which she said represented value for money given his qualifications. In relation to the two individuals the fourth article gave as an examples of “political cronies” she had given jobs to, the complainant said that she did not know either of them before she was elected in November 2015, and that she had never met and played no role in the negotiation of their short term contracts. In relation to the claim that they were both “left-wing political fixers”, she said that one of these individuals had never been a member of, nor worked for the Labour party. She said that this claim suggested she had hired these individuals on an improper basis.

12. The complainant denied that she had been “prosecuted” in relation to the employment of her cleaner. She had in fact received a civil penalty for failing to photocopy her passport, and retain the image. The complainant said that the legal advice she gave to the Maldives was undertaken pursuant to the cab-rank principle of the British Bar (the professional obligation on barristers to accept instructions from a client regardless of any personal dislike of the client or the case). She said that she had given legal advice to the Kazakhstan government about how to reform criminal and civil justice systems.

13. In relation to the fifth article, the complainant said that she had not been “snubbed” by the Queen. She said that the statement from Buckingham Palace sources that the Queen’s non-attendance was due to logistics, rather than displeasure with her, confirmed this. The complainant said that the review of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s performance was undertaken by the Department for International Development before she took office, which was not made clear in the article.

14. The newspaper said that there was a strong public interest in its reporting on the complainant, who was a public servant. It said that it had been scrupulous in asking the Commonwealth Secretariat for comments on all the issues, fulfilling its obligation to take care over accuracy of the articles.

15. The newspaper said that it took care to put the allegations about the refurbishment of the complainant’s grace-and-favour home to the Commonwealth Secretariat, before publication.  It said that its journalist asked straightforward questions, but did not receive clear answers. It said that in these circumstances, it was reasonable for it to publish the claims made in the articles, on the basis of the strong documentary evidence in its possession.

16. The newspaper provided this documentary evidence in response to the complaint. These included a spreadsheet of extra works proposed after the complainant took office, and an exchange of emails between commonwealth staff discussing these proposals. It said that these documents showed that the refurbishments, originally budgeted at £264,000, was already over budget by £25,000, and that the extra works would have added around £139,536. The newspaper noted that references to the complainant’s wishes were made in the email exchanges about the additional proposals, indicating that she had been involved in decision about the refurbishment. The newspaper also provided a document headed: “Corporate Group Decisions Needed and Overview of Issues For week ending 13 May 2016”. This document stated “Note-the additional works plus the bathroom will increase the total cost for the refurbishment from the original £230k to near £450k”. This document also referred to an increase of £33,000 for the cost of the painting.

17. In response to the claim that the complainant’s refurbishment included a “swanky new dining room”, the newspaper noted that the budgets included costs for removing book cases, relocating the “wall-lights/chandelier from the 1st floor sitting room” and referred to a replacement carpet.

18. In relation to its pre-publication correspondence about the refurbishment, the newspaper said that the Commonwealth Secretariat repeatedly refused to say exactly which of the extra works as the outlined in the spread-sheet were being carried out. In response to a query about the works on 10 June, the Commonwealth Secretariat said “no extra funds have been signed off by the Secretary-General”. The journalist responded by saying “I am not asking if she personally signed off on any funds”, and asked whether the budget was now £450,000. The Secretariat responded by saying that no increase in the budget had been authorised or agreed by the complainant, that proposals were made to “inflate the budget”, which the complainant refused to accept, and that the ideas the journalist had floated in his question were never “authorised or approved”. The journalist reverted to the Secretariat to ask specifically whether the bathroom alterations, and the additional paint, as referred to in the leaked documents, were part of the refurbishment, asking “yes or no?”. The Secretariat responded by saying that no extra funds had been signed off by the Secretary-General. On being challenged on this point for a second time, the Secretariat added “and your assertions are simply wrong. For example, that paint expenditure is not happening, as our previous statements said”.

19. On 21 July, two days before publication of the first article, the journalist contacted the Commonwealth Secretariat, and asked if it wished to add to its previous comments. The journalist said that “In particular, we’d like to know what the refurbishment…is actually costing?”. In response, the Commonwealth Secretariat said that “the decision to refurbish [the residence] and the provision to do so was agreed before the Secretary-General took office.”

20. The newspaper said that as the first article made clear, the named interior designer was brought on board to give free advice.. The newspaper said that it’s reporter visited the house twice during the building project, and that from the street, it could be seen that the building was covered in scaffolding, and that the upper ground floor, where the dining room is,  was being “gutted and refurbished”.

21. In response to the complaint that one of the individuals described as a “left wing political fixers”, had never been a member of the Labour party, the newspaper noted that he had worked for a PR firm known to have close links to the Labour party, and whose chief executive was a former Labour press officer, and ‘spin doctor’ for both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It noted that in June 2016, it had written to the Secretariat for its comments on the two advisors’ appointments, referring to them as “longstanding acquaintances” of the complainant, and asking if their contracts represented good value. It said that the Secretariat responded by saying “we do not discuss staffing matters”. It said that neither of their jobs seemed to have been advertised externally, and that there did not appear to have been a formal recruitment process, which supported the article’s claim of political cronyism.

22. The newspaper said that according to the Bar Standards Board handbook, the British bar’s ‘cab-rank’ rule does not apply to matters of international law, such as the complainant’s work in the Maldives. It said that it had approached the Commonwealth Secretariat with detailed questions about her work in the Maldives, and the press office had not made reference to the ‘cab rank’ principle.

23. The newspaper acknowledged that it was inaccurate to refer to the complainant as having been “prosecuted” in relation to the employment of her cleaner, as opposed to receiving a civil penalty. It denied that this was significant, but offered to amend the online article, to publish the following clarification in its Corrections and Clarifications column on page 2 of the newspaper, and as a footnote to the online article:

‘An article on 23 July said that in 2009 Baroness Scotland, then the government’s chief legal officer, was ‘prosecuted’ for employing an illegal immigrant from Tonga as a cleaner and thus breaking immigration laws. We are happy to clarify that in fact this was a civil not a criminal matter and the Baroness was fined £5,000 by the UK Border Agency.’

24. The newspaper said that the fifth article was based on a BBC report by its diplomatic correspondent, which said that “some senior diplomats have even interpreted the fact that the Queen will not attend a major Commonwealth function in March as a signal of royal displeasure”, and that a senior Commonwealth source had said that “the Queen has only got to nip down the road from Buckingham Palace to Marlborough House in a Bentley. It's not that hard. And yet she has decided not to come”. It said that the Queen was not attending an event at the Commonwealth Secretariat on Commonwealth Day that she normally would, but was attending other events on that day. It said the claim that this was a “snub” was a fair comment.

25. In relation to the 23 July article’s claim that “it has emerged that… [KYA Global] is to be paid an additional £325,000 to “implement changes”, the newspaper said that it had repeated a claim from the Mail on Sunday. Since the Mail on Sunday had offered to clarify that the firm was not awarded this second contract, it would also be willing to clarify this, in print, and online.

Relevant Code provisions

26. 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

27. In reporting on the refurbishment of the complainant’s grace-and-favour home, the newspaper had relied on leaked documentation from the Commonwealth Secretariat, which included the proposals reported in the first article, as well as the fact that this would increase the budget to £450,000. The newspaper had approached the Secretariat for its comments on this information, in response to which the Secretariat stated that the proposals had not been authorised or agreed by the complainant. The newspaper had made clear in its enquiries that it was not seeking confirmation on what had been agreed or authorised by the complainant, but was seeking the Secretariat’s confirmation of the overall budget for the refurbishment. The Secretariat did not provide this confirmation.

28. The first article made clear that it was making its claims about the refurbishment on the basis of a set of leaked documents. It made clear that the £450,000 was “being discussed”, by staff at the Commonwealth, but that this figure had not been accepted by the Commonwealth, and that it was unclear how many of the additional proposals were going ahead. The article reported the Secretariat’s position that the complainant had not authorised any increase in the refurbishment budget.

29. The Committee was satisfied that the newspaper had taken care over the accuracy of its reporting of the leaked documents, and there was no breach of Clause 1 (i). The article reported the information contained in the leaked documents, its presentation of this information made clear its status, and reported the Commonwealth Secretariat’s response. The Committee did not find that the article was significantly misleading, such as to require correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The article was not misleading and there was no breach of Clause 1.

30. It was not in dispute that the interior designer had provided advice on the refurbishment of the complainant’s grace-and-favour home. It was not significantly misleading for the first article to report that the refurbishment project was being “partly overseen by the…interior designer”. It was not significantly misleading to report that the property was being “completely re-modeled”, in circumstances where it was accepted that the refurbishment would cost at least £300,000.

31. It was not in dispute that in the weeks prior to publication of the first article, it had been claimed that the named peer’s company was to be paid an additional £325,000 by the Commonwealth Secretariat. This figure was first referred to in summarising the criticisms which were being made of the complainant. Where reference was made to the company being paid this additional figure later in the first article and in the second article, it formed part of a criticism of the complainant for appointing the company on a £30,000-a-month contract, which was not in disputed. It was qualified by a question mark in the first article. The Committee considered that in the circumstances, it was not significantly misleading for the first article to report that this claim had been made in summarising recent coverage of a public figure, or for either the first or second article to make a brief reference to the £325,000 figure later in the articles, in circumstances where the true figure was £180,000. The Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to reflect the Mail on Sunday’s clarification with its own clarification, but there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

32.  It was not in dispute that two PR advisers had been given £16,000 a month contracts, and it was not misleading for the first article to report this fact without making clear that their contracts were only for six months. It was accepted that the complainant had paid a civil penalty for having failed to comply with legal requirements relating to the employment of her cleaner. Whilst it was also accepted that it was inaccurate to report that she had been “prosecuted” for this breach, the article was not significantly inaccurate in reporting that she had been fined £5,000 for breaking immigration laws. The Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to clarify that this was a civil, rather than a criminal matter, but the Committee considered that the description of the nature of the offence and the penalty imposed was not significantly misleading.

33. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that she had undertaken legal work in the Maldives under the “cab-rank” principle of the British Bar, and her concern that this was not reported in the second article. The newspaper had approached the Commonwealth Secretariat for its comments on the complainant’s legal work in the Maldives, prior to publication. The response it received did not refer to the work being undertaken under the “cab-rank” principle. In response to the complaint, the newspaper referred to the Bar Standards Board handbook, which stated that the cab-rank rule “does not apply if accepting instructions would require you to do any foreign work”. In these circumstances, it was not misleading to report that the complainant had undertaken legal work in the Maldives, without reference to the “cab-rank” rule.

34. The fact that the complainant’s legal work in Kazakhstan was undertaken on a pro bono basis, at the request of its Government, did not make it misleading to report that she had undertaken legal work in this country. These aspect of the complaint did not breach of Clause 1.

35. The two individuals described as “left wing political fixers” in the fourth article were third parties to this complaint, and the Committee therefore recognised it would not be appropriate to make a finding as to their political commitments. The Secretariat had declined to respond to the newspaper’s request for comment on their appointment, and in circumstances where the complainant did not dispute that they had been appointed without a formal recruitment process, the Committee did not have grounds to establish that the article’s characterisation of the complainant’s appointment of them was significantly misleading.

36. It was not inaccurate for the fourth article to report that the leaked documents showed that the relocation of a chandelier to the dining room formed part of the refurbishment proposals. Where these refurbishment proposals included installing a chandelier in the dining room, it was not significantly misleading to characterise this as a “swanky new dining area”.

37. In relation to the fifth article, it was not in dispute that the Queen had not attended the reception at the Commonwealth Secretariat. The claim that this represented a “snub” was clearly presented as a conjecture, on the basis of the Queen’s non-attendance, and on the claims from unnamed sources in the BBC article. In addition, the article made clear that Buckingham Palace had denied the claims.  The Committee did not find that the article was significantly misleading in relation to the Queen’s non-attendance, such as to breach of Clause 1. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the review of the Secretariat’s performance was undertaken by the Department for International Development before she had been elected. However, the complainant did not dispute that the review had been published “last month”, and the article made clear that the review related to “her organisation”, rather than the complainant herself. In the context of the article, the Committee did not consider that this aspect of the article was significantly misleading, such as to breach of Clause 1.

Conclusion

38. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

39. N/A

Date complaint received: 05/12/2016
Date decision issued: 08/06/2017