Ruling

13840-16 Baroness Scotland v The Mail on Sunday

    • Date complaint received

      24th July 2017

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 13840-16 Baroness Scotland v The Mail on Sunday

Summary of Complaint

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

1) “'Baroness Brazen' under fire for handing £90,000 to Labour crony's firm to review her staff's efficiency - and £325,000 more to carry out the changes”, published online on 3 July 2016.

2) “Baroness Brazen's £415,000 bosom buddy: Commonwealth chief smiles for the camera... with the peer she pays to review her performance!”, published online on 31 July 2016.

3) “Brazen Cheek”, published in print on 3 October 2016 & “Brazen cheek! Labour peer faces new embarrassment after 'helping a controversial friend secure a knighthood that was later revoked'”, published online on 3 October 2016.

4) “MP calls for Baroness to face probe”, published in print on 30 October 2016. The article was also published online with the headline: “Tory MP calls for Baroness Scotland to face probe into £415,000 contracts handed to a fellow Labour peer”. 

5) “Arrogance of Brazen Baroness”, published in print on 6 November 2016. The article was also published online with the headline: “The arrogance of a brazen baroness: Has she no shame? Britain's Commonwealth chief STILL denies she splashed the public's cash on her Mayfair mansion”.

2. The complainant became the Commonwealth’s Secretary General in 2016, and is head of the Commonwealth Secretariat. Adopting the numbering above, the first article reported that in this role, she had awarded a £90,000 contract for three months’ work to a company called KYA Global, owned by a named Labour peer, a friend of the complainant, to conduct a review of the performance of the complainant’s staff and recommending ways of improving efficiency. A sub headline reported that the company “will get another £325,000 to implement changes”, and the article claimed that “in a separate deal, worth a further £325,000, KYA appears to have been chosen to ‘oversee’ its recommendations”.

3. The second article reported that “leaked documents show that… [the peer] has already pocketed around £415,000 in consultancy fees”. It claimed that in order to hire the peer, the complainant had “bypassed the normal tendering process”. The article reported that the peer was “leading an ‘independent’ efficiency review of [the complainant’s] department”, and that this arrangement had been criticised as the pair were “old friends”.  The article reported that the Commonwealth Secretariat’s spending figures were normally published every three months, but had not appeared since the complainant began her job in April, and claimed that the Commonwealth “appeared to be suppressing details of [the peer’s] contract”.

4. The second article reported that the complainant had been criticised for “lavishing a fortune on her grace-and-favour Mayfair residence, even ordering a designer makeover of her personal bathroom, according to leaked reports”. It claimed that the complainant had “brought in” a named interior designer, referred to as a “designer-to-the-stars”. It reported that “Dulux paint was replaced by luxury brands such as Farrow & Ball – adding £33,000 in paint alone to the costs”. The article reported that following leaks to “this newspaper”, there was an internal investigation, and that staff had been warned that the Commonwealth Secretariat “is able to check and monitor official electronic communications and equipment where there are grounds to suspect serious misuse”. It referred to this as a “sinister threat”.

5. The third article reported that the complainant had helped a named individual secure a knighthood. It claimed that she had been “dubbed ‘Baroness Brazen’”. It reported that a review of the Commonwealth was “being led by her ‘partner in crime’”, referring to the peer.

6. The fourth article reported that a Conservative MP had “called for a probe into claims that [the complainant] was guilty of cronyism in handing contracts worth £415,000 to a fellow Labour peer”. It reported that the peer’s company had “pocketed £90,000 for three months’ work reviewing the performance of [the complainant’s staff], and a further £325,000 to oversee its own recommendations”. It reported that the Conservative MP had written to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee “demanding an investigation”.

7. The fifth article reported that the complainant was facing “damaging allegations of cronyism and misusing public money”. It reported that she had recruited her sister to advise on the renovation of her grace-and-favour home, but that her sister had “insisted that she was not ‘paid a penny’ by the Commonwealth”. The article referred to information about the Commonwealth Secretariat as having been provided by a “whistleblower”. It reported that this whistleblower had claimed that the complainant had “wanted to bring in her sister to work in her office [at the Secretariat] but she was strongly advised against this by the organisation and by others”.

8. The fifth article reported that the peer “was paid £415,000 in consultancy fees”. It reported that according to the website Caribbean News Now, the complainant “faced strong opposition from African countries, supported by Asia, over the "perceived abuse of her authority’”, at a meeting of the Commonwealth board of governors on October 10, and that the board had rejected plans by the peer to reorganise the Secretariat, pending further and better particulars. In the first edition of the newspaper, the article reported that the Secretariat had said it did not have standing in this meeting, and was not in a position to “divulge their agenda or the discussions which will take place or have taken place”. In the second edition of the newspaper, the article reported that the Secretariat had initially declined to comment, but “five hours later it claimed our ‘assertions about its board meetings are untrue and a deliberate distortion of the facts’”.

9. The fifth article reported that the complainant had “denied extravagant spending on the Mayfair mansion despite admitting that the bill for the renovations would hit £330,000”. It reported that one of the complainant’s predecessors as Secretary General had said that “I see these things, and I’m worried for the sake of the Commonwealth”. The article reported that a “highly-placed Royal source has told this newspaper that the Queen has been ‘embarrassed’ by reports of [the complainant’s] behaviour”.

10. 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.

11. The complainant denied that the company owned by the peer had been paid £415,000 in consultancy fees. She said that the individual was eminently qualified and was awarded £90,000 for a three month contract, which was a reduced rate. She denied that tendering rules were “bypassed” in the awarding of this contract, and said that the process had complied with the Commonwealth Secretariat’s procurement rules. She said that the company was contracted to review the performance of the Commonwealth Secretariat, and its working practices before she became Secretary General. The company was not recruited to audit her performance. The complainant denied that the Secretariat’s spending figures should have been published at the time the second article was published; she said it was routine for spending figures of April-June to be published in July.

12. The complainant said that she had not “brought in” the interior designer referred to in the second article. This individual offered to give free advice in relation to the refurbishment, but that in the end, his proposals were too expensive to be taken up, and most of his recommendations were not implemented. She said that the £33,000 spending on paint was not sanctioned.

13. In relation to the second article, the complainant denied that the notification staff received about the Secretariat’s ability to check and monitor official electronic communications was a “sinister threat”; she said that this was an IT policy it has in common with many organisations.

14. The complainant said it was misleading for the third article to report that she had been “dubbed Baroness Brazen”, where this was only how the publication and its sister titles  had referred to her. She said it was misleading for the article to describe the peer as her “partner in crime”, where this had been a joking reference she had made to him.

15. In relation to the fifth article, the complainant said that she and her sister had read the rules before she took office at the Commonwealth, and both accepted that her sister could not continue her employment as her private secretary. The complainant said that she had never contemplated the suggestion that her sister would work for the Commonwealth Secretariat, nor had she worked for her once she had been appointed.. The complainant said that the article raised suspicion that her sister had been paid, only to report that she had not been paid in the 28th paragraph.

16. The complainant denied there was evidence to suggest that the Queen had been “embarrassed”, as the fifth article reported a “highly-placed Royal source”, had claimed. She denied that she had been accused of “abuse of authority”, or that the peer’s plans had been rejected at the Commonwealth Board of Governors meeting.  She said it was misleading for the article to refer to a “whistleblower”, as there was no corruption or misconduct to blow the whistle on. The complainant said that the headline of the online article was misleading as it referred to “Britain’s Commonwealth chief”, and “the public’s cash” and “her mansion”. She said that the Commonwealth is a group of 52 equal and independent nations, and was not “Britain’s”; the funds were from all member states, and were not the British public’s cash, and the mansion was owned by the Secretary General, it was not her personal property.

17. The newspaper said it had been reporting on matters of genuine public interest about a significant public figure, and about the spending of public money. It said that under the Editors’ Code of Practice, the newspaper was free to editorialise and to campaign. It said that its reporting was substantially accurate, although it accepted that there were inaccuracies on some points it considered to be insignificant.

18. The newspaper said that there was no dispute that KYA Global had been paid £90,000 by the Commonwealth Secretariat. It said that the agenda of the Secretariat’s board for its meeting on 2 June 2016, stated that KYA Global would be receiving £325,000 as part of a “transition team”. The same board agenda stated that “subject to funding, implementation of the review recommendations will be directed and overseen by a Transition Team, to be led by KYA Global”. 

19. The newspaper said that when it asked the Secretariat straightforward questions about the £325,000 contract referred to in the board papers, its reply was that no decision had been made, although it confirmed the need for a transition team process. When it approached the Secretariat again, it was told to refer back to its previous answers, and that unless there was something new, the Secretariat would not be engaging with the newspaper, or its sister publications. For these reasons, the newspaper denied that it failed to take care over the accuracy of its claims about KYA global. It said that when KYA Global was engaged for its initial contract, normal tendering processes were bypassed. It provided an internal memo seeking a waiver from the Secretariat’s preferred procurement practices in engaging the company.

20. In relation to the second article’s headline claim that the complainant was paying the peer to “review her own performance”, the newspaper said that the peer’s role was to review the Secretariat’s structure, operations and projects. It accepted that the peer was not specifically auditing the complainant’s performance. It questioned whether this was a significant inaccuracy, in circumstances where the review was intended to be “independent”, and the peer was clearly not independent of the complainant. Nevertheless, it amended the online article of the 31 July article, and published the following footnote:

An earlier headline to this article said the Baroness was paying [the peer] to review her performance. We would like to clarify that this meant he has been reviewing the operations of her secretariat, not her personal performance.

21. The newspaper said that if the peer had not in fact been awarded the additional contract for £325,000, it would be willing to publish a correction. However, it noted that the transition team, which the peer formed a part of, left in October 2016, more than three months after the initial contract was supposed to have concluded. The newspaper said that before publishing a correction on this point, it would need a full explanation.

22. In response to this request for clarification, the complainant confirmed that KYA Global was contracted for an additional three months. She confirmed that the total value of the contract was £180,000, which she said was significantly less than the £415,000 reported in the articles.

23. In response to this clarification, the newspaper offered to publish the following correction in the corrections and clarifications column of the newspaper, and online. It also offered to amend the online articles which referred to the £415,000 figure, and to publish footnotes noting the correction.

“Articles last year stated that KYA Global, the trading company of [the peer], who was said to be a friend of Commonwealth Secretary General, Baroness Scotland, had been awarded two contracts worth a total of £415,000 to review and reform operations of the Commonwealth Secretariat. In fact the total was £180,000. We would also like to make clear that [the peer] was hired to review the Secretariat, not the Baroness’s own performance as may have been suggested in an article on July 31.”

24. The newspaper said it made no difference whether or not the interior designer had offered his advice on the refurbishment of the complainant’s property for free, and said that it was not misleading for the second article to report that the interior designer had been “brought in”. The newspaper said that the Secretariat’s expenditure accounts were not published at the time of publication, and were only published when its journalist had asked about them.

25. The newspaper said that the third article did not need to state that the complainant was joking when she called the peer her “partner in crime”; this was for readers to form their own judgement on, along with whether the remark indicated anything about the closeness of their friendship. The newspaper said that a Conservative MP had referred to the complainant as “Baroness Brazen”.

26. In relation to the fifth article, the newspaper said it had reported an article published by Caribbean News Now which had claimed that the complainant had faced opposition over a perceived abuse of authority at a meeting of the Commonwealth’s board of governors, and that the peer’s plans were rejected pending “further and better particulars”. The newspaper said that its reporting of the meeting was double-sourced with information from a senior Commonwealth diplomat. The newspaper said that the Commonwealth Secretariat initially declined to comment, as reflected in the first edition of the newspaper. Its subsequent denial of the claims was reflected in the second edition of the newspaper. The online version of the article was the same as in the first edition of the newspaper, but was updated to include the denial during IPSO’s investigation of the complaint.

27. In relation to the fifth article’s claim that a “highly-placed Royal source” had told the newspaper that the Queen was “embarrassed” by reports of the complainant’s behaviour, the newspaper said that this information was provided by a confidential source well-placed within the Royal Household, who had provided the journalist with useful and accurate information in the past. It said that readers could assess for themselves the weight to place on this information, which was mentioned as a small point two thirds of the way through a larger article.

28. The newspaper said that the fifth article’s headline reference to “Britain’s Commonwealth chief” referred to the fact that the complainant, “the chief”, was British. The newspaper said that headline did not state that the “public’s cash” was solely British. The newspaper said that article reported that the complainant’s sister had offered advice on the refurbishment of the grace-and-favour home; it did not claim she had been paid.

Relevant Code provisions

29. 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

30. The agenda for the Secretariat’s board meeting of 2 June referred to the creation of a “Transition Team”. It stated that the Transition Team would consist of KYA Global, who would cost £325,000. The newspaper had asked for the Commonwealth Secretariat’s comment on this figure, who had responded that no decisions had been made, but that the Secretariat’s board had endorsed the need for there to be a transition team process. It provided the Commonwealth Secretariat another opportunity to comment on the KYA Global contract in advance of the second article, having already published the £325,000 figure in the first article. In response, the Secretariat referred the newspaper back to its previous answer. The Committee was satisfied that the newspaper had taken care over the accuracy of the claims that the peer’s company was set to receive a further £325,000, in addition to the contract for the review. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point.

31. During the IPSO complaints process, the complainant had confirmed that the company had only been engaged for an additional £90,000 of work, rather than £325,000, bringing the total to £180,000, rather than £415,000. The difference between these sums was significant in the context of the article, and required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). On being notified of the correct figure, the newspaper offered to amend the online articles, with the addition of corrections as footnotes, and to publish a correction in the corrections and clarifications column on page 2 of the newspaper. The Committee was satisfied that the newspaper had met its obligations under Clause 1 (ii) in relation to this inaccuracy.  In order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii), the newspaper should now make the offered amendments and corrections.

32. It was not in dispute that KYA Global had been selected without the normal tendering process, following a waiver from the preferred procurement practices. In these circumstances, it was not misleading for the second article to claim that the normal tendering process was by-passed, and this aspect of the complaint did not breach of Clause 1.

33. According to the board papers provided by the newspaper, the terms of reference for KYA Global’s review were that an independent consultancy conduct a review of the Secretariat’s operations and services, including reviewing existing projects and activities, and assess the efficiency of current operations. It was accepted by the newspaper that it was inaccurate to report that the peer was reviewing the complainant’s performance. In circumstances where the newspaper had based its article on the board papers, to misrepresent his review in this way represented a failure to take care not to report inaccurate information on this point, in breach of Clause 1 (i).

34. The Committee considered that this was a significant inaccuracy in the context of the article, where it supported the overarching allegation that the complainant was “brazen”, and the criticisms of the complainant on the basis that it was improper for her to recruit an individual who was an “old friend”. The wording of the online footnote identified the inaccuracy, and set out the correct position. The Committee considered that in the circumstances of this case, by amending the article, in addition to adding the footnote, the newspaper had met its obligations under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

35. It was accepted by the complainant that it was routine for the expenditure figures for April to June to be published in July, but that they had not been published at the time of publication of the second article. This article was published on Sunday 31 July, and in these circumstances, the newspaper was entitled to characterise this as giving the appearance that the Secretariat was suppressing details of expenditure in these circumstances, and the basis for the claim was made clear in the article. This aspect of the complaint did not breach of Clause 1.

36. It was accepted that the interior designer had provided the complainant with advice about the refurbishment of her grace-and-favour property. It was not misleading to refer to him as having been “brought in” by the complainant. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the additional spending on paint was not sanctioned, it was not misleading to report that this additional spending on paint was “added to the plans”, that this was according to “leaked reports” and that the complainant had faced criticism for this. This aspect of the complaint did not breach of Clause 1.

37. It was not in dispute that staff in the Commonwealth Secretariat had been warned that their official electronic communications can be monitored and checked where there were grounds to suspect serious misuse. This warning was quoted in the second article, and the newspaper was entitled to characterise it as a “sinister threat”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

38. It was not in dispute that the complainant had referred to the peer as her “partner in crime”, albeit humorously. The Committee considered that this phrase is commonly used in this way, and it was not misleading for the third article to refer to the peer as her “partner in crime”, without further explanation, and there was no suggestion of criminality. It was not disputed that a Conservative MP had referred to the complainant as “Baroness Brazen”, and it was not misleading to report that this is how she had been “dubbed”.

39. It was not in dispute that the complainant’s sister had provided advice on the refurbishment of the grace-and-favour home. The fifth article made clear that both the Commonwealth Secretariat and the complainant’s sister denied that she had been paid for this advice. The complainant confirmed that she and her sister had both read the rules after she had been selected as Secretary General, but before she took office. This was reflected in the article, which included her sister’s comments that she had discussed working at the Secretariat, but had read the rules, and noted that it was not possible. The article was not misleading in the manner alleged, and this aspect of the complaint did not breach of Clause 1.

40. The fifth article made clear that the claim that the Queen had been embarrassed by reports of the complainant’s behaviour had come from a “Royal source”. The newspaper had taken care to avoid suggesting that it was in the position to prove that this claim was true. It was not misleading to report that a royal source had told the newspaper that the Queen was embarrassed, and this aspect of the complaint did not breach of Clause 1.

41. The fifth article made clear that its claims about the Commonwealth Board of Governors meeting were made on the basis of reports in Caribbean News Now. The newspaper has approached the Secretariat prior to publication to ask for confirmation of these claims, who responded by saying it was not in the position to confirm or deny what was said at the meeting; a position which was reflected in the online article, and in the first edition of the newspaper. The newspaper updated the article in its second edition to include the complainant’s position that the claims were untrue. The Committee welcomed the newspaper decision to bring the online version of the article into line with the article published in the second edition of the newspaper. The newspaper had taken care not to publish inaccurate information, and the article was not significantly misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1.

42. It was not misleading for the newspaper to refer to a source of information about the Commonwealth Secretariat as a “whistleblower”, in circumstances where they had provided information labelled as a “protected disclosure” which formed the basis for criticisms of the complainant, and the Secretariat.  The article made clear that the Mayfair property was the complainant’s grace-and-favour home; it was not misleading to refer to it as “her mansion”. It was not misleading to refer to “Britain’s Commonwealth chief…”, in the headline of the online article, which was a reference to the fact that the complainant was British. It was not disputed that the Commonwealth is funded with “the public’s cash”; the use of this phrase in the headline did not suggest it was only funded by the British public.

Conclusions

43. The complaint in relation to the headline of the second article was upheld. The remainder of the complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

44. Having upheld the complaint as a breach of Clause 1 (i) in relation to the claim that the peer had been appointed to review the complainant’s performance, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee considered that the breach of Clause 1 would be appropriately remedied by the publication of the offered correction. In light of the Committee’s decision, it should now be published.

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