Ruling

13841-16 Baroness Scotland v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      24th July 2017

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 13841-16 Baroness Scotland v Mail Online

Summary of Complaint

1. Baroness Patricia Scotland complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in relation to articles headlined “Commonwealth chief Baroness Scotland's £450,000 renovation of her Mayfair apartment included a new bathroom, £3,000 wallpaper and a £4,000 cupboard at taxpayer expense”, published on 1 November 2016, and “Downing Street REFUSES to give confidence in Commonwealth chief Baroness Scotland after her lavish spending spree”, published on 3 November 2016.

2. The 1 November article reported that the complainant had “ordered a £450,000 renovation of her grace and favour apartment”. It reported that the details were exposed in leaked documents, and that “in a series of memos, officials warned the additional renovations ‘will increase the total cost for the refurbishment from the original £230,000 to £450,000' ”. It reported that the complainant had “demanded” a number of specific changes, including “high-end paint”, wallpaper and a “vanity unit in the ladies powder room”.

3. The 3 November article reported that the Prime Minister’s spokesperson “refused four times to confirm whether Theresa May has confidence in [the complainant]”. It reported that “No 10 would only say it supported the ‘role’ of Secretary General”, and claimed that “Downing Street appears to have lost confidence [in the complainant]”. It reported that this would “pile further pressure on [the complainant]…who took on the £160,000 a year post earlier this year. In relation to the refurbishment of her grace-and-favour home, the article reported that “altogether, the improvements she asked for led to the total budget rising from £230,000 to an estimated £450,000”. The article claimed that “concerns about the state of the [Commonwealth Secretariat’s] finances are longstanding”, and that an official Government analysis had given the organisation a “red light rating in 2013 for ‘cost and value consciousness' ”.

4. The complainant denied that the refurbishment cost £450,000. She said that this figure was based on a leaked document from May 2016, which detailed decisions which needed to be taken on the refurbishment. She said that most of these proposals were not implemented. She said that she had refused to authorise the increase in the budget the documents referred to, and had insisted that there be no extravagance and that there should be value for money. The complainant said that the refurbishment of the apartment was required by the lease. The complainant said that in Secretariat consistently denied the figures assumed by journalists from the publication’s sister newspaper in its correspondence with them. The complainant did not dispute that the Secretariat had declined to confirm the actual cost of the renovation in response to the journalists’ enquiries, but said that it did not have to provide this information, and this was not relevant.

5. The complainant said that the 3 November article’s headline claim that Downing Street had “refused to give confidence [in the complainant]” was a misleading characterisation of the statement the Prime Minister’s spokesperson had actually given. She said that the article repeated the claim that the cost of the refurbishment was £450,000. She said in reporting that the Commonwealth Secretariat had been given a “red light” rating in 2013, the article failed to make clear that she had only become Secretary General in April 2016.

6. The publication said that the £450,000 figure for the renovation was an estimate, and had been based on leaked email correspondence between senior staff at the Commonwealth Secretariat in May 2016. The figure comprised the original tender cost of £264,000, the project being over budget by £25,000 and recommended additions to the refurbishment which would cost £140,000, not including VAT. The publication said that despite being repeatedly asked by its sister publication, The Daily Mail, the Commonwealth Secretariat had refused to confirm the actual cost of renovation. The Mail Online had understood this to be the case, and therefore quoted the £450,000 estimate used by the Daily Mail at the time of publication.

7. The publication said that in mid-November 2016, it was announced that the overall cost of refurbishment would be £338,622, which was £70,000 more than the original budget. The publication said that it was unclear whether the project was scaled back after reports of estimated costs emerged, and it did not consider that the articles were significantly inaccurate, given the final cost was still significantly over budget. Nevertheless, it offered to amend the articles to reflect the final overall cost, and to accompany this amendment with the following footnote:

An earlier version of this article referred to Baroness Scotland’s £450,000 renovation of her Mayfair apartment. In fact, the overall cost of the renovation was later revealed to be £338,622. We are happy to clarify this and apologise for any confusion.

8. The publication also offered to add the following sentence to the 3 November article, regarding the “red light” rating: “The rating was given before Baroness Scotland was the Secretary-General”.

Relevant Code provisions

9. 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

10. The leaked documents relied on by the publication contained proposals for the refurbishment of the complainant’s grace-and-favour apartment, which would increase the overall budget to an estimated £450,000. The 1 November article adopted the £450,000 figure for the budget of the refurbishment as fact, although made clear that the figure had been derived from leaked documents. In making this claim, the publication had relied on both the documents themselves, and the fact that its sister publication had asked the Commonwealth Secretariat for its comments on the estimates they contained, and the Secretariat had declined to confirm the actual budget for the renovation. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that they were not obliged to provide this information. However, where the publication had internal documents containing the £450,000 figure, and in the absence of the Secretariat confirming the overall the budget in response to this information, there was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information in relation to the renovation of the apartment, such as to breach of Clause 1 (i).

11. After publication of the articles under complaint, the complainant confirmed that the overall cost of the renovations was £338,622, a figure the publication did not dispute.  While the publication had taken care not to publish inaccurate information, it was nevertheless significantly inaccurate for the 1 November article to claim, as fact, that the renovations would cost £450,000. This article therefore required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). The publication had offered to amend the online article to reflect the correct figure, and to add a footnote making clear that the article had been amended in this manner. The Committee was satisfied that in the circumstances, the publication had fulfilled its obligations under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). In order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii), the amendment and footnote should now be made.

12. The 3 November article principally concerned the comments of the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, which the article interpreted as critical of the complainant. In that context, it reported that the additional refurbishment proposals had “led to the total budget rising from £230,000 to an estimated £450,000”. The article made clear that the £450,000 was an estimate, and it was not in dispute that the budget had risen from £230,000 to £338,000. For these reasons, the Committee considered that this aspect of the article was not significantly misleading, such as to require correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii).

13. It was not in dispute that the Prime Minister’s spokesperson had been asked a number of times whether the Prime Minister had confidence in the complainant. The article’s sub headlines made clear that in response to these questions, the spokesperson “would only say [Downing Street] supported the ‘role’ of Secretary General”, which made clear the basis for the headline’s claims that “Downing street refuses to give confidence in [the complainant]”. The Committee noted that the spokesperson’s comments were in any event quoted in the article in full. The article was not misleading in the manner alleged, and this aspect of the complaint did not breach Clause 1.

14. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that the article reported that the Commonwealth Secretariat had been given a “red light rating in 2013 for ‘cost and value consciousness’”, without making clear that she had only become Secretary General in 2016. The Committee noted that the article did report that the complainant had become the Secretary General “earlier this year”. The article introduced the claim about the “red light rating”, by explaining that “concern about the state of the [Commonwealth Secretariat’s] finances are longstanding”. The article did not suggest that the complainant was responsible for this rating, and the article was not misleading in the manner alleged. This aspect of the complaint did not raise a breach of Clause 1.

Conclusion

15. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

16. N/A 

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