Ruling

14117-23 Dines v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      8th June 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy


Decision of the Complaints Committee – 14117-23 Dines v The Times


Summary of Complaint

1. Sarah Dines MP complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “I shall stand against Boris myself if he comes north”, published on 4 January 2023.

2. The article was a comment piece which appeared on page 22 in the “Notebook” section of the newspaper. The columnist reported that “wild rumours [were] sweep[ing] the Peak District”, and that “the whisper is that Boris Johnson wants to scuttle from Uxbridge, the seat he represents, and stand for the constituency” in Derbyshire Dales and “the idea may well have crossed Johnson’s mind.” The article stated that Derbyshire Dales was represented by Sarah Dines, the complainant, and that “she and [Boris Johnson] are on excellent terms”.

3. It went on to report that “To the surprise of some, [Johnson] paid an unpublicised visit here some five weeks ago where, hosted by Dines in Wirksworth, he met local Conservatives — his second visit since the 2019 general election.” It concluded that “[o]n balance I doubt the rumours. But should Johnson ever stand here I shall be pleased to add to the general merriment by putting up against the charlatan myself, if that would help foil his cunning plan”.

4. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format.

5. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1, as it implied that she would stand down as a member of parliament for Derbyshire Dales to allow Boris Johnson to take her seat. She said the Conservative Campaign Headquarters’ deadline for sitting MPs to confirm their intentions to stand again was 5 December 2022 – on which date both she and Mr Johnson had confirmed that they would be standing in the same seats they had stood at in the last general election – and this had further been reported in The Sunday Times on 8 January 2023. She said it was common knowledge that Mr Johnson intended to stand again for Uxbridge and South Ruislip at the next general election. She also said that the article was misleading as it is impossible to swap seats under the present rules of the Conservative Party.

6. The complainant initially stated that Mr Johnson’s visit was “unpublicised” due to security reasons, and that the visit had included a visit to another MP and another engagement in the afternoon. She subsequently clarified that it was in fact inaccurate to describe the visit as “unpublicised”, when the event had been planned for several months, and it was sufficiently known to the public for 35 – 40 protesters to attend the lunch venue. She said the event was well publicised by local newspapers, and she had written about the event in her own newspaper column and had attended in her capacity as a local MP. She said the term “unpublicised” suggested the trip was “secretive” and “conspiratorial” as part of a “cunning plan”, and this was distorted and misleading.

7. The complainant said that, even though the columnist had accepted that “on balance” he doubted the rumours, the newspaper had still published them. The complainant further said that to her knowledge, these “rumours” had only ever appeared in two speculative tweets in 2019, which had since been deleted. She said she had never been asked about the rumours in the three years since, except after the article under complaint had been published. Therefore, she did not consider that the rumours did in fact exist prior to the publication of the article.

8. The complainant said no one from the publication had contacted her for comment, or to check the veracity of the rumours. She said claims that she was about to abandon her job and constituency qualified as a significant allegation which the publication should have sought comment on. The complainant also believed the article insinuated that she would leave her role as an MP so that Mr Johnson could take her seat, which she considered misogynistic and absurd. She said it had damaged her reputation locally and nationally. The complainant also requested an apology from the publication.

9. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It said the article was a brief item in a personal “Notebook” column, clearly labelled, in the opinion section of the newspaper and website. It said that the columnist was entitled to express his personal views about rumours – which existed – concerning the former PM’s intentions at the next election. It said that the article did not allege nor hint that the complainant may be colluding in a plan to seat-swap and had in any case concluded that such a plan, on balance, did not exist. Nevertheless, it said that the possibility of Mr Johnson looking for a safer seat had been widely discussed and was a topic of national interest, and it was reasonable to speculate that he may look for a seat in Derbyshire – provided this speculation was distinguished from fact, as the publication maintained that it had done.

10. The publication said omitting information about the deadline to confirm whether MPs were standing again was not relevant. It said that the deadline referenced by the complainant was an internal Conservative party deadline set for administrative convenience. It also noted that Party rules may be overridden, suspended, or sidestepped, and there was nothing in law to prevent an MP of any party from standing down at the last moment. It said the Representation of the People Act requires nomination papers to be submitted by 4pm on the 19th day before a general election, and that any candidate could withdraw up to that point.

11. It said that omitting Mr Johnson’s other engagements during his visit to the Derbyshire was not relevant. It said the article did not suggest MPs could swap seats, and that these points had no bearing on the columnist’s speculation on Mr Johnson’s intentions or the veracity of the rumours.

12. The publication said that the visit was sufficiently "unpublicised" for the complainant to claim initially that it was kept secret on security grounds. It said that, while news of it may have spread to the extent that a small group of protesters were present outside the venue, Mr Johnson's lunch with local association members remained a private and unpublicised event.

13. Turning to the question of whether the rumours existed, the publication said that it was difficult to convincingly confirm or deny the existence of a rumour due to their nature.  It said the basis for the complainant’s claim that the rumour did not exist was unclear – simply because she had not heard the rumours herself, this did not mean that they did not exist. It then said the columnist's basis for saying that there were rumours was based on his personal knowledge of local gossip, informal speculation and word of mouth: the columnist was a long-term local resident and had himself been a Conservative MP for the constituency, and therefore had personal and political connections and knowledge of political affairs.

14. The publication then said that the "cunning plan" was clearly attributed to Mr Johnson by the columnist and there was no suggestion that the complainant was colluding in such a plan. The publication said there was no suggestion that the idea had ever been put to the complainant or that she was aware of it in any way. It said that asking her about her part in such a plan would not have been appropriate.

15. The complainant responded that the publication was unable to provide any evidence in support of the rumours. She said that the columnist accepted in the article that, on balance, he did not think the rumours were true so questioned why the article had been published.

16. She said that the entire basis for the article was that she would stand down from her parliamentary seat, which had evolved from the “wild rumours”. She said the headline and statement “I shall stand against Boris myself if he comes north” was relevant, as she would have to stand down from her seat to enable Mr Johnson to “come[…] north”. She therefore reiterated that she should have been contacted for comment.

17. The complainant said the article had not been “opinion” but constituted news and information. She said the story was not “frivolous or tongue in cheek” and had been damaging to her reputation.

18. The complainant supplied an image of material protesting Mr Johnson’s visit which had appeared on a WhatsApp group and social media to support her position that it was widely known that he was visiting her constituency.

Relevant Clause 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

19. When deciding whether the article breached the terms of Clause 1, the Committee was mindful of the nature of the claims under complaint and the context in which the article appeared. It noted that the article was published in an established ‘Notebook’ column, in the Comment section. It was not a news report nor was it presented as such; it was a clearly distinguished piece of political gossip, presented in a playful and light-hearted manner.

20. The Committee turned next to the actual content of the article: it reported that the writer had heard “wild rumours” and described Mr Johnson’s rumoured intentions to “scuttle from Uxbridge” as a “cunning plan”; and concluded that, “on balance”, the columnist “doubt[ed] the rumours”. The thrust of the article focused on speculation surrounding Mr Johnson’s actions, and the columnist’s tongue-in-cheek intent to “add to the general merriment” by standing against Mr Johnson himself. Reading the article as a whole, the Committee did not consider the article reported as fact that Ms Dines would give up her seat to allow Mr Johnson to stand in her constituency; in fact the columnist himself suggested that this was unlikely.

21. The columnist had referenced the claims clearly as rumours that were unlikely to be true, and the complainant was not in a position to disprove that such rumours were in circulation; she was not aware of them, but this did not mean that they were not known to the columnist. In these circumstances,–the Committee did not consider it necessary for the publication to have contacted the complainant prior to publication for the article. It did not find that there was a failure to take care over the article, or a significant inaccuracy requiring correction. There was no breach of Clause 1.

22. The Committee further considered the complainant’s other concerns of inaccuracy about matters that she said appeared to provide support to the rumour, such as the omission of the Conservative Party deadline for confirming intentions to stand again and the current policy on seat swapping, as well as the reference to Mr Johnson’s “unpublicised” visit . The Committee recognised that there was an internal-party deadline for confirming MP’s intentions to stand again; however the publication’s and complainant’s view of the importance of this deadline differed. The Committee acknowledged that, while many Conservative MPs may observe this date, the Representation of the People Act requires nomination papers to be submitted by 4pm on the 19th day before a general election, and any candidate could withdraw up to that point – the internal-party deadline was not a statutory one. Therefore, the Committee did not consider that the  omission of  this deadline rendered the article  significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. The Committee also noted that the article had not claimed that Mr Johnson’s rumoured intension was to “swap seats” with the complainant, but rather that he might stand for Derbyshire Dales – the article had not speculated on which alternative constituency the complainant may have pursued. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

23. The complainant had said describing Mr Johnson’s visit as “unpublicised” was inaccurate, as it had suggested the complainant was complicit in the rumoured plan. While the complainant had supplied examples of where the visit had been documented in local press as well as evidence of a small protest, the Committee had not seen any evidence to suggest the visit had been widely publicised ahead of time, or that anyone beyond a small group of protestors and local party members were aware of the visit prior to it taking place. The Committee further noted that the complainant had initially accepted, in direct correspondence with the publication, that the visit had been unpublicised. In the context of a passing reference, the Committee did not consider this reference to be significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

24. The complainant said the headline had not been supported by the text of the article.  The Committee noted that the columnist had set out the basis for the headline in the text of the article, by recalling “wild rumours” he had heard regarding Mr Johnson’s intentions to stand in the “north”. The columnist described what he would do if Mr Johnson did in fact come north: “But should Johnson ever stand here I shall be pleased to add to the general merriment by putting up against the charlatan myself, if that would help foil his cunning plan”. The headline was supported by the article and there was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

25. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

26. N/A


Date complaint received: 26/01/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 23/05/2023