Ruling

17282-23 Bonnar v Sunday Mail

    • Date complaint received

      7th September 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 17282-23 Bonnar v Sunday Mail


Summary of Complaint

1. Steven Bonnar MP complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “SNP MP in Covid trip row/SNP chief’s right-hand man made lockdown wedding trip”, published on 29 January 2023.

2. The article – which appeared on page 9 of the newspaper, with a short nib appearing on the front page – reported that the complainant had “travelled across two council areas and flew to Northern Ireland at the height of the Covid pandemic”. It went on to report that “MP Steven Bonnar […] went on a four-day trip to Belfast days after Nicola Sturgeon increased restrictions amid fears that the virus was getting out of control” and that:

“In a message sent to [the then Chief Whip of the SNP], Bonnar set out details of the November 22 2020 journey and wrote: ‘Other than my office, my nearest and dearest and you in your role as chief whip, nobody else is aware of my trip.’

The email, passed to the Sunday Mail, shows that Bonnar claimed he was obeying the rules as he was attending a friend’s wedding, which was included in the list of exemptions.

However, he also told [the Chief Whip] he would be attending a wedding reception, which was banned at the time in both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Bonnar said he would be collected from Belfast Airport by the groom on November 22 and would travel to a residential address in County Down.

He told [the Chief Whip] he would be going to the wedding on November 23 and be travelling back to his accommodation “at end of the wedding reception”.

Bonnar claimed he would not be leaving his accommodation until November 25, to catch the boat from Belfast […]

Two days before Bonnar made the trip, [the then-First Minister] moved 11 local authorities into Level 4 restrictions, closing shops and banning people from socialising indoors. Those areas included North Lanarkshire, where Bonnar lived, and Glasgow, where he travelled from.”

3. The article then said that, “when challenged by the Sunday Mail, Bonnar claimed he did not believe he had flouted the rules or guidelines” and included a comment from the complainant which spanned six paragraphs and included the following quotes: “I think weddings were deemed ‘essential travel’. I believe I was in compliance with all the rules and regulations at the time”; “I am entirely comfortable that I remained within all of the guidelines at that time”; “I was entirely comfortable with the decision I took and remain so. I would make the same decision again.” It also included quotes from three politicians, criticising the complainant for the trip; one quote said that the complainant “appears to have broken lockdown rules” and that there should be an investigation into the matter.

4. The article closed with a comment from an “SNP spokesman”, who was reportedly said: “Steven attended this wedding as the best man of a family member. His activity was fully within the rules and guidelines set out, which provided an exemption for people travelling to weddings within the common travel area. The wedding also fully complied with all rules and guidance.”

5. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “SNP chief's right-hand man denies any wrongdoing as details of lockdown wedding trip emerge”.

6. One day prior to the article’s publication, a journalist acting on behalf of the newspaper contacted a representative of the SNP; this email included the allegation that “[o]n November 22, 2020 Steven Bonnar MP travelled from North Lanarkshire [Level 4 area] to Glasgow [Level 4 area], then to Belfast, for a wedding”, and asked “why was this permitted” and “what action will now take place against […] Mr Bonnar”.

7. The SNP spokesperson than responded, with a link to the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 guidance on travel and transport, which had been published on 20 November 2020 and updated on 26 November 2020. This guidance included the following excerpts:

“People who live in a Level 3 or 4 local authority area in Scotland are now required to stay in that area unless they have a reasonable excuse to travel, such as work, education, or welfare reasons.

[…] If you live in a Level 4 local authority area […] you must, by law, remain within that area unless you have a reasonable excuse (see exceptions).

Under current Scottish regulations, given the state of the epidemic in these countries, unless you have a reasonable excuse (see exceptions) you must not travel between Scotland and: England, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Wales”.

8. The guidance then included exceptions to the above terms; these included the following:

“in Level 3 travel to attend a gathering which relates to a marriage ceremony or civil partnership registration […] in Level 4 travel to attend a marriage ceremony or registration of a civil partnership”.

9. This was followed up with a further email from the spokesperson, in which they said: “As was set out in the guidelines I have just sent you, travel to a wedding was classed as an exemption.” The journalist responded to this email, saying:

“Well, for a start there were not supposed to be wedding receptions, but Steven told [the Chief Whip] he would be attending a reception, which was not permitted under the NI rules at the time. Or the Scottish rules.

 Secondly, Steven told the chief whip that only he and his family, and [the Chief Whip], knew about his trip - unsure why he would feel the need to say this if he felt that it was all above board.

As I say, if the party believes this was completely in-keeping with both the law and the spirit of the guidelines set out by [the First Minister] on November 20, 2020, then please send me a comment explaining this.”

10. The journalist and spokesperson exchanged a number of further emails, which culminated in the following email and response, sent from the journalist and the spokesperson respectively:

“Just to clarify:

1) Stephen Bonnar visited northern ireland for four days to attend a wedding

2) He socialised with people outside his household

3) He told [the Chief Whip] he was attending a wedding reception despite these being banned

4) He travelled through two level 4 council areas before travelling overseas

5) He said that only his family and [the Chief Whip] was aware of the trip and nobody else knew.

6) [The First Minister] told everyone to stay at home and not travel unless for essential purposes two days before he made the journey.

I am writing a story. If you want to comment on the record, send it over.”

“An SNP spokesperson said: ‘Steven attended this wedding as the best man of a family member. His activity was fully within the rules and guidelines set out, which provided an exemption for people travelling to weddings within the Common Travel Area. The wedding itself also fully complied with all rules and guidance.’”

11. On the same day, the journalist called the complainant; the pair had the following exchange:

Journalist: I am doing a story on the fact that you attended a wedding in Northern Ireland when you were not supposed to leave your home except for essential purposes.

Complainant: Right, I don’t think that’s accurate. I think weddings were deemed essential travel […] Yeah, absolutely I believe I was in compliance with all the rules and regulations at the time.

[…]

Journalist: I’m looking at [the First Minster’s] speech from two days before you travelled so she said, you know, ‘except for limited purposes including childcare or caring for someone you should not go out and about over this three week period…you should not travel outwith Scotland, there must be…

Complainant: Aye, except for essential purpose and if you look through all the regulations at the time on the Scottish Government website, weddings were always deemed essential travel.

12. Two days after the article’s publication, the complainant contacted the newspaper. In a letter to the newspaper, he said that “at no point was a single lockdown measure breached” and that the publication had chosen “not to include in [the] article explicitly what the official Scottish Government guidelines were at the time despite being provided with this information.”

13. The complainant also said in the article that the wedding ceremony and reception that he attended had not taken place in Northern Ireland – rather, they had taken place in the Republic of Ireland, where the government guidelines at the time allowed for weddings and wedding receptions to be held. The complainant also noted in this letter that travel between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for the purposes of attending a wedding ceremony was permitted at the time. He requested both a retraction and an apology.

14. The complainant then contacted IPSO with his concerns. He said that the article breached Clause 1 as it included “inaccurate allegations [which have] unjustly maligned [his] integrity and reputation”. He said that the article under complaint had omitted to make clear that the Irish government regulations in place at the time of the wedding made clear that wedding gatherings and receptions of up to 25 people were allowed. He also said that he had acted in line with the exemptions set out in Scottish government guidance at the time, and that the article also omitted to mention this. He said that these omissions created a misleading impression that he had breached the guidelines in place, which he denied was the case. He also said that the critical comments from politicians included in the article strengthened this misleading impression.

15. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. It said that the complainant had, in his own words, stated that he had attended a “reception” – which, it said, was “banned” at the time. It did not dispute that attendance at wedding ceremonies was deemed essential travel, but it said that the article clearly highlighted that it was the travel to the wedding reception which was an “issue”. At any rate, it said that the article included the complainant’s position that he had acted within the guidance at all times when making his trip, and the SNP’s position that the travel was allowed.

16. Turning to the question of whether the article breached Clause 1 by not making clear that the wedding ceremony and reception had been held in Ireland – where wedding receptions were permitted at the time – the publication said that the complainant had not told it this until after the article was published, despite having been given “numerous opportunities to comment prior to publication.” It would not, therefore, have referenced the rules in place in the Republic of Ireland at the time in the article – as there was no indication from either the complainant’s correspondence with the Chief Whip or the comments received from the complainant and SNP that the wedding had occurred there. For this reason, it did not consider that omitting this information from the article rendered it significantly inaccurate, distorted, or misleading. To support its position, the publication provided the transcript of a phone call between the journalist who wrote the story and the complainant, and an email sent from the complainant to the then-Chief Whip, sent on the day of the trip. The email included the following excerpt:

“I write to confirm my whole plans with you before I depart.

I am in full compliance with all Tier 4 regulations and travel restrictions in place.

I am and will be in full compliance with all guidelines in each local authority area I visit.

[…]

[Link to the Scottish government travel guidelines] States that I am permitted to travel for an exempted reason that reason being travelling to a marriage ceremony.

My full itinerary is laid out below and there will be no deviation from this schedule.

[…]

Depart Glasgow airport at 15:45 arrive Belfast at 16:30

Collected by […] drove to Address: [Northern Ireland address]

Monday 23rd

Drive in private car to wedding venue.

Drive in private car to above address at end of wedding reception […]

Stay at above address until I depart to return to Scotland…”

17. While the publication did not accept a breach of the Code, it proposed to add an update to the top of the online article, clarifying that the SNP denied that the wedding had a reception, and confirming that the complainant had not been investigated in relation to the trip.

18. The complainant said that the publication had incorrectly assumed the wedding was in Northern Ireland, and that he had not told them at any point that it was. He noted that, at the time the publication had asked him for comment on the matter, it had been two years since the wedding, and he hadn’t felt the need to point out the precise location of the wedding reception as no one had asked him and said that: “having lived in Ireland, worked in Ireland, have family in Ireland. It is Ireland to me. Belfast is also in Ireland. You would need to understand my psyche as a nationalist and a republican to understand why I wouldn’t feel the need to point out where the wedding venue was.” He said that during the phone call he had referred to Ireland at all times, and it was supposition on the part of the reporter to assume that he had been talking about Northern Ireland.

19. The publication did not consider that an apology was an appropriate resolution to the complaint; however, it did propose to publish the following wording in print and online:

Print

In the edition dated 29 January 2023 we published an article on page 9 entitled "SNP chief's right-hand man made lockdown wedding trip", which said that Steven Bonnar MP travelled to a wedding ceremony and reception in Northern Ireland at the height of the Covid pandemic. Whilst Mr Bonnar did travel from Scotland to Northern Ireland on that occasion, he has since advised that the wedding ceremony and reception in fact took place in the Republic of Ireland, to which he further commuted from Northern Ireland. We are happy to clarify this.

Online

A previous version of this article stated that Steven Bonnar MP travelled to a wedding ceremony and reception in Northern Ireland at the height of the Covid pandemic. Whilst Mr Bonnar did travel from Scotland to Northern Ireland on that occasion, he has since advised that the wedding ceremony and reception in fact took place in the Republic of Ireland, to which he further commuted from Northern Ireland. We are happy to clarify this.

20. The complainant did not accept this as a resolution to the complaint, and said that the publication had interpreted the guidance in a way that was in his opinion “completely farcical and unclear”. He also said that, at the time of the trip travel from a Level 4 area in order to attend a wedding ceremony was allowed, and that his attendance at “the location of the wedding (chapel and venue)” was undertaken in compliance with “all rules and regulations at that time in that location”. He further said that all the rules “as stated by [the First Minister] in her televised briefing and as published on the government website were fully complied with”. He also said that, if he had left the Level 4 area to travel to a wedding reception only (for instance, as an evening guest) he would have been in breach of the law, as this was not permitted. But this was not what had occurred – he had attended the wedding ceremony and reception, during which there was no music, no dancing, no singing, socially distanced tabled, and “mask wearing”.

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

21. The complainant had said that the article omitted specific references to Covid-19 rules and regulations in both Scotland and the Republic of Ireland in a manner that rendered the article under complaint misleading, as it gave the impression that he had contravened the rules or guidance. Newspapers generally have discretion over the selection of material to publish, provided that the omission of information does not result in the article being significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted.

22. The Committee noted that, while the article was critical of the complainant for attending the wedding reception, the article under complaint did not assert that the complainant had breached any rules or regulations. Instead, the article questioned whether the complainant ought to have travelled to attend the wedding reception, given the concerns expressed at the time by the Scottish government over the spread of Covid-19 and the restrictions which had been put in place in Scotland.  The article reported that the complainant had made a “lockdown wedding trip” and had “travelled across two council areas and flew to Northern Ireland at the height of the pandemic” – neither of which was in dispute – and repeatedly set out the view of both the complainant and the SNP that the trip was within the rules and guidelines in place at the time. The article did contain comments from three politicians, criticising the complainant for this trip – but none of these comments went so far as to claim, as fact, that the complainant had broken any rules or regulations. One comment said it “appear[ed]” that the complainant had broken the rules, but this was clearly attributed to the politician in question and distinguished as their view of the complainant’s actions.

23. The Committee then considered the information which had been omitted from the article, and whether the omission of this information suggested the complainant had acted improperly in a misleading manner. The complainant had pointed to the Scottish guidelines, which set out that travel to wedding ceremonies was a listed exemption to the travel restrictions for Tier 4, and said that the article should have made this clear. However, this exemption was referenced in the article: “Bonnar claimed he was attending a friend’s wedding, which was included in the list of exemptions.” Therefore, while the precise wording had not been included in the article, it was clear upon reading the article that travel to wedding ceremonies was a listed exception, and this information had therefore not been omitted from the article.

24. The complainant also said that the article should have referred to the fact that wedding receptions were not banned in the Republic of Ireland – which was where the wedding ceremony and reception had taken place. However, the complainant had not disputed that the wedding reception was held in Northern Ireland when this was put to him prior to publication. Further, as noted above, the article did not assert  that the complaint had breached any rules or guidance by his attendance at the wedding or the reception, but was levelling criticism at him for his decision to travel to the event, in light of the restrictions in place at the time.  In that context, the article referenced the guidance in place in Scotland and Northern Ireland, being the countries from and to which the complainant had travelled in order to attend the wedding.  The Scottish guidance stated that:

“in Level 3 travel to attend a gathering which relates to a marriage ceremony or civil partnership registration […] in Level 4 travel to attend a marriage ceremony or registration of a civil partnership”.

Therefore, regardless of the legal status of wedding receptions in Ireland, the rules in place in Scotland for travel from a Level 4 area provided an exemption for “a marriage ceremony” – rather than travel to “gathering[s] which relate[..] to a marriage ceremony” which were permitted in Level 3. In these circumstances, omitting to refer to the fact that the wedding reception took place in the Republic of Ireland – where such gatherings were permitted – did not represent a breach of Clause 1.

25. The complainant had said that the publication’s interpretation of the guidance on travel was “completely farcical and unclear”. The Committee noted that it was not its role to adjudicate on whether the publication’s interpretation of the guidance was legally sound, only whether the article was inaccurate or misleading. Where the exemptions for travel to weddings from Level 4 areas referenced “travel to attend a marriage ceremony” and did not make any reference to related gatherings such as wedding receptions, the Committee considered that there was a basis for the article’s criticism of the complainant’s decision to travel to attend the event, and that the article was not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted on this point in breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

26. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

27. N/A

 

Date complaint received:  06/03/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  23/08/2023