Ruling

18554-23 Stephens v Scottish Daily Mail

  • Complaint Summary

    Chris Stephens MP complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Scottish Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the preparation and publication of an article headlined “SNP MP who forgot his phone... so had it couriered to London at taxpayers' expense”, published on 20 May 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      5th June 2024

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 18554-23 Stephens v Scottish Daily Mail


Summary of Complaint

1. Chris Stephens MP complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Scottish Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the preparation and publication of an article headlined “SNP MP who forgot his phone... so had it couriered to London at taxpayers' expense”, published on 20 May 2023.

2. The article, which appeared in print on page 8, reported that the complainant “landed taxpayers with a £130 bill to transport his mobile phone 400 miles after he left it at home when travelling to Westminster”. It said the complainant “used the parliamentary expenses system to pay for a courier company to collect his phone from his Glasgow home and take it to London rather than pay for it himself.” It then reported that, “[w]hen contacted by the Mail yesterday, [the complainant] promised the money would be paid back to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the body which manages Westminster's expenses scheme.” It went on to report that “[n]ewly published records show Mr Stephens made the claim of £129.88 on December 12, 2022”. The article included quotes from politicians; one such comment, attributed to a Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament, said: “Chris Stephens has some brass neck expecting the taxpayer to pick up the tab for his forgetfulness. ‘Public pay for SNP incompetence’ is a familiar headline – but there’s no justification for it in this instance”. Another comment, from a Liberal Democrat MP, included the following: “People want to see every penny in the public purse spent on vital public services like the NHS, not spent on first-class couriers for Chris Stephens’ mobile.”

3. The article also included the following quotation from the complainant: “Basically, I left my mobile in the house and I couldn't contact folk. I am paying it back. I'm paying it back on the basis that I accept it was my fault, I left the phone so I'm paying it back.” The article also reported that “Mr Stephens told his staff at the time of the claim that he would pay the money back to IPSA.”

4. The article then reported that “a spokesman for IPSA said the claim was accepted and paid to Mr Stephens because courier services are a valid cost that can be claimed through the expenses system”. According to the article, “the spokesman also confirmed that, as of yesterday morning, there was no agreement in place for the money to be repaid by the MP”. The article ended by reporting the complainant’s office “has now submitted a repayment form to IPSA in relation to the expense and the money will be returned”.

5.  The article also appeared online, in substantively the same format, under the headline “Senior SNP MP who forgot his phone at home while travelling to Westminster had it couriered to London and landed taxpayers with a £130 bill by claiming it on expenses.”

6. On 19 May, the day before the article’s publication, a reporter acting on behalf of the publication contacted the complainant by phone. During the call, the complainant accepted he had claimed this expense but said he would repay it. After the phone call, he forwarded the publication a message exchange between him and his office manager; the message exchange took place on 12 December 2022. This exchange included the following:

Complainant: I’ve lost my phone so best that people email me. Think I left it in the flat, checking with [REDACTED]

Complainant: I’m on the train

[....]

Office Manager: If phone in flat we can courier down to you

[...]

Office manager: £90 for pre 9am delivery if you want – can put on Ipsa

Complainant: Ok, if I will pay back

Complainant: I will pay back in January

Office Manager: Not Ipsa then?

Complainant: Pay it on the card, I will repay. Don’t worry.

[…]

Office Manager: It’s gone up already to £148 by 9am […]

Complainant: Yes before 9am but [REDACTED]. I will pay it back

7. Prior to the publication of the article, the complainant’s office also forwarded an email from IPSA, which was sent to the complainant’s office manager on 19 May 2023. The email confirmed details of a call between the office manager and an IPSA staff member. The email included the following excerpt:

1. The claim 60158503 for £129.88 for courier services is an approved and paid reimbursement claim

2. Within the Scheme of MPs’ Business Costs this claim is a permissible Parliamentary expense

3. We understand you wish to repay this claim

4. As IPSA does not require you to repay this cost (because it is an allowable cost), IPSA has not given you a deadline for the repayment of this claim

5. We have suggested the ‘year end process’ as a suitable point at which to repay the claim

8. The Westminster SNP Press Team sent the publication a further email on 19 May saying: “The claim in question was a permissible Parliamentary expense. As a result, IPSA did not set a deadline for this expense to be paid. Nevertheless, in good spirit, Mr Stephens paid the expense in full – saving the taxpayer £129.88.” Attached to this email was an undated IPSA repayment form.

9. At 10.45am that day, the publication contacted IPSA via phone. The publication said that, on this call, IPSA confirmed there had not been an agreement in place to repay the claim, but that it had been paid that day – it confirmed this in an email which said, “the repayment was agreed on 19 May 2023 and received shortly after.”

10. On 22 May 2023, the complainant submitted a complaint to IPSO. In this complaint, he said that the article had breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code. He said it gave the misleading impression that he had only agreed to pay back the £129.88 expense because he had been contacted by the publication, when in fact he had intended to pay it back prior to being contacted by the newspaper. He said that this misleading impression was compounded by the fact that the article omitted to mention his office had contacted IPSA on 12 December, the day of the train journey, to alert them to the expense. It had also, he said, omitted to mention that he had been advised the fee was legitimate but that if he wanted to repay the cost there was no time limit in which to do so, but ideally it should be paid by the expenses "year-end process" – which he said was July 2023, two months after the article’s publication. The complainant said three other publications who had also published this allegation had subsequently retracted it.

11. The complainant said the article also implied, in a misleading manner, that the expense was claimed improperly; he said this impression was heightened by the inclusion of quotes from individuals which were critical of his actions.

12. The complainant also said the phone call he had had with the journalist, prior to the article’s publication, breached Clause 10. He said that the phone call between him and the journalist had been recorded, and that he had not given permission for this, and he was unaware of this until it was revealed by the publication during the investigation. He also said that he had made clear his comments were off-the-record when he spoke to the reporter.

13. During IPSO’s complaints process, on 16 August, the complainant sent the publication an email from an IPSA staff member, which he had received on 11 August. The email included the following:

“My email from 19 May 2023 stands. Mr Stephens’ claim for courier services was an approved and paid claim and IPSA did not require you to repay this claim to us, therefore when you contacted us in December 2022 about repaying the cost, we did not give you a deadline by which to repay it.

“Earlier this week our comms team responded to a query from a journalist and while that response did not conflict with what we discussed on 19 May, it may have been misconstrued.

“For the avoidance of doubt; you and I spoke on 19 May about the repayment of the claim, following a conversation you had with my team in December 2022. In May 2023 you and I discussed the advice you had been given in December and I provided some clarity about how and when to make repayments”.

IPSA also wrote to IPSO during the complaints process. The letter included the following:

“The courier claim was submitted by Chris Stephens’ Office Manager on 12 December 2022, which was the day the cost was incurred. The Office Manager contacted our MP Services Team to inform us that Mr Stephens wished to repay the claim cost back to us and enquired how and when to make that repayment. He was advised to make the repayment as part of our year-end process. The end of the financial year is 31 March and the year end process runs for several months thereafter, so there was still time for the payment to be made beyond 19 May.[….] Furthermore, IPSA has never required Mr Stephens to repay this claim – it is a legitimate business cost. If it wasn’t, then we would have set a 30-day deadline for the repayment to be made.”

14. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. Turning to the specific alleged inaccuracies, it said it did not accept the article inaccurately implied the complainant only intended to pay back the expenses because of its publication. It said the article made clear the complainant repaid the expense after he was contacted by a reporter acting on behalf of the publication, and did not claim that it had been the prompt for the repayment. It said, in any event, it had not been presented with evidence to show the complainant had agreed with IPSA to repay the money prior to its reporter contacting him for comment on 19 May. It said the information it had been provided with prior to publication – the complainant’s messages to his staff about the claim and an undated repayment form – did not demonstrate that the complainant was already in the process of repaying the claim prior to the article’s publication. The publication said IPSA had not raised any concerns about the accuracy of the article, and that the article included the complainant’s position that he had told his staff he wished to repay the money as soon as the claim was made.

15. The publication also did not accept the article misleadingly implied the complainant was guilty of wrongdoing. It said the article made clear the claim was legitimate; the article noted that “a spokesman for IPSA said the claim was accepted”. It said people were entitled to be critical of the complainant making the claim, regardless of whether the money was then paid back, and this did not render the article inaccurate or misleading.

16. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 10. It said the purpose of Clause 10 is to prevent unmerited fishing expeditions by using clandestine devices or subterfuge to gather information which not would ordinarily be revealed. It said that, during the conversation complained of, the complainant was aware he was speaking to a journalist who was writing a story about him. It said that the recording had been made for the purpose of keeping an accurate contemporaneous record of the conversation, and noted that IPSO had previously ruled that such recordings were not considered to be clandestine recording as defined by the terms of Clause 10.

17. To support its position, the publication also supplied a recording of the conversation to IPSO. In this recording, the complainant did not say his comments were off-the-record.

18. The complainant maintained he had stated the conversation was off-the-record, although he did not dispute he could not be heard saying this in the recording.

Relevant Clause Provision

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.

Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)*

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.

ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.

Findings of the Committee

19. The complainant said that the article was misleading as he had always intended to pay back the claim, and would have done so even if he had not been contacted by the publication. The Committee noted the information provided by the complainant – the messenger exchange and the emails from IPSA – indicated advice was given around repaying the expense, and IPSA’s position was that the expense was legitimate. However, there was no contemporaneous documentation provided that showed a formal arrangement had been made, and it was not in dispute that no repayment had been made at the time the publication contacted the complainant for comment, nearly six months after the claim.

20. The Committee also noted the article made clear why the expense had initially been claimed and the complainant’s position, which was that his intention had always been to repay the expense, and the money would be returned. This was not an inaccurate summary of the events surrounding the claim as they stood at the time of the article’s publication: the complainant had “promised the money would be paid back to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the body which manages Westminster's expenses scheme”, but had not yet repaid the money. Therefore, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

21. The Committee then considered whether the article created a misleading impression of wrongdoing by including quotes from other politicians. The decision to include quotations is a matter of editorial discretion for publications, and newspapers are not responsible for the content of quotations, but rather making sure their content is distinguished from fact. In this case, the quotations were clearly distinguished as the views of the complainant’s political opponents. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

22. The Committee then considered whether the phone call breached the terms of Clause 10, as alleged by the complainant. The complainant had said that the Clause had been breached as the call had been recorded without his knowledge, and he had asked to remain “off-the-record”. The terms of Clause 10 make clear that the press should not seek to publish material obtained by using hidden recording devices; the purpose of the Clause is to regulate the use of material obtained using clandestine devices and misrepresentation. In this case, the recording itself was not published, and the complainant was aware he was speaking to a reporter throughout the conversation; there was no allegation that the reporter has misrepresented the nature of the phone call or engaged in subterfuge. The Committee was satisfied that the complainant had not been recorded covertly for the purposes of publication, but rather that the call was recorded for the purpose of keeping an accurate contemporaneous record of the call. Whether a conversation was “off the record” did not engage the terms of the Clause. Notwithstanding this, the Committee also noted that the complainant had not referenced the call being “off-the-record” in any follow-up correspondence with the publication, and that this was not referenced in the recording of the phone-call it had been provided. Therefore, it was not able to establish in any case whether the call had been off-the-record or not. There was no breach of Clause 10.

Conclusion

23. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

24. N/A


Date complaint received: 24/07/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 08/02/2024


Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.