Ruling

20544-23 Shaw v Telegraph.co.uk

  • Complaint Summary

    Dr Lesley Shaw complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Telegraph.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “David Shaw, robustly Right-wing Conservative MP for Dover – obituary”, published on 4 September 2022.

    • Date complaint received

      1st February 2024

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 20544-23 Shaw v Telegraph.co.uk


Summary of Complaint

1. Dr Lesley Shaw complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Telegraph.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “David Shaw, robustly Right-wing Conservative MP for Dover – obituary”, published on 4 September 2022.

2. The article was an obituary for the complainant’s late husband, who had been a Conservative MP. The obituary said that “despite his assiduous attendance at committees and pioneering use of the internet at Westminster, [he] cultivated the image of a bullet-headed partisan” and that “he campaigned for tighter controls on abortion, sporting links with white South Africa, the return of the death penalty”. The obituary also referenced an incident where the complainant’s husband had been “branded the Commons’ ‘number one smear merchant’, “by [a] Labout [sic] MP”. It also said that “Shaw blamed the fire that closed the Channel Tunnel in 1996 on sabotage by a striking French lorry driver”, and that during the Tunnel’s excavation “he claimed Irish tunnelers were raising funds for the IRA”. It then stated he “did cannily predict as work began in 1987 that if the cost were to increase, investors in Eurotunnel could be left with almost nothing.”

3. The obituary also said that “Tony Benn ironically observed that if P & O had been involved in Shaw’s selection, they had ‘made a wise choice’. It was no coincidence that the Labour candidate who nearly won Dover from him in 1992, then took it next time round with a five-figure majority, was a ferry man: Gwyn Prosser, chief engineer with P & O’s rival Sealink”. It then referred to an incident where the complainant’s husband “tried to wrestle a camera from a female photographer” and was subsequently branded by a newspaper as “the vilest MP in Britain”. It reported the incident led to him being “fined £180 for assault”, and a judge had remarked he had “acted like a child fighting for his favourite toy” and said, “his defence was ‘far-fetched and specious’.” It also said that “from 2004 to 2017” the complainant’s husband “administered his own charitable trust, benefiting young people.”

4. The complainant said the article breached Clause 1 because she disputed her husband had “campaigned for tighter controls on abortion, sporting links with white South Africa, [or] the return of the death penalty”. She said her husband had not campaigned on any of these issues and had not mentioned any of these matters when speaking in the House of Commons. She said the positions he held were not those suggested in the article. For instance, she said his only involvement in the death penalty debate was to propose an amendment which would have watered down the bill.

5. The complainant also said the article inaccurately reported on her husband’s views on, and involvement with, the excavation of the Channel Tunnel; she said it was inaccurate to report her husband blamed “the fire that closed the channel tunnel in 1996 on sabotage by a striking French lorry driver”. Rather, she said, he raised a question in the Commons referencing this allegation, which had previously been made by others. She said he had explicitly noted in his question that the allegation may not be true and the question was part of his work to ensure the safety of the tunnel works. She said she had not found evidence that her husband had “claimed Irish tunnelers were raising funds for the IRA”. In addition, while the article reported the complainant’s husband had predicted that “as work began in 1987 [on the tunnel] that if the cost were to increase, investors in Eurotunnel could be left with almost nothing”, the complainant said his chief concern was that public funds should not be used to bail out the project.

6. The complainant then said that the article’s description of the incident between her husband and the photographer breached Clause 1. The article reported that the incident led to her husband being fined “£180 for assault”; she said this was inaccurate because it implied her husband received a criminal conviction, given that a fine is specifically a criminal remedy. She said the true position was that a small sum of damages was awarded in a civil suit, with the corresponding lower standard of proof – it was damages her husband had paid, rather than a fine. She also said the comments of the judge who presided over the case were misrepresented; while the article reported the judge had said the complainant’s husband “acted like a child fighting for his favourite toy”, contemporaneous reports of the trial placed blame on both parties, with one newspaper reporting “it was a stupid struggle for the camera, like two children in a nursery fighting for a favourite toy.”

7. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report “from 2004 to 2017” the complainant’s husband, “administered his own charitable trust, benefiting young people.” The complainant said the charitable trust was established in January 1995.

8. The complainant also objected to the inclusion of criticism of her husband, without including any quotes from Conservative politicians. She said this created a distorted and misleading version of her husband. She also objected to the inclusion of the word “despite” in the sentence “despite his assiduous attendance at committees and pioneering use of the internet at Westminster”. She said this “brushe[d] over” his work on Committees and strong attendance record, as well as his work on technology. She also said the article omitted to include what she considered to be the key issues her husband campaigned on, such as: saving share option schemes; widening share ownership; restitution for the Maxwell Pensioners; and small business issues. The complainant also said the inclusion and framing of an “unfounded allegation from a political opponent” implied the criticism was true; namely, the allegation that P & O had been involved in his selection as a parliamentary candidate.

9. The complainant also said the article breached Clause 4. She said the inclusion of references to previous criticism of her husband as “the vilest MP in Britain”, created a misleading impression of him which contrasted with the tone of other obituaries published by the same publication. She also objected to the inclusion of the description of her husband as having “cultivated the image of a bullet-headed partisan”; she said this reference was “cruel” and inappropriate for an obituary.

10. She also said the alleged inaccuracies on her husband’s position on “abortion, sporting links with white South Africa, the return of the death penalty", were in themselves a breach of Clause 4.

11. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. Turning first to Clause 1, it said that the complainant’s husband had voted for an anti-abortion bill in January 1988; in May 1988 he co-sponsored an amendment to Criminal Justice Bill giving judges the power to impose the death penalty in cases of particular "premeditation, brutality or callousness”; and that he opposed a ban on cricketers playing in South Africa in January 1998. It did not, therefore, accept that it was inaccurate to report that he had campaigned on abortion, the death penalty, or sporting links with South Africa.

12. The publication also did not accept it had inaccurately reported the complainant’s views on the Channel Tunnel. It referred to the October 1989 edition of Parliamentary Profiles, which said the complainant’s husband "urged investigation of IRA fundraising among Irish workers on Channel Tunnel." It also cited a Reuters article from 1996, which reported that he “asked Transport Secretary Sir George Young in the House of Commons whether he was aware of allegations that the blaze ‘was sabotage by a striking French lorry driver’".

13. The publication also did not accept it had inaccurately described the incident with the photographer. It referred to a March 1990 Daily Mail article, which stated he was ordered “to pay £180 damages and unspecified costs for assaulting” a photographer. The same article reported Mr Shaw “’acted like a child fighting for his favourite toy’ when he wrestled a woman photographer to the ground, a judge said yesterday.”

14. The publication did not accept it was inaccurate to report that the complainant’s husband had administered a charitable trust between 2004 and 2017. To support its position, it provided Mr Shaw’s Who’s Who entry which said, "Founder and Dir, David Shaw Charitable Trust, 1994–2017".

15. The publication did not accept that criticism of the complainant’s husband amounted to a breach of Clause 1. It also did not accept that omitting the details the complainant considered important breached the Clause. It said the author of the obituary engaged in meticulous research and was in the Lobby and Press Gallery for most of Mr Shaw's time in the House and saw him “in action” frequently. It also did not accept including the quote from Tony Benn inaccurately implied that this was a matter of fact. It said the quote was described as “ironic”, clearly distinguishing it from fact.

16. The publication also did not accept it had breached Clause 4 by including criticism of the complainant’s husband in the obituary. It said, while it was sorry the obituary had caused the complainant and her family upset, it believed its content was accurate and reflected her husband's political career and his good works through his charitable trust. It also did not accept that the article included inaccurate information which would breach the terms of Clause 4.

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.

Clause 4 (Intrusion into grief or shock)

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

Findings of the Committee

17. The Committee firstly wished to extend its condolences to the complainant for the loss of her husband.

18. The Committee considered whether the article had breached Clause 1 by reporting the complainant’s husband “campaigned for tighter controls on abortion, sporting links with white South Africa, the return of the death penalty”. The publication was able to produce evidence suggesting Mr Shaw voted in line with the positions reflected in the article. In the context of an obituary piece offering an overview of Mr Shaw’s life, rather than an article focused on these particular societal issues, the Committee considered that the publication had provided a sufficient basis for the claims and taken sufficient care. Additionally, where the publication was able to demonstrate a level of support from the complainant’s husband on these issues, the Committee did not consider it significantly inaccurate to state he had “campaigned” on them. In addition, this did not significantly misrepresent the complainant’s husband’s position on these issues; from his voting record, it was apparent that he had supported tighter controls on abortion, sporting links with white South Africa, and the return of the death penalty in limited cases. As such, there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. The Committee then considered whether the article had accurately reported on Mr Shaw’s involvement with and views on the Channel Tunnel. The publication had been able to support its reporting of the complainant’s husband’s comments on IRA fundraising with contemporaneous evidence from Parliamentary Profiles, and so the Committee did not find any inaccuracies on this point. Additionally, where the publication showed Mr Shaw had drawn attention to the allegations against “the striking French lorry driver” in the House of Commons, while apparently not disputing their validity, the Committee did not consider it significantly inaccurate to report Mr Shaw “blamed” the fire on the driver. Regarding whether Mr Shaw had been concerned investors in Eurotunnel could be left with nothing, the complainant did not dispute that this was a worry of her husband’s. The Committee therefore did not consider the article was inaccurate on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1 on either of these points.

20. It then considered whether the publication had inaccurately reported the incident between the complainant’s husband and the photographer. The Committee acknowledged a fine in a criminal court is not the same as an award of damages in a civil court, and that the standard of proof is higher for criminal cases than in civil cases. However, it was not in dispute Mr Shaw was ordered, by a court, to pay the amount of money reported by the article to the photographer as a consequence of the incident. In this context, where the focus of article was to provide a condensed outline of Mr Shaw’s life, rather than a report on that particular court case, the Committee did not consider the use of the word “fined” to be significantly inaccurate. Additionally, although there were different, but relatively similar, versions of the exact remarks made by the judge as to the nature of the “squabble”, the publication was able to support the article’s version of events with contemporaneous evidence. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

21. Turning to the matter of the dates Mr Shaw administered his charitable trust, it did appear that the publication had reported this matter incorrectly. However, in the context of an article that focused on Mr Shaw’s life and career as a whole, and where the article made clear that the deceased MP had administered the charitable trust for many years, the Committee did not consider the article to be significantly inaccurate on this point. There was therefore no breach of Clause 1.

22. While the Committee appreciated the complainant disputed the article’s position that her husband had “cultivated the image of a bullet headed partisan”, the Committee considered this was clearly a subjective characterisation on the part of the publication rather than a claim of fact. While the complainant may have disagreed with this description, where it was clearly the view of the writer – and distinguished as such, in line with the terms of Clause 1 (iv) – rather than a claim of fact, there was no potential inaccuracy identified and therefore no breach of Clause 1.

23. The Committee turned to the matter of whether the inclusion of critical comments on the complainant’s husband or the omission of certain details of his life breached Clause 1. The selection of material for publication is a matter of editorial discretion, as long as the Code is not otherwise breached. While the Committee sympathised with the complainant’s concern that this information created a distorted image of her husband, in this case, where it was not in dispute that these criticisms had been made, including them in the article did not breach Clause 1.

24. Furthermore, the omission of positive details of the complainant’s husband’s life did not in itself constitute a breach of the Clause; this again, was a matter of selection.

25. The Code makes clear the press has the right to publish individuals’ views, as long as it takes care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. While the Committee appreciated the complainant was concerned that including critical comments from political rivals in the obituary legitimised their comments, they were clearly distinguished as the “ironic” view of the political rival in question, rather than a claim of fact. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

26. The Committee then turned to the complainant’s concerns that the inclusion of criticism of her husband in the obituary represented a breach of Clause 4. While there is a requirement publication is handled sensitively in cases of grief or shock, this does not mean it is unacceptable to publish criticism of deceased individuals, or coverage which paints them in a negative light. The Committee was sympathetic to the upset the article had caused the complainant. However, it did not consider the critical mentions of the complainant’s husband to be gratuitous or insensitive, but rather reflective of a prominent and at times controversial public life. The Committee did not consider this kind of reporting to be intrusive or insensitive and there was no breach of the Clause on this point.

27. Where the Committee did not find any inaccuracies within the article, the complainant’s concern that the alleged inaccuracies were in themselves insensitive did not breach Clause 4.

Conclusions

28. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

29. N/A


Date complaint received: 01/09/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 27/11/2023


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.