Ruling

21530-23 Carragher v Sunday Mail

  • Complaint Summary

    Tracy Carragher 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 “Sex pest’s ally in push to be an MP”, published on 8 October 2023.

    • Date complaint received

      28th April 2024

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 21530-23 Carragher v Sunday Mail


Summary of Complaint

1. Tracy Carragher 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 “Sex pest’s ally in push to be an MP”, published on 8 October 2023.

2. The article – which appeared on page 2 of the newspaper underneath a banner which read “COUNCILLOR PASSES SNP VETTING” – reported that the complainant, who it described as an “SNP councillor accused of ignoring sex assault claims”, was “looking to stand in the next General Election despite being involved [in a] scandal” involving a named former SNP councillor. The article stated that the complainant had “passed the party’s internal vetting procedures for the next election but the Sunday Mail understands she has not yet been selected as a candidate”, adding that this was “the second time the [complainant] has tried to become an MP after a failed bid in 2019”.

3. The article then reported that “in February the Sunday Mail told how [another named councillor] claimed he had told [the complainant] months earlier that he had been sexually assaulted and harassed by [the former councillor] but she had taken no action”. It then stated that the complainant “denied [this individual’s] account”.

4. The article also included the comments made by a representative of the Progressive Change North Lanarkshire party, reportedly “set up in the wake of the scandal”: “Our whole group was astonished at the fact that Tracy Carragher appears to have passed SNP candidate vetting for the Westminster elections. She neglected a complaint of sexual harassment, protected [the named councillor] and refused to acknowledge her role as leader to appropriately investigate his alleged actions then threatened to suspend the person who reported their experience with [the named councillor] to her […] What exactly are SNP HQ vetting if they choose to ignore this behaviour consistently?”

5. The article also included the following statement from an SNP spokesperson: “We do not comment on internal party process”. It also reported that the complainant “was asked for comment.”

6. The article was accompanied by a photograph of the complainant standing next to the former councillor. It was also accompanied by images of previous Sunday Mail front pages, from March 2023 and July 2023, which reported on the allegations against the former councillor.

7. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “SNP councillor who ignored sex pest claims in running to become an MP at general election”. The sub-heading of this version of the article read: “SUNDAY MAIL EXCLUSIVE: The party's Tracy Carragher was accused of ignoring sex assault claims now at the centre of a police investigation but has been cleared to stand as a candidate”.

8. A link to the online article was also published on the publication’s X – formerly known as Twitter – account. A post accompanying the link read: “SNP councillor who ignored sex pest claims in running to become an MP at general election”.

9. The complainant said the article was inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1. She denied that she was “running” to become an MP; she had not sought nomination for the forthcoming general election in any constituency. She also noted that the article had been published after the SNP’s nomination process had closed and after the date when she could have been selected as a prospective parliamentary candidate for the party. The complainant accepted that she had previously passed the party’s parliamentary vetting process, and she had been included on the approval list for potential parliamentary candidates for “some years now”.

10. The complainant also said the headline of the online article inaccurately reported that she had “ignored sex pest claims”; she denied that she had received any such complaint that she had subsequently ignored. She was also concerned that the newspaper had presented such a serious allegation as a statement of fact, and considered that this also represented a breach of the Code.

11. On 17 November 2023 – and its first substantive response during IPSO’s complaints process – the publication said it had amended the online article on 14 November, 22 days after the publication initially became aware of the complainant’s concerns. The headline was changed to: “SNP councillor accused of ignoring sex pest claims in running to become an MP at general election”. Nevertheless, the publication noted that the sub-headline and text of the online article, including the opening sentence, made clear that this was not a claim of fact but an allegation against the complainant: she had been “accused of ignoring sexual assault claims”. The publication also noted that it had approached the complainant for comment regarding this allegation, via e-mail and telephone, in May 2023 when it had first covered this story. It had then received a response from her party on the matter, which denied the allegation. It said that the text of the article – both online and in print – made clear that she “denied” the claims made against her.

12. The publication did not accept that the article inaccurately reported that the complainant was “in the running” to become an MP: the complainant had passed the party’s internal vetting process and, therefore, was eligible for selection – a point, it argued, the text of the article made clear. It added that two sources had advised that the complainant was considering running for election in another area. The publication could not disclose the identity of its sources, where it had a moral obligation to protect their identity under the terms of Clause 14 of the Editors’ Code of Practice. However, it said that the sources were: from the complainant’s local party branch; considered “extremely reliable”; and had “first-hand knowledge” that the complainant was actively looking at other areas to stand for election. The publication said the complainant was eligible for selection for elections to the Scottish Parliament and local government, but as these were not until May 2026 and May 2027 respectively, it was reasonable for the article to refer to the next general election, which is due by January 2025 at the latest and which the complainant was eligible to stand in.

13. On 29 November 2023, 37 days after first becoming aware of the complaint, the publication then offered, in an effort to resolve the matter, to publish the following standalone online correction on its homepage for 24 hours:

Tracy Carragher - A correction

A previous headline of our article, 8 October reported as fact that SNP councillor, Tracy Carragher, had 'ignored sex pest claims'. Although the article made clear that [a named councillor] claimed he had told Carragher months earlier that he had been sexually assaulted and harassed by [named individual] but she had taken no action' and that Carragher denied this, the headline should not have reported this as fact. We are happy to make clear that Tracy Carragher was accused of ignoring the sex pest claims, which she denies. The headline has been amended accordingly.

14. The complainant did not accept the proposal as a resolution to the complaint. She said this was because the wording of the correction did not include an apology, nor did it address her other concern: that she was “in the running” and “looking to stand” as an MP for the SNP in the next general election. She also considered that the correction should appear within the publication’s Corrections and Clarification column online and in print. She further requested the removal of the online article as well as the accompanying post on X – which she noted had not been amended or corrected.

15. The publication did not consider it was appropriate to offer an apology. However, on 15 December it offered to remove the X post in question and to publish a link to the standalone correction on its X account to resolve the complaint.

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

16. First, the Committee emphasised that it was not making a finding on the accuracy of the allegations made against the complainant. Its role was to decide whether there had been a breach of the Editors’ Code.

17. The Committee considered whether the articles – in print and online – were inaccurate to report the complainant was “in [a] push to be an MP” and “in the running to become an MP”, respectively. The Committee appreciated the publication’s position that this information came from confidential sources. It stressed it would not ask a publication to disclose the identity of a confidential source, and that it was mindful of Clause 14, which places a moral obligation on journalists to protect such sources of information. However, in this instance, simply relying on the word of confidential sources, without taking any further steps to verify the information provided – for instance, by contacting the complainant or the party for their position – was not enough to demonstrate the publication had taken care over the accuracy of the information. This had resulted in the publication of inaccurate information as – at the time of the article’s publication – the complainant’s position was that she was not “in the running” to become an MP, nor was she “push[ing]” to become one. The Committee was also concerned the publication had not acknowledged in its correspondence that the complainant had not been approached for comment for the article under complaint, but had been approached for comment about a separate article published in May 2023. It therefore found a breach of Clause 1(i).

18. Where the crux of the article was the complainant’s alleged attempt to become an MP, and reporting that the complainant was currently in the running to become an MP in the next general election gave the article its topicality, the inaccuracy was significant and in need of correction in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

19. The Committee considered the second aspect of the complaint: that the complainant had ignored claims of sexual assault and harassment against a fellow councillor. The Committee noted that the headline of the online article – and accompanying X post – stated, without qualification or reference to the fact that this was an allegation, that the complainant had “ignored sex pest claims”. While the Committee noted that parts of the online article made clear the status of the allegation – attributing this to a named, former councillor and including her denial – this was not sufficient to rectify the misleading impression created by the online headline. The online version of the headline, therefore, presented the allegation against the complainant as fact, which constituted a failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, in breach of Clause 1(iv). The presentation of an unverified allegation against the complainant as established fact in the headline rendered it significantly misleading, given its prominence and where it related to the complainant’s handling of claims of sexual assault and harassment. Therefore, the online headline required correction under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code.

20. In contrast to the online article, the print version of the article had, in the view of the Committee, accurately presented the claim made by a former councillor against the complainant as allegations: the text of the article stated prominently a named councillor had “claimed” he had told the complainant he had been sexually assaulted and harassed; and she denied this account. As such, there was no failure to take care in relation to the presentation of this claim. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

The Committee next considered whether the remedial action undertaken by the publication was sufficient to avoid further breaches of Clause 1 (ii) of the Code. It noted that the newspaper had not corrected the print article – in relation to its claim that the complainant was in a “push to be an MP”.

21. It also noted that although it had corrected the online article, it had not included an apology in the correction. Clause 1 (ii) of the Code makes clear that there are circumstances in which an apology may be called for. On this occasion, where the error in the online article and X post – reporting as fact that the complainant had “ignored sex pest claims” – was an allegation against the complainant which had the potential to be seriously damaging to her, an apology was required. The Committee expressed further concern that the correction to the online article had not been offered until 37 days after the publication was made aware of the complainant’s concerns. This was not sufficient promptness as required by the terms of Clause 1 (ii) and, for these reasons, there was a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Remedial action required

22. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication; the nature, extent and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

23. The Committee found the publication – in the online article, and in the newspaper’s post on X – had failed to distinguish comment from fact, and had not taken care over its reporting of significant and potentially damaging accusations against the complainant.

24. The allegations that the complainant had ignored sexual assault claims and was attempting to become an MP formed the basis of the online article and X post, and the inaccuracies were therefore significant. In these circumstances, a published apology was necessary to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii). Where the publication had failed to offer an apology, an adjudication was the remedy to the breach.

25. In reference to whether the complainant had ignored sexual harassment allegations, the print article made clear it was reporting on claims rather than fact, and did not breach the Code in this respect. However, the print article still centred around a significantly inaccurate claim, which was that the complainant was in the running to become an MP. This claim gave the story its topicality, and remained uncorrected by the publication. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that adjudication was appropriate.

26. The print article was published on page 2; so the adjudication should also be published on page 2. The headline to the adjudication should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against the Sunday Mail and refer to the complaint’s subject matter. The headline must be agreed with IPSO in advance.

27. Another adjudication should also be published online, with a link to this adjudication (including the headline) being published on the top 50% of the publication’s homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way. This adjudication would remedy the alleged breach of the Code in relation to the inaccurate information that the complainant was in the running to become an MP and that she had “ignored” sex pest claims. If the newspaper intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment to remove the breaches identified by the Committee, a link to the adjudication should also be published on the article, beneath the headline. If amended to remove the breach, a link to the adjudication should be published as a footnote with an explanation that the article was amended following the IPSO ruling.

28. A link to the online adjudication should also be published by the newspaper’s X account. This social media post should make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint against the Sunday Mail, refer to the complaint’s subject matter and include a link to the online adjudication.

29. The terms of the adjudication for publication in print are as follows:

Tracy Carragher 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 “Sex pest’s ally in push to be an MP”, published on 8 October 2023.

The complaint was upheld, and IPSO required the Sunday Mail to publish this adjudication to remedy the breach of the Code.

The article reported the complainant, who it described as an “SNP councillor accused of ignoring sex assault claims” was “looking to stand in the next General Election despite being involved [in a] scandal” involving a named former SNP councillor. The article stated the complainant had “passed the party’s internal vetting procedures for the next election but the Sunday Mail understands she has not yet been selected as a candidate”, adding that this was “the second time the [complainant] has tried to become an MP after a failed bid in 2019”.

The complainant said the article was inaccurate. She denied she was “running” to become an MP; she had not sought nomination for the forthcoming General Election in any constituency.

The publication did not accept it was inaccurate to report that the complainant was “in the running” to become an MP. It said the complainant had passed the party’s internal vetting process and therefore was eligible for selection – a point, it argued, the text of the article made clear. It added two sources had advised that the complainant was considering running for election in another area. The publication said the complainant was eligible for selection for elections to the Scottish Parliament and local government, but as these were not until May 2026 and May 2027 respectively, it was reasonable for the article to refer to the next “general election”, which the complainant would be eligible to stand in.

The publication, when reporting the complainant was in the running to become an MP, had relied on the word of confidential sources, without taking any further steps to check whether the information it reported was true – for instance, by contacting the complainant or the party for their position. IPSO found this was not enough to demonstrate the publication had taken care over the accuracy of the information. There was a breach of Clause 1(i). Where the crux of the article was the complainant’s alleged attempt to become an MP, the inaccuracy was significant and in need of correction to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

The print article centred around a significantly inaccurate claim, which was that the complainant was in the running to become an MP. This claim gave the story its topicality, and remained uncorrected by the publication. In these circumstances, the Committee considered that adjudication was appropriate.

30. The terms of the adjudication for publication online is as follows:

Tracy Carragher 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 councillor who ignored sex pest claims in running to become an MP at general election”. This article was also was shared on the newspaper’s official “X” account.

The complaint was upheld, and IPSO required the Sunday Mail to publish this adjudication to remedy the breach of the Code.

The article reported the complainant, who it described as an “SNP councillor accused of ignoring sex assault claims” was “looking to stand in the next General Election despite being involved [in a] scandal” involving a named former SNP councillor. The article stated the complainant had “passed the party’s internal vetting procedures for the next election but the Sunday Mail understands she has not yet been selected as a candidate”, adding that this was “the second time the [complainant] has tried to become an MP after a failed bid in 2019”.

The complainant said the article was inaccurate. She denied she was “running” to become an MP; she had not sought nomination for the forthcoming general election in any constituency.

The complainant also said the headline of the article inaccurately reported she had “ignored sex pest claims”; she denied she had received any such complaint. She was also concerned the newspaper had presented such a serious allegation as a statement of fact.

The publication did not accept it was inaccurate to report that the complainant was “in the running” to become an MP. It said the complainant had passed the party’s internal vetting process and therefore was eligible for selection – a point, it argued, the text of the article made clear. It added two sources had advised that the complainant was considering running for election in another area. The publication said the complainant was eligible for selection for elections to the Scottish Parliament and local government, but as these were not until May 2026 and May 2027 respectively, it was reasonable for the article to refer to the next “General Election”, which the complainant would be eligible to stand in.

Regarding whether the complainant had ignored a complaint of sexual assault, the publication said the article made clear this was not a claim of fact but an allegation against the complainant: she had been “accused of ignoring sexual assault claims”. The publication also said it had approached the complainant for comment regarding this allegation, via e-mail and telephone, in May 2023 when it had first covered this story. It had then received a response from her party on the matter, which denied the allegation. It said that the text of the article clear that she “denied” the claims made against her.

The publication, when reporting the complainant was in the running to become an MP, had relied on the word of confidential sources, without taking any further steps to check whether the information it reported was true – for instance, by contacting the publication or the party for their position. IPSO found this was not enough to demonstrate the publication had taken care over the accuracy of the information. There was a breach of Clause 1(i). Where the crux of the article was the complainant’s alleged attempt to become an MP, the inaccuracy was significant and in need of correction to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

IPSO also noted that the headline of the article – and accompanying X post – stated, without reference to the fact this was an allegation, the complainant had “ignored sex pest claims”. While parts of the article made clear the status of the allegation, this was not sufficient to rectify the misleading impression created by the online headline. The headline, therefore, presented the allegation against the complainant as fact, and constituted a failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact, in breach of Clause 1(iv). The presentation of an unverified allegation against the complainant as established fact in the headline rendered it significantly misleading, given its prominence and where it related to the complainant’s handling of claims of sexual assault and harassment. Therefore, the online headline required correction under Clause 1 (ii) of the Code.

On this occasion, where the error in the online article and X post – reporting as fact that the complainant had “ignored sex pest claims” – was an allegation against the complainant which had the potential to be seriously damaging to her, an apology was required. There was a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusions

31. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.


Date complaint received: 11/10/2023

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 02/04/2024