Ruling

22227-22 Hancock v Daily Mirror

    • Date complaint received

      14th September 2023

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 22227-22 Hancock v Daily Mirror

 

Summary of Complaint

1. Matt Hancock complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mirror breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in articles headlined “DON’T CALL US” and “Matt’s finished”, both published on 28 December 2022.

2. The first article under complaint appeared on page 4 of the newspaper, with a reference to the story – including a picture of the complainant and the words “Hancock unwanted” – appearing on the front-page of the newspaper. The article reported that “Matt Hancock has called off his search for a celebrity agent as his bid for fame fails to get off the ground”, and went on to report that “now he has abandoned his search for an agent amid signs his star power has already faded.” The article closed with a statement from the complainant’s spokesperson, who was quoted as having said: “Matt has had lots of offers from agents wanting to represent him, but he’s turned them all down as he doesn’t want or need an agent.”

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “EXCLUSIVE: Matt Hancock's floundering showbiz career hits speed bump as he dumps agent search”. This version of the article was published on 27 December 2022.

4. The second article under complaint was a short leader piece, giving the newspaper’s view on the substance of the first article. It reported that, “[d]ropping his search for an agent, camel penis eater Hancock is discovering you sometimes need to have talent to achieve fame.”

5. The second article under complaint also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “Out-of-touch Tories forcing NHS staff towards industrial action amid strike chaos”. This version of the article was published on 27 December 2022.

6. Five days prior to the article’s publication, a journalist acting on behalf of the publication contacted the complainant’s spokesperson; the following text conversation ensued:

Journalist: Hiya. How's it going? We are doing up a story for use over the festive period on how Matt is looking for a showbiz agent. Let me know if you'd like us to include a comment. Thanks […]

Spokesperson: Hi […] I'll come back to you but just FYI that is not true. He is actively not doing that, so writing it would be untrue.

Journalist: thanks. there seems to be a pattern where stuff is claimed to be untrue and then it turns out to be correct. on this one, we are confident that Matt is looking around for an agent and has been actively seeking advice

Spokesperson: Really? Like what?!

Journalist: it was untrue he was writing a book. and then he did

Spokesperson: It was at the time. The book came about from a false story!!

Journalist: He had no plans to stand down as an MP. and then he did

Spokesperson: Can people not change their minds? Have you not thought you'd do one thing and then end up doing something different?! Look, […]  I'll come back to you

[…]

Spokesperson: But I know that particular claim is not true as he doesn't want one […]

Spokesperson: A spokesperson for Matt Hancock said: "Matt has had lots of offers from agents wanting to represent him, but he's turned them all down as he doesn't want or need an agent."

7. On the date of the article’s publication, the spokesperson again contacted the journalist via text. He said the following in this conversation:

Disappointed to read this. As explained, Matt has actively been turning down agents. He doesn't want one. For the Mirror to pretend it cares about the truth and then write this, it undermines credibility. […] I've just caught up with the physical papers […] Given the story was on the front I'm going to have to make a formal complaint and will ask for a correction. As explained, Matt's not been searching for an agent. The opposite is actually the case, as my spokes outlined…

8. The complainant then made a direct complaint to the newspaper. The newspaper responded to this complaint two days after the article’s publication, saying that “[t]he information was provided by a trusted source, which the publication had no reason to doubt”. In its response, the publication also said that the complainant’s reply to the claim was included in the article. Therefore, it did not accept that the article was inaccurate in the manner suggested by the complainant.

9. The complainant responded and indicated he had evidence to support his position that he had not been searching for an agent, as the article claimed. When the publication requested to have sight of this evidence, he said that he was under no obligation to provide it to the publication – as it was its job to support its reporting, rather than relying on him to disprove it – and asked if the publication’s source could provide any evidence to support their position that he had been looking for an agent.

10. The complainant then contacted IPSO with his concerns, setting out his position that both articles were inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that he had not “abandoned his search for an agent” as he had not been searching for an agent in the first place. He said, therefore, the entire basis of the two articles was inaccurate.

11. The complainant considered that the publication should publish an apology both in print and online, remove the online articles in their entirety, and provide him with a written assurance that the articles’ allegations would not be published again. He also said that any apology should have the same prominence as the original articles; he considered that, as a flag to the original article appeared on the front-page of the print edition, the apology should also appear there.

12. The publication reiterated its position that neither article breached the Code. It said that the source who provided the information on which the article was based was “well-trusted” and had met a journalist from the newspaper to provide the information. The conversation was, the publication said, in-depth and included “specific detail” which assured the publication that the claim was true. The source had known the journalist for a number of years, according to the publication, and had consistently provided the journalist with information which had later been proven accurate – in fact, such a story had been provided during the same conversation in which the source had disclosed the claim about the complainant.

13. The publication could not disclose the identity of its source, 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 source was “in a position where they know the complainant”.

14. The publication said that it had then gone to the complainant’s spokesperson for comment and included their response in the article – therefore demonstrating that care had been taken over the accuracy of the article. It also said that news reports in other publications from November 2022 – a month prior to the publication of the article under complaint – had reported that the complainant’s partner had contacted a celebrity agent on his behalf. It therefore considered that, where multiple outlets had reported that the complainant was seeking representation, the articles under complaint had not inaccurately reported this claim.

15. While the publication did not accept that either article breached the Code, it noted that the second article under complaint did not include the complainant’s comment. It therefore proposed, on 22 March 2023 and three months after being contacted by the complainant, to publish the following footnote clarification  on the online article to make the complainant’s position clear:

“We would like to make clear that a spokesman for Hancock has advised that 'Matt has had lots of offers from agents wanting to represent him, but he’s turned them all down as he doesn’t want or need an agent.' We are happy to clarify this.”

It did not consider that it was necessary to include this wording in print, where the second article under complaint appeared in the same edition of the newspaper and further along, so readers would be aware of the full context of the article – including the complainant’s denial – when reading the second article under 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. The Code recognises the important role that confidential sources of information play in the newsgathering process and Clause 14 places a high moral obligation on journalists to protect such sources of information.  In circumstances where a confidential source is used as the basis of the story, Clause 1 (iv) nevertheless applies; this requires that the press must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

17. The claims that the complainant had dropped his search for an agent were based on a single confidential source. The Committee accepted that the publication had taken some steps to verify the source’s claims by going to the complainant for comment, but it had not been able to provide any corroboration for the claim to IPSO.  Both articles had nevertheless reported the claims as fact, and without qualification beyond the complainant’s denial at the end of one of the articles.  By reporting the claims as fact, rather than identifying them as a claim from a source, both articles failed to distinguish between comment and fact, and there was a breach of Clause 1 (iv).

18. Whilst the article “DON’T CALL US” make clear that the complainant disputed the claim made, the article “Matt’s finished” – a short leader piece – did not include the complainant’s denial. In relation to the print version of the article, the Committee accepted the publication’s position that the fact that the complainant had denied the claims had been made set out earlier in the edition, and that the full context – namely that the complainant denied the claim – would be clear to readers. However, it noted that the online version of the article did not include this context – for instance, by way of a link to an article which contained the complainant’s denial. The Committee therefore considered that the online version of the second article was misleading, where it did not make clear that the complainant denied the claims and, as a result of this omission, gave a false impression as to the status of these claims. The article was, therefore, misleading and given that the complainant’s comment in response to the claim had been provided prior to publication, care had not been taken to ensure this version of the article was not misleading in breach of Clause 1(i).

19. The weight given to the claims, as a consequence of the complainant’s stringent denial having been omitted from the article, amounted to significantly misleading information. The publication was therefore required to correct the online version of the second article promptly and with due prominence. The publication had offered to publish a correction three months after it was made aware of the complainant’s complaint. The lapse of three months did not represent prompt action on the part of the publication, and there was a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusions

20. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1.

Remedial action required

21. 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.

22. The Committee considered that both articles presented claims made by a single source as fact, which was a failure to distinguish between comment and fact.

23. The online version of the second article contained a further instance of misleading information, where it omitted the complainant’s denial of the claims against him. However, the Committee also noted that the breach of the Code had arisen from the presentation of the articles, rather than a significant failure in the newsgathering process. It further noted that, while the correction offered by the publication had been offered too late to satisfy the requirements of Clause 1 (ii), the publication had taken steps to put the correct position on record. Taking all these factors into account, and on balance, the Committee considered that a correction was the appropriate remedy – and it did not consider an apology to be appropriate given these factors.

24. All corrections to be published should acknowledge that the articles presented a claim from a single source as fact, and that this was misleading without attributing the claim to a source. The online version of the second article’s correction should also make clear that it omitted the complainant’s position from the original version of the article in a manner which rendered it misleading and put the complainant’s denial of the claims on record. The wording of all corrections should be agreed with IPSO in advance and should make clear that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

25. The Committee then considered the placement of the corrections. Turning first to the print correction, it considered the appropriate location to be the newspaper’s Corrections and Clarifications column. In making this decision, the Committee noted the complainant’s position that the remedial action should appear on the front-page, as the nib for one of the articles also appeared there. However, it noted that the misleading information did not appear on the front-page – where the term “Hancock unwanted” was clearly the publication’s view, rather than a claim of fact –  and that front-page remedial action is reserved for the most serious breaches of the Code.

26. Regarding the first online article under complaint, as the misleading information also appeared in the headline to the article, the correction should appear as a standalone correction in the publication’s online Corrections and Clarifications column (if they have one) and a link should be published on the homepage for 24 hours before being archived in the usual way. In addition, if the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, a correction should be added to the article and published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, this correction should be published as a footnote.

27. With regard to the second online article under complaint, If the publication intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment, the correction on the article should be published beneath the headline. If the article is amended, the correction should be published as a footnote.

 

Date complaint received:  28/12/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO:  17/08/2023