Ruling

23698-22 Hancock v Sunday Mirror

    • Date complaint received

      27th July 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 23698-22 Hancock v Sunday Mirror


Summary of Complaint

1. Matt Hancock complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Sunday Mirror breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:

· “Tories said they could be trusted with money but wasted £37bn on useless track and trace”, published on 27 March 2022

· “Rats and roaches will need PPE in the jungle”, published on 6 November 2022

· “Hancock’s barf hour”, published on 13 November 2022

· “At £29m each we can be nation of Moners”, published on 11 December 2022

2. The first article under complaint appeared online, and was an opinion piece from a regular columnist criticising the government’s fiscal policies. It stated that:

“…if any taxpayers’ money does go missing because someone hasn’t been careful, the Conservatives will announce: ‘Never mind, we’ll appoint someone to look into this and we know just the person. It’s a bloke who goes to the pub with Matt Hancock…he’ll do it for fifty million quid.’”

3. The second article under complaint was a column covering the complainant’s then-upcoming appearance on the reality television series I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! The article said that “[d]uring the pandemic, contracts worth hundreds of millions were handed out to people with no experience, because they were mates with ministers”. This article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “'Vladimir Putin can do I'm A Celeb next, after Matt Hancock ruins lives and carries on'”; this version of the article was published on 5 November 2022.

4. The third article under complaint also appeared as part of a column, and referred to the complainant’s appearance on I’m a Celebrity. The article referred to the complainant as “a corrupt, lying, philandering, incompetent, disgraced ex-minister”.

5. The fourth article under complaint was a column focussing on allegations against a member of the House of Lords. The article said that:

“In any case, all the other contracts awarded during the pandemic were given entirely on merit, such as the £40million given to a bloke who was the landlord at Matt Hancock’s pub.”

This article also appeared online in substantially the same form; this version of the article was published on 10 December 2022.

6. On receipt of a direct complaint from the complainant – on 27 March 2022 – the publication removed the line “It’s the bloke who goes to the pub with Matt Hancock…he’ll do it for fifty million quid” from the first article under complaint.

7. The complainant said that all of the articles were inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1. He said that the first, second, and fourth articles were inaccurate because he did not “decide, price or sign off government Covid contracts” – rather, it was the Civil Service who did so, and the Civil Service was independent of government ministers, such as himself. He further noted that the “pub landlord” referred to in the first and fourth articles was actually awarded a subcontract – which, the complainant said, was “totally different and not something in the control of civil servants, let alone the government or ministers”.

8. The complainant said that the third article was inaccurate because he was not “corrupt”; where this word means to have acted dishonestly in return for money or personal gain. He said the publication had no evidence to show that he had acted in this way during his time as an MP.

9. The complainant said that the publication should publish written corrections, accepting that the articles were inaccurate and apologising to him. He said that the newspaper should also offer an assurance that “this particular false narrative” was not repeated in further coverage, and for the newspaper’s publisher to “remove all references [to] this false narrative from all historic articles from the [publisher] group”.

10. The publication did not accept that any of the articles were significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. Turning to the first article under complaint, while it had removed the disputed line from the article as a gesture of goodwill to the complainant, it did not accept that the line breached the Code.

11. The publication said that the line in question was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that an individual who used to run a pub close to the complainant’s home had been awarded a subcontract from Alpha Laboratories during the Covid-19 pandemic. Alpha Laboratories was a company which had been awarded a government contract during the pandemic; the contract was between the laboratory and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. The contract in question had been signed by a civil servant on the complainant’s behalf in December 2020, and the same contract stipulated that the work would be subcontracted to the company owned by the “bloke who goes to the pub with Matt Hancock” – the pub landlord.

12. This was also the case with the fourth article under complaint, said the publication, where the article reported that “£40million given to a bloke who was the landlord at Matt Hancock’s pub”.

13. Turning to the second article under complaint, the publication said that the reference to “contracts worth hundreds of millions were handed out to people with no experience, because they were mates with ministers” was a comment on the ‘VIP lanes’, which the publication said showed that some recipients of Covid contracts had personal relationships with members of the Conservative party.

14. The publication noted that “corrupt” can be defined as dishonest conduct. The publication said that the complainant had publicly admitted that he had broken the government’s social distancing rules while a member of government – after leaked security footage showed him engaging in an extra-marital affair with a member of his staff –  and had been found to have “committed a minor breach of the ministerial code by failing to declare that a family firm in which he held shares won an NHS contract”. In such circumstances, the publication did not accept that describing the complainant as “corrupt” was misleading.

15. The publication further noted the context in which all the alleged inaccuracies had appeared; each article under complaint was clearly a comment piece, and the statements within were therefore distinguished as the columnist’s view of the complainant.

16. The complainant said that, regardless of whether the alleged inaccuracies appeared in the context of a comment piece or not, it remained the case that they breached Clause 1.

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

17. The complainant disputed that he had played a direct role in allocating contracts during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it was not in dispute that, as the then-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, he held overall responsibility for healthcare delivery and performance in the UK. It was also not in dispute that, during the complainant’s tenure as Secretary of State, a contract – explicitly naming the company of his acquaintance, who had been a pub-landlord in his local area – had been signed in his name. Therefore, the Committee did not consider that it was inaccurate in the manner suggested by the complainant for the first and second articles under complaint to reference the fact that “a bloke who goes to the pub with Matt Hancock” or “a bloke who was the landlord at Matt Hancock’s pub” had been awarded a contract during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Committee particularly considered this to be the case where these were passing references, framed in a tongue-in-cheek style, in the context of clearly polemic and critical columns. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. The second article under complaint reported that “[d]uring the pandemic, contracts worth hundreds of millions were handed out to people with no experience, because they were mates with ministers”. The complainant had argued that this was inaccurate as he was not responsible for allocating the contracts. However, the article did not claim that this was the case, and the complainant had not disputed that, during his tenure in government, “contracts worth hundreds of millions were handed out to people with no experience”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. The description of the complainant as being “corrupt” was clearly framed as the columnist’s view of his behaviour, and the publication had set out the basis for this description – that the complainant had contravened social distancing guidelines while a member of the government that had created them, and that he had failed to declare that a family firm in which he held shares won an NHS contract. The Committee also noted that the term “corrupt” had no set and specific meaning that relates to a precise behaviour. Where the publication had provided a basis for this subjective description, and it was clearly distinguished as the columnist’s view rather than any kind of official finding, there was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

20. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

21. N/A

 

Date complaint received: 28/12/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 29/06/2023

 

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.