Ruling

23874-22 Hancock v Daily Mirror

    • Date complaint received

      27th July 2023

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 23874-22 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 the following articles:

· “No stranger to ridicule or reinvention”, published on 2 November 2022

· “Shameful record of blunders”, published on 2 November 2022

· “He’s no jungle hero... lying Hancock threw us all to the wolves”, published on 11 November 2022

· “SOLIDARITY IS EMOTIONAL”, published on 3 December 2022.

2. The first article of complaint was a brief summary of the complainant’s career. The article reported that the complainant, after being made Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in 2018, “presided over PPE contracts being handed out to acquaintances of ministers and officials, including his ex-pub landlord” during the Covid-19 pandemic.

3. The second article under complaint was another summary, focussing specifically on what the article described as the complainant’s “blunders” while he “served as Health Secretary from July 2018 to June 2021”. One such “blunder” listed in the article was that he “[b]roke ministerial code by failing to declare he held shares in a family firm that won an NHS contract”.

4. The third article appeared as part of a weekly column, discussing the complainant’s appearance on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! The article said that the complainant was “a failed health secretary and cheating husband who broke the lockdown rules he wrote, doubled down on the lies he told, helped enrich his mates via the infamous VIP PPE lane, and couldn’t resist monetising the infamy he acquired as a result of his ineptitude at managing the pandemic.” The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline, “'Matt Hancock is no jungle hero, he's a lying cheat who threw us all to the wolves'”; this version of the article was published on 10 November 2022.

5. The fourth article under complaint was an interview with a trade union leader. The article included the individual’s comments about the complainant: “Matt Hancock might have gone into the jungle seeking forgiveness, but some of us won’t forget […] We won’t forget who those contracts went to. It’s disgusting.” The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline, “EXCLUSIVE: Frances O’Grady's deep personal pain serves as a reminder of trade union movement roots”; this version of the article was published on 2 December 2022.

6. The complainant said that all of the articles were inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1, as he did not “decide, price or sign off government Covid contracts”. He said the correct position was that the Civil Service did so, and that the Civil Service was independent of government ministers, such as himself. He further noted that the “pub landlord” referred to in the first article 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”.

7. The complainant further said that the second article under complaint – “Shameful record of blunders” – omitted key information, which he said rendered the article unbalanced. He said that the article, when referring to the fact that he “[b]roke ministerial code”, should have made clear that the Advisor on Ministers’ Interests stated that he had acted “properly and honestly” and “with integrity throughout” the investigation in question. He also said that the contract in question was awarded by NHS Wales “through the correct process”, and that – as healthcare was a devolved matter – he had no role to play in the decision-making process.

8. 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 the same information would not be repeated in further coverage, and called for the newspaper’s publisher to “remove all references [to] this false narrative from all historic articles from the [publisher] group”.

9. The publication did not accept that any of the articles under complaint were significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. It first noted that, at the time of the Covid contracts in question being awarded, the complainant was Secretary of State for Health and Social Care; the oversight of such contracts was therefore his legal responsibility as office holder.

10. Turning to the claims regarding the “ex-pub landlord”, the publication said that it had been “widely reported at the time” that the individual in question had initially offered his services directly to the complainant prior to the contract being awarded, by sending him a WhatsApp message. It provided links to the coverage in question; the articles reported that: the landlord “has previously acknowledged exchanging WhatsApp messages with the health secretary – but has denied any impropriety”; and that “[a]sked about his contact with [the complainant, the landlord] said: ‘I got his phone number from a former neighbour of his and simply sent a text message. I introduced myself in full because... I hadn't spoken to him by that stage in probably three years. And he simply kindly replied and said, 'Please send the details of this to my Parliamentary email address', which I did.’ [New provider] has seen this exchange and can confirm that [the complainant] responded by providing his Parliamentary email address.”

11. Furthermore, the publication said that the landlord in question 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 landlord. Therefore, the publication did not accept that it was inaccurate to report that the complainant “presided over PPE contracts being handed out to acquaintances of ministers and officials, including his ex-pub landlord”.

12. The publication said that the Advisor on Ministers’ Interests had found that the complainant’s failure to declare he held shares in a family firm that won an NHS contract was “in technical terms, a minor breach of the ministerial code”. It did not, therefore, consider that it was inaccurate for the second article to report this.

13. Turning to the third article’s claim that the complainant “helped enrich his mates via the infamous VIP PPE lane”, the publication said that this was clearly presented as the columnist’s view of the complainant “based on the widespread news of the 'VIP lane' at the time”. The publication said that an organisation had found that two companies had been awarded contracts worth between £38 million and £500 million after having donated money to the Conservative Party and then being put in touch with the complainant. It also said that the phrase “mates” was used colloquially and, in the context of an opinion piece, was intended to demonstrate that there were links between the complainant and the companies who had been awarded Covid contracts. It also provided a link to a contemporary news article, form another publication, which reported that: “The government gave ‘VIP treatment’ to a firm offering Covid testing facilities which had entered the system ‘informally’ because Matt Hancock was ‘a good friend’ of somebody working with the company, according to internal emails seen by” the other publication.

14. The publication also said that the fourth article under complaint did not breach the Code – both for the reasons previously set out and where the reference to “Covid contracts” was presented as a direct quote from the union leader, rather than a claim of fact.

15. The complainant said that “there was a call to arms where the Government and [himself] were asking the public to come forward with any leads as part of a national effort to tackle coronavirus.” He said that he couldn’t control who then chose to contact him, but that he could control how he dealt with such contact – and he had done so properly by forwarding such contacts to be dealt with through official channels.

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 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. This supported the position that the complainant held ultimate responsibility for the allocation of such contracts. Therefore, the Committee did not consider that the first article had been inaccurate by reporting that the complainant “presided over PPE contracts being handed out to acquaintances of ministers and officials, including his ex-pub landlord”. The first article did not breach Clause 1.

17. Where the complainant had been found to have breached ministerial Code in relation to his shares in a family company, it was not inaccurate for the publication to report this. The complainant had said that the article should have also included the advisor’s positive comments about his behaviour when reporting this, but newspapers ultimately have the discretion to choose what to publish – provided omitting information does not breach the Code. In the context of a brief reference to the complainant having breached ministerial Code, the Committee did not consider that omitting the positive comments rendered the article significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. In assessing whether the third article breached Clause 1, the Committee first noted the context of the alleged inaccuracy: it appeared in a tongue-in-cheek opinion piece, which was strongly critical of the complainant and written in a polemical style. In this context, the use of the phrase “mates” denoted that there were links between the complainant and companies in receipt of Covid contracts, rather than a statement of fact that the complainant was friends with the companies themselves. In addition, the publication had been able to provide contemporaneous reporting which referred to the complainant’s personal links with people who worked at such companies. Taking these factors into account, the Committee did not consider that the third article was significantly inaccurate, and there was no breach of Clause 1.

19. The alleged inaccuracy in the fourth article was clearly framed as an individual’s personal view of the complainant and his oversight of the awarding of Covid contracts, and formed a brief reference in an interview which otherwise dealt with other topics. The publication was entitled to publish the union leader’s view of the complainant, and that she “won’t forget who those contracts went to”. There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

20. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

21. N/A

 

Date complaint received: 30/01/2023

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.