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Watchdog rejects ex-editor’s complaint over daily’s coverage of speech

Damian BatesA former regional editor has had his complaint about a daily newspaper’s coverage of a speech he made rejected by the press watchdog.

Damian Bates, who spent a total of eight years in charge of Aberdeen dailies the Evening Express and Press & Journal, has lost his complaint over a story which appeared in The Scotsman about a meeting at which he and his wife spoke.

The Scotsman reported in 2019 how Damian, who researched a book about former US President Donald Trump, had spoken at a meeting hosted at an evangelical church in Glasgow at which he and his wife Sarah Malone, executive vice president of Trump International, had given their views on President Trump and his business dealings in Scotland.

IPSO had previously rejected complaints from Ms Malone, her father Thomas Malone and Trump International about The Scotsman’s coverage of the meeting.

In his complaint under Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, Damian said he was unaware of the presence of the reporter and had established post-publication that The Scotsman’s journalist had audio recorded the event after gaining access via a false email address and name.

Damian claimed there was no public interest in doing so, or in publishing the remarks he made at the event, adding he found this insulting and distressing as the meeting had taken place in a church.

He said that it appeared that the reporter had taken this action without the knowledge of senior editorial staff and provided an email from the editorial director of The Scotsman, and six other titles, who said: “I don’t know anything about this one. Let me look into it.”

Damian further denied it was the case that he “urged” attendees of the event to watch RT, as reported by the Edinburgh-based daily, but said he recommended that people should seek different sources of information and not to rely solely on one source.

He said the comment was light-hearted and not meant to be taken seriously, adding RT was one in a list of news outlets he suggested.

Damian further denied being responsible for a quote attributed to him encouraging attendees to stay at a Trump hotel, which he claimed was said by a different speaker at the event.

Denying a breach of Code, The Scotsman claimed there was sufficient public interest to justify the behaviour of the reporter because it was understood to be the first time that any employee of the Trump Organisation had given a public address in Scotland since Donald Trump was elected President, and it was considered necessary for the reporter to attend and record proceedings in order to ensure that the event was accurately reported.

It said that the reporter, who was experienced in reporting on Trump International Scotland’s activities, had been blocked on social media by the business and had been told by Damian that he had “no interest in talking to [named reporter] for any future articles”.

The Scotsman said it was therefore reasonable to assume the reporter, who was not challenged and did not attempt to disguise his identity at the event, would not have been granted admittance if he had taken an open approach.

He then discussed his plans for attending the event and the public interest considerations set out above with the news editor, who was one of the most senior employees at the paper and regularly acted as its duty editor.

The paper noted the response to Damian from the editorial director, who had responsibility for six titles and was not generally directly involved in day-to-day editorial decision making. As such, this did not mean that there was no senior editorial consideration given to the reporter’s actions prior to publication – instead, this responsibility was delegated to senior editorial staff.

It provided a transcript to IPSO of Damian speaking at the event, in which he said: “I’ll go to CNN or look at Fox, and I’ll step into Russia Today territory, RT.

“You should always try and find a different take. Actually, if you’ve got Sky, go and look at RT – oh my goodness, the difference is incredible.”

The Scotsman said it was therefore clear Damian was “urging” attendees to watch RT, but accepted his position that he had not said to the audience that they could “stay at the [Trump] hotel”.

IPSO found there was a public interest in reporting on the event because the comments made at the meeting related to the business dealings of President Trump and the activities of Trump International in Scotland.

It said it was reasonable for the reporter to have assumed that an open approach would not have been successful and he had engaged in a very low level of misrepresentation to obtain a ticket to an event which was open to the public and which promoted Damian’s book.

The Committee considered that the audio recording had been made to serve as a contemporaneous record of what was said at a public meeting of approximately 120 people and the audio recording equipment was not being used as a covert recording device to obtain confidential information.

IPSO further found no significant inaccuracies in IPSO’s reporting of the event. The complaint was not upheld, and the full adjudication can be read here.

Following a complaint by Damian about the process followed by IPSO in handling his case, the Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the Committee had failed to explain how the public interest had been considered by the newspaper prior to the reporter attending the event.

The Committee re-considered the complaint in light of these findings and, although the substance of IPSO’s decision was not affected by the findings, the summary of complaint and reasoning for the decision was revised to make clear the rationale for it.