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Councillor wins complaint over weekly’s inaccurate headline

NewIPSOA councillor has won his complaint against a weekly newspaper that published an inaccurate headline about him.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation has upheld a complaint by Councillor John Mitchell, a member of Western Isles Council, after it wrongly reported he had been found in breach of an “ethical code”.

The offending story, headlined ‘Councillor in breach of ethical code, says commission’, reported Cllr Mitchell had been “reprimanded” by the Standards Commission for Scotland for using “inappropriate language” about a fellow councillor.

It stated that the Commission had concluded that his actions “amounted to a personal attack” and a “breach of the code”, while acknowledging that he had apologised to the other councillor and that no formal hearing had been deemed necessary.

Complaining under Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, Cllr Mitchell denied that the Commission had found him in breach of the Councillors’ Code of Conduct.

He said the Commission had concluded that it was neither proportionate, nor in the public interest, to hold a hearing into the matter given the sincerity of his apology and the nature of the potential breach.

The Gazette accepted the headline incorrectly reported that the Commission considered that the complainant was in breach of the Councillors’ Code.

The paper said it was the view of the acting commissioner for ethical standards in public life in Scotland that Cllr Mitchell’s conduct had “amounted to a personal attack” against the other councillor and as a result “a breach of paragraph 3.2 of the [Councillors’] Code [of Conduct]”.

It had subsquently published a follow-up story to correct the error, in which it stated a “Gazette headline should have read ‘commissioner says councillor breached code of conduct’, rather than ‘commission'”.

The Gazette had also offered to publish a letter from Cllr Mitchell, along with a further correction about the headline error, but did not consider an apology appropriate or necessary because the follow-up story clarified the outcome of his case with the Standards Commission.

In response, Cllr Mitchell said he did not consider that the steps taken by the Gazette were sufficient.

He did not consider that the follow-up story addressed the inaccuracy, nor did he consider that the wording of the proposed correction was adequate.

The councillor said the Gazette had not apologised for the error, and the proposal to publish the correction on page four was insufficiently prominent, given that the article – and inaccuracies – had originally appeared on its front page.

IPSO found there had been a failure to take care not to publish misleading information on the part of the Gazette,e which it said was particularly concerning because this inaccuracy had been repeated throughout the story.

This would mislead readers as to the outcome of a formal complaint about the conduct of a public official, which was, in the view of the Committee, significant.

But IPSO also found the Gazette had recognised the error after being contacted and that this had been corrected with due prominence given the publication of a follow-up story and offer of a further correction.

The Committee acknowledged Cllr Mitchell’s position that an apology had not been offered, but did not consider that the newspaper had an obligation to apologise to him.

The complaint was upheld, and the full adjudication can be read here.