The Press Complaints Commission has rejected a complaint from former Tory party deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft claiming that The Independent failed to publish a “fair and accurate report” of the outcome of a defamation action against the paper.
Ashcroft received a public apology at the High Court on 26 November over articles published in The Independent in 2009 concerning his business interests in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
On 5 December The Independent reported the outcome of the proceedings in print and online, but Ashcroft complained that the headline “Ashcroft drops High Court action after apology” inaccurately suggested he had "abandoned" his libel claim.
The Peer said it misrepresented his true position – that he had agreed not to pursue the libel claim as part of a settlement. He complained to the press watchdog under Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
He was also concerned that the article had not reproduced the retraction made by former owners INM in full, and claimed other references in the article were calculated to distance the present publishers of the newspaper – the Lebedevs’ Independent Print Limited – from the retraction and apology.
In addition Ashcroft said the report had been excessively delayed and had been given insufficient prominence.
In its defence The Independent said neither it nor IPL had been party to the legal action and said it had no control over the terms of the settlement.
It also said Ashcroft had not sought to reach any agreement in advance with IPL or the present editor of The Independent, Chris Blackhurst, as to how it should be reported.
“The newspaper had initially been uncertain as to whether the obligations of the Code still applied given the change of ownership, but had ultimately decided to proceed with publication,” the PCC said.
“It considered that the item had made clear the central issues: that serious allegations linking the complainant to corruption in the Caicos Islands had been withdrawn, and that INM had apologised to Lord Ashcroft.”
The Independent said the headline was accurate and represented "commonplace" terminology, though offered to amend it online to refer to a "settlement".
It noted that the Editors' Code does not include a requirement as to the timeliness of such publication, and said that the delay in this instance did not make the report "unfair".
The complaint was not upheld by the PCC, which described the case as a "rare ruling on reportng defamation outcome".
In its adjudication it said:
Under Clause 1 (iv) of the Code, "a publication must report fairly and accurately the outcome of an action for defamation to which it has been a party, unless an agreed settlement states otherwise, or an agreed statement is published".
In the view of the Commission, the newspaper was required to report the outcome of the legal action, for the benefit of its readers as well as the complainant: the obligation arose because it had published the material under complaint and the newspaper was not released from the obligation following the change of ownership.
The delay of just over a week was regrettable, but it was not significant in the context of a three-year legal action. While the complainant argued that the article had been given inadequate prominence, the Code makes no specific provision for prominence in Clause 1(iv). In the view of the Commission, the item's presentation – as a news article bearing a headline referring to the complainant, on a right hand page of the newspaper and online – was fair, in line with the requirements of the clause.
The appearance (due to an automated function) of a link to another report about the complainant adjacent to the item did not render the report misleading and did not raise a breach of Clause 1, although the Commission welcomed the newspaper's decision to remove it once it had been notified of the complainant's concern.
While the Commission noted the complainant's objection to the reference in the headline to the claim having been "dropped", the Commission did not consider that this terminology was significantly misleading in the context of the full report, which had made clear the nature and gravity of the allegations, and the fact that the claim was not being pursued after INM had retracted the allegations and apologised for them in a statement in open court.
The remaining points raised by the complaint – regarding the nationality of INM and the reference to The Independent as "the paper" – were not matters of significance.
The Commission noted the complainant's concerns about the accuracy and the presentation of the report, but it was of the view that the newspaper had properly discharged its obligations. The complaint was not upheld.