Prof complained to IPSO over 'sensational' editing of article written for The Times

A defence expert complained to press regulator IPSO because he was unhappy at the way The Times edited an article which he wrote for the paper.

The complaint was not upheld.

Professor Christopher Elliott the title newspaper breached clauses 1 and 2 of the Editors Code of Practice, covering accuracy and the opportunity to reply, with an article published on 3 September which carried the headline: “Our military should stop passing the buck.”

It also carried the sub headline: “'We were only following orders' just won't wash. Defence chiefs must take their share of the blame for Iraq and Libya".

Elliott complained that as a result of the editing process, the article was a distortion of his views, that the headline and subheading were not supported by the text of the article, and misrepresented his position.

After he submitted his article, it was subject to editing via correspondence with a member of the newspaper's staff. He expressed his disagreement with some of the amendments, and made clear that he did not give his consent for publication.

After further correspondence, Professor Elliott drafted a version of the article that he approved for publication.

But the published article differed from this version, and included some of the amendments to which he had previously objected.

Professor Elliott's originally submitted article began by discussing the delays to the publication of Chilcot inquiry, and referred to an explanation that had been put forward by Tom Bower by stating that "one line of argument Bower presents is that the military chiefs have batted criticism back to Sir John Chilcot, claiming that they were simply following orders issued by their political masters".

The article had referred to Bower's explanation as plausible, and stated that "if this is so, it is simplistic and maybe disingenuous so far as it applied to the later period [of the Iraq war]".

The published article included the sentences: "Former commanders…were said to be furious when they saw early drafts of Sir John's report.

“Given the chance to respond to his criticism, they have insisted that politicians should take the blame, not them. If true, this is simplistic and disingenuous".

Professor Elliott said he did not know whether it was true that former commanders were "furious" – he said the reference was sensationalist, and he objected to its inclusion in an article under his name.

He also raised additional concerns at:

  • the inclusion of a reference to a book he had written
  • the addition of the word "sadly" to describe the claim that there were still problems in the machinery of the high command
  • the replacement of "unwisely" with the word "notoriously" to refer to comments made by the defence secretary in 2006
  • the substitution of the phrase "having all the intelligence" with the phrase "knowing full well" in the sentence: "it was [the defence secretary's] military advisers, having all the intelligence that [Helmand] was an ungoverned space…".

On the headline and subheading, he said that prior to publication, he had made clear to the newspaper that he was not seeking to argue that military commanders were trying to shift the blame; rather, that the machinery of the high command was still not working correctly and that military commanders should accept their share of the blame.

The newspaper said that the article was not a significantly misleading representation of Professor Elliott's views.

A number of changes were made to the article which appeared in the second edition of the newspaper to bring the text more closely in line with final version approved by Professor Elliott, the newspaper said.

In response to the complaint, it offered to publish a clarification to the effect that he was unhappy with the final version of the article.

The newspaper published a clarification on its letter page on 10 September, before Professor Elliott complained to IPSO.

But he said it was published without his consultation, and without notice to him. He was not satisfied that it corrected the alleged inaccuracies, and denied that there was a "misunderstanding" during the editing process.

IPSO's complaints committee acknowledged Professor Elliott's concern that the newspaper introduced into the published article words and phrases that he had not approved. But it said the Editors’ Code did not create a requirement for copy approval, and these changes were insignificant; they did not significantly alter the tone of the article, or the arguments being made.

It said that because no inaccuracies were found, clause 2 of the Code (right to reply) was not engaged.

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