Telegraph censured by IPSO over 'significantly misleading' report that Sturgeon backed Cameron over Miliband

The Daily Telegraph has today published a page-two correction – with a front page reference – over its reporting on a leaked Nicola Sturgeon memorandum.

In April, the newspaper reported that Scottish First Minister Sturgeon had told French Ambassador Sylvie Bermann that she would rather see David Cameron elected prime minister than Ed Miliband.

This was based on a memo leaked to the newspaper. A subsequent investigation found it had come from the office of former Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael.

The Office of the First Minister of Scotland complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Telegraph breached clause 1 (accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice by reporting the contents of the memo as fact. IPSO upheld the complaint.

The office said that the claims made in the memo were “categorically untrue”, with Bermann publicly denying that Sturgeon had expressed a preference as to who should win.

The complainant said Sturgeon had not been contacted for comment and also noted that, as the article explained, “the author of the memorandum recorded that he or she had initially doubted the accuracy of the account and had checked whether there might have been a translation problem”.

Sturgeon denied the article’s claims publicly and via email, and this was included in the second print edition of the newspaper that evening – but, IPSO noted, it “did not add them to the online version of the article until the following afternoon”. The Telegraph put this down to “human error”.

The Telegraph said that “it had confirmed the authenticity of the document with two well-placed sources before publication. It was a contemporaneous note made by an experienced civil servant, and the newspaper had no reason to doubt its accuracy. It denied having any obligation to contact Ms Sturgeon for comment before publication: it was entitled to publish an accurate account of the document.”

IPSO said: “The memorandum did not represent a first-hand or contemporaneous account of the conversation between Ms Sturgeon and Ms Bermann. Rather, it contained – at best – a second-hand account given a week later. The newspaper had confirmed the authenticity of the document, but its sources were not in a position to comment on the accuracy of its contents.”

The regulator said that the Telegraph was “entitled to report on the memorandum, but it was obliged to take care not to mislead readers in doing so, including regarding the status of the allegations it contained”.

It said that despite the author of the memorandum stating “I have to admit that I’m not sure that the First Minister’s tongue would be quite so loose on that kind of thing in a meeting like that”,  “the newspaper had published it as fact, without having taken additional steps prior to publication – such as contacting the parties involved for their comment – to verify its accuracy”.

IPSO said: “The presentation of the account contained in the memorandum as fact, in these circumstances, represented a failure to take care not to mislead, and a breach of Clause 1 (i) and (ii) of the Code. The newspaper had failed to make clear that it did not know whether the account it presented was true; as a consequence the article was significantly misleading. The complaint under Clause 1 was upheld.” 

IPSO ordered that the adjudication be published on page two, with a reference on page one, and also said that it should also be published on the Telegraph website.

The adjudication, published here, said:

Following the publication of an article in The Daily Telegraph on 4 April 2015, headlined “Sturgeon’s secret backing for Cameron”, the Office of the First Minister of Scotland complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.

IPSO established a breach of the Editors’ Code and has required The Daily Telegraph to publish this decision as a remedy.

The article reported the contents of a leaked Government memorandum which claimed that at a private meeting the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, had told the French Ambassador that she would rather see David Cameron win the general election than Ed Miliband. The memorandum had been written by a senior British civil servant a week later, after a conversation with the French Consul-General.

The article said that these comments undermined Ms Sturgeon’s public support for a “progressive alliance” with Mr Miliband.

The complainant said that the claims were categorically untrue: Ms Sturgeon had not expressed a preference for a Conservative government or any views about Mr Miliband’s suitability as Prime Minister. The complainant regarded the newspaper’s decision not to contact Ms Sturgeon for comment prior to publication as a breach of Clause 1.

The newspaper said it had confirmed the authenticity of the document with two well-placed sources before publication. It was a contemporaneous note made by an experienced civil servant, and the newspaper had no reason to doubt its accuracy. It denied having any obligation to contact Ms Sturgeon for comment before publication: it was entitled to publish an accurate account of the document.

The Complaints Committee noted that the memorandum represented – at best – a second-hand account given a week after the meeting, which contained the serious implication that Ms Sturgeon had been disingenuous in her public statements.

The newspaper did not know whether the account contained in the memorandum was accurate. Nonetheless, it had published this as fact, without having taken additional steps prior to publication – such as contacting the parties involved for their comment – to verify its accuracy.

The committee established that the newspaper’s presentation of the account contained in the memorandum, in this context, represented a breach of the Editors’ Code.

Reacting to the ruling, Strugeon said: "I welcome today's unequivocal verdict by IPSO on the Daily Telegraph's story, which is a victory for effective regulation of the press – and for the truth.

"The complaint was lodged on the basis that the Telegraph's conduct in producing this story fell short of the expected journalistic standards. Subsequent events have proven conclusively that the story was entirely untrue, and today's ruling simply underlines that."

The First Minister added: "The press have a vital job to do in scrutinising the work of government and of the political process in general. That is a role which is essential for democracy, and it is scrutiny which I welcome.

"But that does not mean that the press themselves are above and beyond scrutiny and oversight. They have a duty to ensure, as far as possible, that the stories they present to readers are fair, balanced and – above all – accurate.

"The Daily Telegraph, in failing to carry out the most elementary of journalistic checks and balances, failed in this case to meet that duty."

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