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Complainant Name:
Mr Michael Stern MP

Clauses Noted: 1

Publication: The Observer


Mr Michael Stern MP complained that an article in The Observer of 5 November 1995, headlined "20 MPs caught fiddling expenses" wrongly suggested that he had taken part in a cover-up of illegal activities and that the newspaper had not published his letter of reply, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code of Practice.

The article, published on the eve of the Commons' voting on Lord Nolan's report said that "up to 20 MPs had been caught red-handed 'fiddling' their Commons expenses and defrauding the Inland Revenue by claiming a parliamentary allowance and tax deduction to which they were not entitled" on the use of company cars. The reference to the complainant was that when an approach by the MPs to the Treasury over Inland Revenue investigations failed, they approached Mr Stern, an accountant, for help; his appeal had been successful.

The newspaper said that their original information was from a reliable but confidential source who had identified Mr Stern as intervening for some 20 MPs when they were challenged by the Inland Revenue. When the newspaper asked Mr Stern to comment he stated that he was not sure he could do so as he had been approached in his capacity as a professional accountant rather than as an MP. The response of another MP they contacted went some way to confirming his own involvement in a dispute and the newspaper said that as neither man had actually denied the story they believed there were sufficient grounds to run it.



The complaint for the Commission to consider was whether the article wrongly implied Mr Stern was involved in a cover up of illegal activities. It considered that while the particular words which referred to Mr Stern contained no implication of a cover up, the context of the article, including its strongly worded headline, suggested that the matter on which Mr Stern had been approached to give assistance had involved some impropriety. It did not appear that the outcome of the Inland Revenue's investigation revealed any such impropriety nor did the Commission consider the newspaper had provided justification for the suggestion that there was. On this basis the complaint was upheld.


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