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Complainant Name:
Sir Christopher Geidt

Clauses Noted: 1

Publication: The Guardian


Sir Christopher Geidt, Private Secretary to HM The Queen, complained via solicitors to the Press Complaints Commission that in three articles published on 8 May 2013, The Guardian had published inaccurate claims in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice.

The complaint was upheld.

The coverage - a news article, profile, and editorial leader - discussed the complainant's role in relation to the creation of a royal charter on press regulation. It also discussed a successful 1991 defamation claim brought by the complainant.

The complainant said that his role as Private Secretary was to act as a channel of communication between the Government and the Queen in her role as Head of State. The Government was responsible for the creation of the charter; the Queen acted only on the advice of her prime minister. He was therefore not "tasked with handling the creation" of the royal charter; "jointly responsible" for setting it up; "the man who is now charged with establishing" the royal charter, or "one of the final arbiters of press regulation", as the newspaper claimed. The newspaper's criticisms of the royal charter process in its leader, which focused primarily on his role, were also unfounded. He believed that the newspaper had wilfully ignored accurate information it had received about his role before publication. In addition, it had repeated allegations that had been withdrawn following his libel action, and it had not made clear that as well as paying substantial damages and costs (which had been noted in the coverage), the defendants had withdrawn the allegations and given undertakings and unconditional apologies.

The complainant required public and private apologies, along with the removal of the coverage from the newspaper's website and an assurance by the newspaper that it would not publish anything "colourably similar" in future.

The newspaper argued strongly that there was a public interest in its investigation of the complainant's role; it was entitled to take a sceptical view of processes that many regarded as opaque. The fact that the complainant had once launched a libel case that had involved the threatened use by the Government of public interest immunity certificates was a matter of legitimate scrutiny in the present context. The coverage had contained inaccuracies, but they had not been deliberate, and it had offered a correction at a very early stage.

The newspaper said it had sought comment from appropriate parties before publication but accepted that some responses had apparently been misinterpreted. It had been told by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that the complainant was not "actively involved in the process at this stage" but that he had been "updated". It had understood from this that the complainant was party to relevant discussions and expected to become actively involved in future. Generally, it had understood from its sources that the complainant's role was not merely ceremonial. It was difficult to be "definitive"; the press was forced to accept the word of individuals who held such roles about how they operated. In relation to the legal action, the coverage had made clear that the complainant and the other plaintiff had received substantial damages and costs. The Palace had declined to comment substantively on the issue before publication, and the newspaper had been unaware of the apologies and assurances. Shortly after the original coverage appeared, it had published a 575-word response by a friend of the complainant decrying it as a "smearing attack".

The newspaper offered to publish a lengthy correction accepting that it had "overstated and misrepresented" the complainant's role and apologising for the "serious errors" and for "any damage to his reputation". This would be the only item in its Corrections & Clarifications column, headed in bold with the complainant's name and the word "apology". It had amended the articles online and appended a note apologising for errors on 31 May 2013; this would be replaced with the full apology, which would also appear in its online corrections column.

The newspaper said that it had amended the articles in response to the complaint. It refused to remove the amended articles from its website or to offer assurances that it would not publish anything "colourably similar". These requests suggested an attempt to "quash" discussion of legitimate issues. For the PCC to order the newspaper to take such steps would pose a serious threat to freedom of expression. It also declined to apologise privately to the complainant. The public apology was, in part, a service to its readers.

The complainant said that the continuing publication of the amended articles online was unacceptable; they remained inaccurate and derogatory. Following the complaint to the PCC, the text of the apology had been agreed, but he maintained that prominence was insufficient: it should appear on page 3 or 5 and in an equivalent position online.



It is no part of the Commission's role to interfere with a publication's proper scrutiny of the processes of government and state, including the activities of the Queen and her staff in relation to her duties as head of state.

Under Clause 1 of the Editors' Code of Practice, however, the press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and it must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. The newspaper had explained in correspondence with the Commission that it was difficult to be "definitive" about the complainant's role, but it had published three items - a news report, a profile, and an editorial - which had contained serious overstatements, presented as fact, on this issue.

The Commission acknowledged the newspaper's early recognition that remedial action was necessary. The wording it had ultimately offered corrected the position and included an appropriate apology. This was a particularly concerning case, however: the inaccuracies were central to the reporting; they appeared across all three items; and they directly contributed to the newspaper's criticisms of the nature of the complainant's role and his personal suitability to fill it. The Commission upheld the complaint.

Note by the Commission

The Commission noted the complainant's requests for the removal of the articles, a private apology and assurances about future publication. The Commission does, on occasion, negotiate for the removal of online articles and for the provision of assurances and private apologies as a means of amicably resolving a complaint. This is distinct, however, from actions that can be considered as formal remedies by a publication to a breach of the Code, which are specified in the preamble to the Editors' Code of Practice, in Clause 1 (ii) and in Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply).

The Commission would not expect any publication to republish claims or to continue to publish claims that it had previously accepted were significantly inaccurate. Should this occur it would have serious concerns. Nonetheless, the newspaper was entitled to investigate matters that it considered to be in the public interest or otherwise worthy of scrutiny; it would not be appropriate for the Commission to require assurances about the subjects of such inquiries or for it to oblige a publication to express private regret, where this is not provided for under the terms of the Editors' Code of Practice.

Date Published:

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