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PCC rejects Lord Ashcroft complaint in rare ruling on reporting defamation outcome

PCC rejects complaint from Lord Ashcroft against The Independent in rare ruling on reporting defamation outcome

The Press Complaints Commission has ruled that The Independent did not breach Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice following a complaint from Lord Ashcroft that the newspaper had failed to fulfil its obligation to publish a fair and accurate report of the outcome of an action for defamation against The Independent.

The libel claim by Lord Ashcroft was pursued against the previous publisher (Independent News and Media) of The Independent and concluded in November 2012 when an agreed statement was read in open court. On 5 December 2012, The Independent reported the outcome of the proceedings in print and online. Lord Ashcroft complained that the headline, "Ashcroft drops High Court action after apology" suggested, inaccurately, that he had "abandoned" his libel claim rather than the true position, that he had agreed not to pursue it as part of a settlement. He was also concerned that the article had not reproduced the retraction made by INM in full; that other references were calculated to distance the present publishers of the newspaper (Independent Print Limited) from the retraction and apology; that the report had been excessively delayed; and that it had been given insufficient prominence.

The Independent noted that neither it nor IPL had been party to the legal action and said it had no control over the terms of the settlement. Lord Ashcroft had not sought to reach any agreement in advance with IPL or the present editor of The Independent 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. 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clear the central issues: that serious allegations linking the complainant to corruption in the Caicos Islands had been withdrawn, and that INM had apologised to Lord Ashcroft.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 newspaper maintained that the headline was accurate and represented "commonplace" terminology in such instances. Nonetheless, it offered to amend this 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".

Clause 1 (iv) of the Editors' Code states that "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". The Commission said that The Independent was required to report the outcome of the legal action, for the benefit of its readers as well as for the complainant, noting that "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 in publishing the outcome of just over a week was "regrettable", it said, but not significant in the context of a three-year legal action. Although Lord Ashcroft argued that the article had been given inadequate prominence, in the Commission's view, the prominence of the item met the requirements of Clause 1 (iv).

The Commission noted Lord Ashcroft's objection to the reference in the headline to the claim having been "dropped" but it did not consider that this terminology was significantly misleading in the context of the full report. Noting that the newspaper had "properly discharged its obligations" under the Code, it did not uphold the complaint.

ENDS

Notes to editors

  1. To read the adjudication in full, please click here.
  2. Lord Hunt of Wirral, the Commission's Chairman, and Lord Grade of Yarmouth, a member of the Commission, declared an interest in this matter as members of the House of Lords who take the Conservative whip, as does the complainant. They took no part in the discussion of the complaint, and the Commission meeting was chaired by Ian Walden, a lay member of the Commission, while the complaint was considered.
  3. For more information, please contact Jonathan Collett on 020 7438 1246, 07740 896 805 or jonathan.collett@pcc.org.uk

28/02/2012



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