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Baroness Patricia Scotland, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) that Mail Online articles concerning the renovation of her apartment contained inaccuracies. IPSO was right to find that the publication did not breach Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice because of the language used, the offer of a right of reply and newsworthiness of the articles. Mail Online’s original story, published 1 November 2016, was headlined: “Commonwealth chief Baroness Scotland’s £450,000 renovation of her Mayfair apartment included a new bathroom, £3,000 wallpaper and a £4,000 cupboard at taxpayer expense” (Mail Online, 2017). The strongest evidence in support of Mail Online is the language used in the original story. Mail Online said the £450,000 figure for the renovation was an estimate and had been based on leaked email correspondence between senior staff at the Commonwealth Secretariat in May 2016 .
The figure was based on the original £264,000 cost to renovate Baroness Scotland’s apartment, “the project being over budget by £25,000 and recommended additions to the refurbishment which would cost £140,000, not including VAT”. Mail Online adopted the £450,000 figure as fact, although the author made it clear the figure had been derived from leaked documents. The article also stated that Baroness Scotland had refused comment. The right of reply was observed. Mail Online said that despite being asked by its sister publication, The Daily Mail, Baroness Scotland had refused to confirm the actual cost of renovation. Therefore, Mail Online quoted the £450,000 estimated used by The Daily Mail. After the article was published, Baroness Scotland complained to IPSO that the overall cost of the renovations was actually £338,622, a figure Mail Online did not dispute . Mail Online wrote in mid-November 2016 that the overall cost of refurbishment would be £338,622, which was £70,000 more than the original budget. The author stated in the story that it was unclear whether the project was scaled back after reports of estimated costs emerged.
The article was not inaccurate, given the final cost of the apartment refurbishment was still significantly over budget. Mail Online amended the articles weeks later to reflect the final overall cost, and that revised article carried a footnote of clarification and apology: “An earlier version of this article referred to Baroness Scotland’s £450,000 renovation of her Mayfair apartment. In fact, the overall cost of the renovation was later revealed to be £338,622. We are happy to clarify this and apologize for any confusion” ( Mail Online, 2017). Mail Online wrote that the £450,000 figure was an estimate more than once and, in addition, they clarified the figure in a timely manner and made it clear to the reader that there was a clarification. Even so, the core of the story remained intact — that her office had spent taxpayer money on these renovations. Any time taxpayer money, regardless of cost, it should be made known to the public. Baroness Scotland also complained about inaccuracies in a second Mail Online article, headlined, “Downing Street REFUSES to give confidence in Commonwealth chief Baroness Scotland after her lavish spending spree”.
The 3 November article reported that the Prime Minister’s spokesperson “refused four times to confirm whether Theresa May has confidence in [Baroness Scotland].” Mail Online reported that “No 10 would only say it supported the ‘role’ of Secretary-General”, and claimed that “Downing Street appears to have lost confidence [Baroness Scotland]”. In the article, it is stated that the Prime Minister’s spokesperson had been asked numerous times whether the Prime Minister had confidence in Baroness Scotland. Its sub headlines clearly state that in response to the publication’s questions, the spokesperson “would only say [Downing Street] supported the ‘role’ of Secretary-General” (Mail Online, 2017). This made clear the basis for the headline’s claims that “Downing Street REFUSES to give confidence in [Baroness Scotland]”. Baroness Scotland said the 3 November’s headline was a misleading characterization of the statement the Prime Minister’s spokesperson had actually given.
The language around Downing Street’s lack of confidence in her, while unclear as an argument, was literally correct, and the comments from the Prime Minister’s spokesperson are quoted in the article in full. In relation to the refurbishment of Baroness Scotland’s apartment, Mail Online reported that “altogether, the improvements she asked for led to the total budget rising from £230,000 to an estimated £450,000” (Mail Online, 2017). Mail Online was not in breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice in this instance because the article made clear that the £450,000 was an estimate, and the budget had risen from £230,000 to £338,000. The article claimed that “concerns about the state of the [Commonwealth Secretariat’s] finances are longstanding”, and that an official Government analysis had given the organization a “red light rating in 2013 for ‘cost and value consciousness’ ” (Mail Online, 2017).Baroness Scotland said in reporting that the Commonwealth Secretariat had been given a “red light” rating in 2013, the article failed to make clear that she had only become Secretary-General in April 2016 (Ipso.co.uk, 2017). While Mail Online did not give the exact date of Baroness Scotland’s appointment, the original 3 November 2016 article did state she was appointed “earlier this year” (Mail Online, 2017). The article introduced the claim about the “red light rating” by explaining that “concern about the state of the [Commonwealth Secretariat’s] finances are longstanding”, and did not suggest that Baroness Scotland was responsible for this rating (Mail Online, 2017).
Mail Online also offered to add the following sentence to the article: “The rating was given before Baroness Scotland was the Secretary-General”.The publication’s series of articles about Baroness Scotland raised questions about the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth’s conduct and are in the public interest. The renovations to her apartment were at taxpayer expense and should be made publicly available. IPSO was in the right to not uphold Baroness Scotland’s complaints against Mail Online. Although the articles did include some factual inaccuracies, these points are not significant enough to constitute a breach of the Editors’ Code because of the language used, the offer of a right of reply and newsworthiness of the articles.
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