Monday, November 12, 2007
The Press Complaints Commission has resolved a complaint against the Mail on Sunday (Scottish edition) in favor of the complainant, Alan Bain. The paper ran a story saying that Mr. Bain and his charity, the American-Scottish Foundation, were under investigation by the New York Attorney General's office. Here is an excerpt from the PCC's ruling.
The article reported that the complainant and the charity of which he was president, the American-Scottish Foundation ® (ASF), were at the centre of a criminal investigation into how charity money had been spent.
The complainant said neither criminal nor civil investigations were underway. The reality was that a freelance journalist working for the newspaper had made a complaint about him to the Office of New York’s Attorney General (ONYAG) in the knowledge that any complaint she lodged would have to be ‘evaluated’. However, no formal investigation had subsequently been initiated. Readers would have been misled into believing that complaints about the complainant had been made by third parties.
The newspaper said the journalist had lodged the complaint after concerns were raised with her by third parties.
The Commission considered that the article was clearly misleading as it failed to make clear that the complaint to ONYAG had been made by the article’s author. While she may well have made the complaint as a result of concerns being raised with her by third parties, this was not reflected in the coverage.
There was also no evidence that, as a result of the complaint, the complainant or the ASF charity were ‘at the centre of a criminal investigation’. Although there was some dispute as to whether a representative from ONYAG had confirmed the existence of ‘an investigation’ prior to the article being published, the only formal statement from ONYAG (made after the article appeared) stated that the complaint was being ‘evaluated’ and that an ‘investigation’ might follow. The Commission concluded that by overstating the position in this way the newspaper had failed in its duty under Clause 1 to take care not to publish inaccurate material.
Mr Bain further complained that the article contained a number of particular inaccuracies. He had not ‘wined and dined’ a string of politicians; ASF had not paid for any flights he had made to Scotland; he had not flown to Scotland solely to present a Tiffany gift; ASF had not sanctioned any donation to the Harris Tweed industry. The article failed to make clear that the complainant and his family had made donations to ASF in excess of $450,000 over the years. Moreover, one of the complainant’s companies – World-Wide Business Centre (WWBC) – had provided cut-price services to the charity since 1991. All payments to WWBC had been sanctioned by the board of ASF and there was simply no evidence of the complainant being involved in illegitimate financial practices.
The newspaper offered to publish a statement making clear that the complainant and his family had made significant donations to ASF and that WWBC had donated reduced-cost services to ASF. In addition, it would make clear that the complainant had no interest in the Harris Tweed industry when ASF made a donation to The Highland Fund. The statement included an apology for any distress caused.
The complainant rejected the newspaper’s offer and put forward an alternative, longer wording, which the newspaper was not prepared to publish.
The Commission did not consider that the reference to ‘wining and dining’ politicians was significantly misleading given that the complainant had, in his role as president of ASF, hosted various functions attended by political figures....
On the other points of dispute – regarding the ASF paying for flights, the Harris Tweed industry and, most importantly, the donations made by the complainant and his family and by WWBC (through reduced-cost services) – the Commission agreed that it was appropriate for the newspaper to offer some form of remedy. It was satisfied that the newspaper’s proposed statement, including as it did an apology, was a proportionate response to this part of the complaint.It therefore hoped that the complainant would now take up the offer.