Press Complaints Commission finds in favour of The Drum in action relating to Hollie Greig case involving The Firm
The Press Complaints Commission has found in favour of The Drum after an online article about the Crown Office’s failure to answer an FOI request for details of legal fees paid by Scotland’s Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini was reported to the PCC by Levy and McRae.
Levy & McRae asked the PCC to adjudicate on two specific complaints; firstly that The Drum’s original article had in some way suggested that legal proceedings against The Firm magazine had been initiated and then dropped by them and secondly that Levy and McRae had contacted news website UK Column on behalf of a sheriff that it did not and had never had represented.
The Drum strongly denied both allegations during correspondence with the PCC and both complaints were subsequently deemed not to have breached the Editor’s Code for Accuracy by the PCC.
Levy and McRae had also complained that the original article had made reference to concerns within the media industry of a conflict of interest in some of the firm’s dealings, but this complaint was withdrawn by them prior to adjudication by the PCC.
A letter received by The Drum from the PCC stated: “The Commission has now considered the complaint from Peter Watson of Levy and McRae. The objections were reviewed within the context of the article as a whole, taking into consideration the requirements of the Code of Practice.
“After assessment the Commission has decided that no matters have been raised which show a breach of the Code.”
On making its decision the PCC offered the following detailed adjudication:
Commission’s decision in the case of Watson vs The Drum
“The article reported that the Crown Office in Scotland had declined to answer a Freedom of Information request made by the magazine in regard to “legal action” undertaken by the Lord Advocate of Scotland, Elish Angiolini. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate and misleading on two points: the claim that “legal action” pursued by the Lord Advocate, his client, had been “dropped”; and the claim that Levy & McRae had written to UK Column “threatening legal action on behalf of a Sheriff who had been named in the Hollie Greig allegations”.
“The Commission firstly considered the reference to “legal action” in the article. The article as a whole had referred variously to: “libel action” (in the headline); “legal action”; the Lord Advocate having “threatened to sue”; it being “unusual for a Government appointee to sue the media”; “action against The Firm”; and “action”. The complainant had argued that the reference to the “action” being “dropped” suggested that formal legal proceedings had been raised, which was not the case; the magazine had pointed to the fact that the Lord Advocate had instructed the complainant to act on her behalf, had instructed Counsel and had issued legal warnings to the media for “defamatory” allegations.
“The question for the Commission was whether readers would have been misled by these references and, in particular, the statement that the action had been “dropped”. It decided that they would not. In its view, the references to “action” were broad, reflecting the magazine’s interpretation of what had occurred following the publication of the original article in The Firm. It was not in dispute that the complainant himself, or Counsel, had been instructed following this. In those circumstances – in addition to the fact that the article referred to legal action being “threatened” – the Commission did not consider that the general reader would have been significantly misled. The word “dropped”, in addition, did not carry an exclusively legal definition. The Commission did not consider that readers would have taken this to mean that formal legal proceedings had been raised and then not pursued. There was no breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code on this issue.
“The second point for the Commission to consider was the reference to the letter sent by Levy & McRae to UK Column. The article had stated the following: “In February Levy & McRae, wrote to an English-based website – UK Column – in the name of the Lord Advocate – threatening legal action on behalf of a Sheriff who had been named in the Hollie Greig allegations.”
“The complainant had confirmed that Levy & McRae did not and had not ever acted on behalf of the Sheriff in question and complained that it was inaccurate and misleading for the magazine to have suggested otherwise. The magazine had argued that the article had not stated that Levy & McRae were acting directly for the Sheriff; rather, it had said that Levy & McRae had written to UK Column in February in the name of the Lord Advocate about the Sheriff.
“In the Commission’s view, this point rested on an interpretation of the letter in question, which the magazine had provided to the Commission as part of the correspondence. The letter stated that the firm acted on behalf of the Lord Advocate. This was reflected in the article, which reported that the firm had written in the name of the Lord Advocate. The letter also warned that, unless action was taken, proceedings may be raised for breach of interdict and for harassment. The Commission found that the magazine had been justified in assuming that the firm was threatening legal proceedings on behalf of the Sheriff (in some capacity) in light of the fact that the letter identified only the Sheriff – and not the Lord Advocate – as the individual who had been granted the interdict. The Commission considered that – given the content of the letter from the firm to UK Column and the manner in which the matter had been reported by the magazine – whether or not Levy & McRae acted for the Sheriff was not a significant point which would require the newspaper to publish a clarification.
There was no breach of the Code.”
The Drum is continuing to try to establish exactly how much was paid by the Lord Advocate in legal fees and exactly who Levy & McRae was representing in these matters. Both approaches to the Crown Office have been rejected so far and the outcome of an appeal to the FOI Commissioner suggests that he is barred from investigating Crown Office financial matters.
A further appeal has been lodged.