The Daily Mail was justified in reporting that former prime minister Tony Blair tried to “wriggle out” of appearing before a committee of MPs, the press regulator has ruled.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation has rejected a complaint brought by Blair saying that a 10 January Mail story headlined “Blair tried to wriggle out of MPs’ probe into IRA ‘comfort letters’” was inaccurate.
The article reported Blair had contacted Commons Speaker John Bercow after being summoned to appear before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee inquiry into so-called “comfort letters”, as part of an attempt to avoid giving oral evidence to the inquiry.
It claimed Blair had been told by the Speaker that he was required to appear and characterised the call as an attempt by him to “wriggle out” of giving evidence.
Blair said he had explained to the Speaker that, while he had already given evidence on the issue to the Hallett Review and did not therefore believe that there was benefit in his repeating this evidence to the committee, he would be attending.
He said he sought advice on whether there was any scope to change the date he was required to attend the committee because of restrictions on his diary.
He also said that the article was misleading in stating that he had limited his appearance before the committee to an hour, when in fact this was at the suggestion of the committee’s chair.
The Mail said Blair had declined to give oral evidence to the committee after being initially invited to do so in March 2014. It provided a letter sent to the committee’s chair in which Blair said he “had nothing to say which will be new”, and that “if you continue to insist on my attendance” he would ask his office to “look into dates in the new year” however, given his other commitments this would be “challenging”.
As a result, the committee took the step of summonsing Blair to appear before it on 14 January 2015.
The letter notifying Blair of the summons referred to his “continuing lack of response to the committee’s invitation” and stated that the committee was “particularly disappointed” at the lack of response which it said was “extremely disrespectful to the House”.
The Mail said its account of the conversation between Blair and Bercow was provided by well-placed confidential sources and clearly presented as claims.
It said that Bercow did not return its call and that Blair’s denial was included in the piece.
The Mail said it also contacted three members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to put the story to them and that they gave no indication that any element of the article was incorrect.
The Mail said it had had since been contacted by Bercow, challenging the account and as result offered to publish the following clarification:
An article dated 10 January 2015 suggested that Tony Blair had begged the Speaker to overturn an order to appear before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and that the Speaker had ‘ripped into’ Mr Blair. Mr Bercow has confirmed to us that he was not asked to overturn an 'order' and that rather than 'ripping into' Mr Blair the conversation they had was a cordial one. The article also said that Mr Blair managed to limit his appearance to an hour. In fact, it was the Committee Chair who made that proposal.
Blair declined the proposed correction and said the article should be retracted in full.
IPSO rejected the complaint saying that the report was “appropriately presented as a claim, or the newspaper's understanding of what had passed between the parties”.
It said: “The committee was therefore satisfied that care had been taken to avoid misleading readers by suggesting that the newspaper had been in a position to establish that the claims published were true.”
It ruled that the article was not significantly misleading and said it “welcomed the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification setting out the Speaker’s position”.
A spokesperson for the Office of Tony Blair said: "We are disappointed by IPSO’s ruling which shows a major failure at the heart of the new regulatory process.
"As we made clear at the time, the Daily Mail’s central allegation regarding Mr Blair’s phone call with The Speaker is untrue. Furthermore, The Speaker has also completely rejected their characterisation of this conversation. We believed that, given the evidence from the only people able to comment accurately on the conversation, IPSO would rule accordingly.
"Therefore, we are astonished that IPSO has decided not to uphold the complaint. While it does not dispute the truth of the statements made by Mr Blair and The Speaker, instead, it has decided for reasons that are difficult to understand that the Daily Mail was justified in publishing the article not because they had a reasonable belief that it was true, but because it was presented as being based on a claim by anonymous sources.
"We entered this process in good faith. However, IPSO failed to investigate the clear and unambiguous facts of our complaint and ignored evidence from the only people who know the truth of the matter, preferring to lend more weight to those twice or three times removed from the conversation. It would seem that the truth counts for little in the eyes of IPSO."