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  1. Media Law
May 27, 2015

Glasgow Herald wrong to report that council leader attempted suicide, IPSO rules

By PA Media Lawyer

The Glasgow-based Herald newspaper was ordered to publish a correction after the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) partially upheld a complaint about accuracy.

Former Glasgow Council leader Steven Purcell complained, via his solicitors, that the newspaper breached clause 1 and 2, covering accuracy and the opportunity to reply, of the Editors' Code of Practice with an article headlined "Cowboys hold few fears for retiring city boss" published on 15 December last year.

The piece, an an interview with retiring Glasgow City Council chief executive George Black, referred to Purcell, who resigned as council leader in 2010, and discussed the challenge the media coverage following his resignation had posed for Black.

It said that "within days, the nature of Purcell's unexpected emotional breakdown had gone public", continuing: "Alcohol dependency, cocaine, gangster connections, suicide attempts, cronyism and good-old fashioned corruption would underpin the media narrative around Glasgow City Council for the rest of the year".

The article went on to state: "Surely though, the Purcell saga only exacerbated negative perceptions of Glasgow? For many it has, largely unfairly, become a byword for and standout example of 'council sleaze' and 'shady dealings'. Rather than the New Labour stamp of successive leaders, outsiders cling to an image of a Glasgow run by a politburo of ageing overweight men receptive to the brown envelope culture".

Purcell said that the article was inaccurate because it alleged that he had attempted suicide, when he had only contemplated doing so. He denied what he took to be the implication that he had "gangster connections", or had taken part in "cronyism and good old fashioned corruption".

The article also inaccurately connected him to "shady dealings" and a "brown envelope culture", he said.

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He had admitted to alcohol dependency in the past, and admitted to having occasionally taken cocaine, he said.

But police had fully investigated whether he was involved in any improper activity while at the council, and no charges were brought.

The newspaper had not approached him before publication. He was now a company director, and the alleged inaccuracies would damage his professional reputation.

The newspaper referred to articles reporting on the suicide issue, but accepted that Purcell may not have attempted suicide, and that greater care should have been taken to differentiate between attempting and contemplating suicide. It offered to amend the online version of the article and publish a print clarification on this point.

It also referred to a number of news articles to corroborate the other claims about the media narrative around Glasgow City Council following Purcell's resignation, and to newspaper articles reporting that officers from the Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency (SCDEA) had met Purcell and told him that he could have become the target of a blackmail plot, after a drug dealer claimed to have mobile phone footage of him taking cocaine.

On Purcell's concern that the article connected him to "brown envelope culture", the newspaper said that this was a reference to the perceptions which outsiders held about the council, and that the article went on to report that Black, the interviewee, did not recognise this image of the council. It also said Purcell was a young council leader, and well known to be the second youngest in Scotland – the reference to "ageing overweight men" being receptive to the "brown envelope culture" meant that this would not be understood as an allegation against him.

The newspaper the complainant the opportunity to be interviewed in the newspaper, to set the record straight.

Purcell was not satisfied by the newspaper's offer to resolve his complaint.

IPSO's complaints committee said the reporting of "suicide attempts" gave a significantly misleading impression, and demonstrated a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article.

Although Purcell challenged the claims made in articles to which the newspaper referred, given their context the newspaper was entitled to report that "gangster connections", "cronyism" and "good old-fashioned corruption" were issues which had underpinned the media narrative following his resignation – while this was a robust characterisation of the coverage, it was not a significantly misleading one.

The committee noted that the article had made clear that the coverage had appeared over "the rest of the year" and had identified issues that were said to relate to Glasgow City Council and so would not have been understood to be references solely to the reasons for Purcell's resignation.

The committee did not find that the article gave a significantly misleading impression of the events surrounding the complainant's resignation.

It said that the reference to a "brown envelope culture" formed part of a general discussion of Glasgow's reputation and referred to "ageing overweight men", who were identified as the parties supposedly "receptive to a brown envelope culture".

Given Purcell's relative youth, the committee reached the view that the reference would not be understood to be a reference to him. The article, therefore, did not contain the alleged inaccuracy.

The newspaper received the complaint on 23 December and offered on 12 January this year to publish a correction making clear that Purcell had not attempted suicide. On 23 January it offered Purcell the opportunity to be interviewed so that he could "set the record straight", and "talk about his new career".

IPSO concluded that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction with due prominence. The newspaper should now, as offered, publish, on page 10 or further forward, a correction making clear that it was inaccurate to suggest that Purcell had attempted suicide.

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