Left-wing website Skwawkbox has hit out at what it called a “frankly perverse” ruling against it by press regulator Impress.
The regulator found that the independent website had misrepresented or distorted the facts in its criticism of a Sunday Times article, giving the impression a Labour councillor “may have lied or was disingenuous”.
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The Sunday Times story, published on 2 September, concerned the alleged bullying of two female campaigners said to have been “reduced to tears” due to the behaviour of a male councillor in Merseyside. The article quoted Wirral councillor Moira McLaughlin describing what happened.
Skwawkbox criticised the article in its own story published four days later, saying “Ms McLaughlin was not present when the events she described took place” and that the Sunday Times had built “‘its claim around Ms McLaughlin’s description of events”.
It published a screenshot of a Facebook exchange between McLaughlin and one of the women allegedly “reduced to tears”, which it said showed McLaughlin had “no idea what was supposed to have happened”.
According to Impress, Skwawkbox included this “to support the assertion that Ms McLaughlin’s account of the incident was unreliable, and therefore that the Sunday Times article was problematic.”
Skwawkbox made contact with McLaughlin who said the Facebook exchange was about a different event of which she was ignorant at the time, and asked not to be contacted again. The original Facebook poster subsequently told the Skwawkbox the post had in fact been about the incident concerned in the Sunday Times article.
In her complaint, McLaughlin said she had been misquoted by Skwawkbox and that she believed the article “gave readers a false impression that she was commenting on the incident reported on in the Sunday Times as if she were an eyewitness, despite the fact her remarks on the Facebook post made it clear that she was not aware of the alleged incident at the time”.
McLaughlin also complained that, after asking on the phone not to be quoted or contacted again, she was called by Skwawkbox a second time just minutes later.
Skwawkbox rejected the initial complaint so McLaughlin took it up with Impress.
Skwawkbox said it had rejected the complaint because its article concerned the false impression given by the Sunday Times “which misleadingly implied that the complainant had witnessed the incident herself”.
It told McLaughlin that it had made two phone calls to provide her with the opportunity to comment, and that the second one had been done with an apology “for clarification to ensure she was not misrepresented”.
Relaying Skwawkbox’s argument, Impress said: “…the [Facebook] comment was significant as it showed the complainant had no knowledge of the incident that was the subject of the Sunday Times article she had provided comment for.
“Yet, subsequently, the complainant had told the Sunday Times about the specifics of the incident and the Sunday Times had presented her comments as if she was speaking from first-hand knowledge.
“The publisher argues that is was entirely fair and accurate to say there were problems with the Sunday Times article “…and the evidence it uses – in particular that Ms McLaughlin was not present when the events she describes took place”.
Impress ruled that Skwawkbox breached Clause 1.4 (Accuracy) of the Impress Standards Code, which reads: “Whilst free to be partisan, publishers must not misrepresent or distort the facts.”
It said: “The committee accepts that the article does not state that the complainant claimed to have been present at the alleged incident. However, neither does the article in the Sunday Times.
“In claiming that the Sunday Times article was flawed because its ‘star witness’ was not in fact there, the publisher had given the Sunday Times article a strained interpretation which the publisher then proceeded to rebut by including the Facebook post and commenting on it.
“The committee considered that the article’s headline and the way the information was presented in the article could have led ordinary readers to believe that the complainant had claimed to the Sunday Times that she was an eyewitness, when in fact she was merely commenting on the alleged incident after the event.
“The committee considered the effect was to suggest the complainant may have lied or was disingenuous.”
Impress did not uphold McLaughlin’s complaint of harassment over the second phone call, saying Skwawkbox had been “pursuing a legitimate journalistic inquiry by calling back the complainant to clarify a point arising from his previous call to ensure accuracy”.
The regulator ordered Skwawkbox to publish the full adjudication and a correction, which it did on Friday while calling the regulator’s decision “frankly perverse”.
Skwawkbox said: “Every word of the article was accurate and this blog stands by it. But Impress has judged that an article that is entirely accurate was misleading.
“The UK needs Impress and its findings have been published as required – but Impress needs to up its game.”