Telegraph forced to correct erroneous ‘Frenchgate’ report as LibDem squirms

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Carmichael: Lied on TV

By a Newsnet.scot reporter

The right-wing Tory newspaper the Daily Telegraph has had to publish the findings of the independent adjudicator IPSO that its story over a leaked Scotland Office memo about First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was inaccurate.

The Telegraph, which has mounted an anti-SNP campaign for several years, published a dodgy memo leaked to it on behalf of the former Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael MP one Friday night prior to the recent General Election.

Written by a civil servant and based on his conversation with a French consular official, it purported to claim that Sturgeon had told the French Ambassador Sylvie Bermann that she did not rate Labour leader Ed Miliband and that she would prefer a Conservative victory on May 7.

Simon Johnson, Telegraph
Simon Johnson, Telegraph

The story, written by the paper’s Scottish political editor Simon Johnson and political correspondent Peter Dominiczak, set out to undermine the SNP leader’s case that she wanted a powerful SNP group to support a minority Labour Government, and that she would not countenance a Tory Government.

It was leaked to the journalist by Euan Rodden, then a LibDem special adviser on the Government payroll, and with the consent of Carmichael, who commented at the time that “these things happen”. The former Secretary of State, now the only LibDem MP in Scotland, later wrote a grudging apology to Sturgeon, and is under pressure to step down and undergo a fresh by-election in his constituency of Orkney & Shetland.

Peter Dominczak: Telegraph co-author
Peter Dominczak: Telegraph co-author

The Independent Press Standards Organisation said that, while the paper was entitled to publish the memo, it had not handled the story properly. The Telegraph had not contacted Sturgeon or the Scottish Government to find out whether the memo was true, and in fact only published a comment from Carmichael’s party colleague,  Willie Rennie MSP.

Two other journalists, from the BBC and the Guardian, contacted French officials on the night of publication and reported their belief that the comments attributed to the First Minister were inaccurate. It emerged later that neither the anonymous civil servant who penned the supposed memo, nor the French officials he or she had spoken to, had attended the meeting between First Minister and Ambassador.

IPSO’s complaints committee ruled that the article was therefore “significantly misleading”, and told the newspaper to publish the adjudication on page two, with a front-page reference, as well as publishing it online.

Carmichael has since admitted that his approval to leak the memo was an “error of judgment”, that “the details of the account are not correct”. He accepted full responsibility for its publication.

The Daily Telegraph was told to publish the adjudication on page two, with a front page reference.

The memo, basically a third-hand account, included a disclaimer that parts of the conversation may have been “lost in translation”. Nevertheless, Carmichael and his special adviser felt able to leak it to the Telegraph.

The official cabinet office inquiry into the leak said Rodden had given the details to the Daily Telegraph, but that he had Carmichael’s permission to do so.

So-called "tough guy" who ousted party colleague Michael Moore as Scottish Secretary supposedly to "sort out" the Yes campaign for the coalition last year
So-called “tough guy” who ousted party colleague Michael Moore as Scottish Secretary supposedly to “sort out” the Yes campaign for the coalition last year

Carmichael claims he had not seen the document before it was published by the newspaper, but that he was “aware of its content”.

The complaint to the ISPO said the claims contained in the memo, and repeated by the Telegraph on April 4, were categorically untrue and regarded the newspaper’s decision not contact Ms Sturgeon for comment as a breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code. Sturgeon issued an immediate denial via Twitter when the Telegraph report became known on social media on the Friday evening.

The newspaper said it had confirmed the authenticity of the document with two “well-placed sources” before publication, and that it was under no obligation to contact Sturgeon for comment before publication.

However, IPSO that the newspaper’s report was a breach of the Editors’ Code. Chief executive Matt Tee said: “Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code obliges the press to take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information.

“This article was significantly misleading because the newspaper had failed to make clear that it did not know whether the account the memorandum presented was true.

“A front-page story such as this needs to be corrected in a prominent way and we have required the Daily Telegraph to publish our adjudication in full on page 2 with a reference on the front page of the newspaper, which it did today.”

He added: “IPSO’s policy when dealing with complaints that have generated significant public or group interest is to lay out a clear account of our process and findings.”

The Parliamentary Standards Commissioner has started a formal inquiry into Carmichael’s behaviour, considering his actions within the terms of the Code of Conduct for MPs.

He is resisting a campaign calling for him to resign as an MP. Opponents argue that Carmichael breached Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act.

The Telegraph’s Scottish editor, Alan Cochrane, made it clear he was prepared to misrepresent news concerning the SNP and the Yes campaign in a referendum memoir, Alex Salmond, My Part in his Downfall, published late last year.

Cochrane has denied a Private Eye item claiming that he had been promised a £20,000 bonus by the Telegraph’s chief executive Murdoch MacLennan, in the event of a No vote.

Salmond has since returned to Westminster as the new MP for Gordon, a seat formerly held by the LibDems. It emerged at the weekend that the Lib Dem candidate, Christine Jardine, had spent more than £40,000 trying to retain the seat, considerably more than that spent usually. The LibDems attempted to construct a “Stop Salmond” campaign by persuading supporters of other parties to back Jardine. The campaign failed.

The Carmichael case, where local campaigners are attempting to force his resignation as an MP under the Representation of the People Act, resumes in the Court of Session in Edinburgh later this week.