Clauses Noted: 1
Publication: New Statesman
Louise Mensch MP complained to the Press Complaints Commission that three blog posts headlined "Rise of Sarah Palin's ‘mama grizzlies'", "Cameron, the Tea Party and a little backbench problem" and "Palin is coming to London", published on the New Statesman website on 30 September 2010, 2 October 2010 and 7 June 2011, were inaccurate and misleading in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors' Code of Practice.
The magazine had offered a sufficient form of remedial action.
The blog posts focused on conservatism in the United States, with particular reference to Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. The 30 September 2010 blogpost previewed an article in the magazine, stating that the complainant, together with another MP, "love[d] Palin power" and "reveal[ed] their admiration for Sarah Palin and her troupe of ‘mama grizzlies' in the Tea Party". The complainant was said to have described Ms Palin as a "remarkable figure": "I watched her acceptance speech at the Republican party conference and it seemed to me that it was a glorious moment, a birth of a new political star". The article also said that she "identifies closely with Palin's socially conservative agenda". The 2 October 2010 blogpost, which contained a photograph of Christine O'Donnell, repeated this final claim, stating that "not all Tories lament the rise of the American right". The 7 June 2011 blogpost stated that "several of Cameron's MPs", including the complainant, were "keen admirers" of Ms Palin, repeating the "remarkable figure" quote.
The complainant said that, following an interview with the magazine, her views on Sarah Palin and the Tea Party had been misrepresented. At the time of original publication in 2010 she had chosen not to complain to the PCC, instead writing an article on the Conservative Home website. The republication of the information in a blogpost in 2011 had prompted her to complain formally.
The complainant said that the magazine had made her out to be a cheerleader for both Ms Palin and the Tea Party, which was inaccurate and misleading. She accepted that she had made the reference to Palin's acceptance speech and the "birth of a new political star" (a view shared by almost every commentator at the time); however, she had made it quite clear that, as an early supporter, it was painful to see how the campaign had imploded. While she considered that Palin's reinvention after quitting as Governor was impressive, the complainant had outlined that she did not agree with her choice of candidates, especially Christine O'Donnell (who had been pictured specifically at the top of the blog). She did not back them, or identify with them: "I admired her grit and the fact she'd come back from such a nadir, but didn't agree with her choices". She had specifically stated that there was a "very odd woman who's just been selected in Delaware". In addition, she had said that the Tea Party was a "hodge-podge" with some members "off their rockers".
In addition, the complainant did not identify with social conservatism, and had said so explicitly in the interview espousing a feminist and non-social conservative viewpoint. She shared only one socially conservative view: she was pro-life, but even then it was "not even in [her] mind to attempt" to try to ban abortion, again disagreeing with the Governor, the Tea Party and the American right. For the record, the complainant said the following: "I oppose the death penalty. I favour gun control. (Both anathema to Gov. Palin.) I support gay marriage. I am an out and out feminist. I do not support a blanket ban on immigration".
The magazine did not accept that it had misrepresented the complainant's views, providing a copy of the transcript of the interview which had taken place. The full article, which mentioned the complainant briefly, reflected her misgivings about Ms Palin, making clear that she "acknowledges that the campaign exposed ‘various problems' (such as a glaring lack of policy knowledge), but is impressed by the comeback Palin has achieved since the 2008 election, and the power she wields". The article did not misrepresent her broadly positive opinion of Sarah Palin. Nonetheless, as a gesture of goodwill, the magazine was happy to offer the complainant an opportunity to reply in the form of a blogpost on its website.
The complainant was willing to accept the offer of a right of reply, provided that it was accompanied by the following correction underneath:
The New Statesman accepts that Louise Mensch MP does not support the Tea Party or the ‘Mama Grizzlies', and that in her interview with us, when asked if she took inspiration from the Tea Party, she replied "No, absolutely not". We also accept that she singled out Christine O'Donnell, whose photograph we used to illustrate our blogpost, as a candidate she would never have endorsed.
The magazine did not accept that a correction was warranted.
There were two central issues for the Commission to consider here: whether the various blogposts inaccurately represented the views the complainant expressed about the American right, especially Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, in the interview with the magazine; and whether it was inaccurate or misleading to claim that the complainant "identifies closely with Palin's socially conservative agenda". There was also the question of the use of the image of Christine O'Donnell.
The complaints rested largely on matters of interpretation. In particular, based on what the complainant said in her interview, was the magazine entitled to claim that the complainant, and others, had "reveal[ed] their admiration for Sarah Palin and her troupe of ‘mama grizzlies' in the Tea Party"? And would readers have been significantly misled by the claim that she "identified closely" with the socially conservative agenda of Ms Palin?
It was accepted that the complainant had praised Ms Palin, as the "remarkable figure" quote demonstrated, even if she had also made reference to her flaws. The reference to social conservatism was qualified, in the text of the articles themselves, by the quote attributed to the complainant about her pro-life views.
Nonetheless, the Commission considered that the points raised by the complainant were valid. In effect, her position was more nuanced than the blog coverage suggested to readers. Her critical comments on Sarah Palin's political career, for example, had not been adequately outlined, and nor had the magazine suggested - as the complainant had in the interview - that she did not endorse all Ms Palin's choices (and did not take inspiration from the Tea Party).
It was also clear that the claim about her identification with the social conservatism attributed to Sarah Palin only related to one issue: the complainant's pro-life position. The broad assertion that she identified "closely with Palin's socially conservative agenda" was, therefore, misleading, as it could imply agreement over a range of views.
On balance, the Commission considered that readers may well have been misled by the summary of the complainant's opinions as presented by the blog postings. This represented a breach of Clause 1 of the Code.
Clause 1 (ii) of the Code states that significant errors or misleading statements should be corrected. In this case, the magazine had offered to publish a blog posting by the complainant. The question for the Commission was whether the magazine had offered sufficient remedial action by doing so. The Commission considered that it had, for the following reasons.
The issues raised by the complainant related to how her comments had been summarised and interpreted in blog postings. As such, the Commission felt that her concerns would be most proportionately and properly addressed in the same format. This would, in its view, be more appropriate than a correction as the complainant would be able to articulate the full breadth of her perspective on Sarah Palin, the Tea Party and other related matters. As such, the Commission decided that the most appropriate manner of correcting the record would be through the publication of an opportunity to reply from the complainant in another blog.
The Commission considered that this opportunity to respond should remain open to the complainant on receipt of this adjudication, should she wish to take it up. In its view, the blog should be framed in an appropriate manner, linked back to the original blog posts about which she had complained.
Finally, the use of the photograph of Christine O'Donnell, to accompany one of the blogs, did not raise a breach of the Code. While it was true that the complainant had been critical of her in her interview, the blog did not suggest otherwise or make any claims about the complainant's views on Ms O'Donnell at all. Indeed, the reference in the blog to Ms O'Donnell related specifically to the views of another MP.
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