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  By a Newsnet reporter

The Observer newspaper has been forced into an embarrassing climbdown after publishing an article based on what the paper claimed was a "recent" interview with European Council president Herman Van Rompuy.

Entitled "EU tells Alex Salmond to think again in Scottish independence row", the article claimed that Mr Van Rompuy had intervened in the Scottish independence debate and had "poured scorn" on the Scottish referendum.

Following complaints, the newspaper has been forced to amend the article and publish an explanation admitting mistakes in the original piece.

The article, by the paper's political editor Daniel Boffey, was written in such as way as to leave the reader with the clear impression that Mr Van Rompuy's comments represented a new intervention in the debate on Scottish independence and was an EU policy stance.  The article described the EU President's remarks as "a blow to Scotland's first minister".

However, Mr Van Rompuy's remarks were made in a personal capacity in response to a bizarre question that spoke of the "evil" of ending the United Kingdom.  The EC official was responding to a question from "Keith from Edinburgh" who asked: "What is your view on separatism in Europe, do you agree with Scottish nationalism and the evil work it portrays (sic) to end the United Kingdom?"

Worse for the newspaper, it also emerged that the video was not a "recent intervention", as claimed by Mr Boffey, but rather was 18 months old and had been made long before the Edinburgh Agreement between Holyrood and Westminster which established the legal basis to the referendum.

The article went on to assert that First Minister Alex Salmond had "erroneously claimed to have EU legal advice on the issue" of Scottish EU membership, despite the First Minister strenuously asserting he had done no such thing.

This paper's claims were further undermined last week when Scotland's top legal officer, the Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland, sent a letter to Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson saying that he backed the Scottish Governement over the issue of legal advice.  Former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish also went on the record to state that he did not believe Mr Salmond had acted improperly.

The paper went on to say that "a former Whitehall mandarin has been asked to conduct an independent inquiry into whether Salmond misled Holyrood", implying that this investigation had been ordered by a third party.  However it was Mr Salmond himself who had asked for an investigation into whether he had indeed breached the ministerial code.  Mr Boffey's article made no mention of this fact.

A large number of reader comments were left in response to the article, several announcing their intention to make formal complaints to the Press Complaints Commission.  The paper has now published a revised version of the article, with the new headline "European chief pours scorn on Scottish independence".

Comparing a cached version of the article as originally published with the new version, shows the changes made.  

Old version:

"The comments will be a blow to Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, and emerge after the UK government reiterated that an independent Scotland would have to apply to the EU to become a new member state."

New version:

"The comments, which until now have not been widely publicised, emerge after the UK government reiterated that an independent Scotland would have to apply to the EU to become a new member state."

Old version:

"Salmond has claimed that Scotland would not have to leave the EU and even erroneously claimed to have had EU legal advice on the issue. However, it has since emerged that no such advice had been sought and a former Whitehall mandarin has been asked to conduct an independent inquiry into whether Salmond misled Holyrood and so breached the ministerial code."

New version:

"Salmond has faced accusations of lying on national television after appearing to tell the BBC in March this year that his law officers had provided legal advice that supported his claims about Scotland's EU status.  Salmond has asked an independent inquiry to investigate whether he misled Holyrood and so breached the ministerial code.  Salmond denies making the claim."

The Observer has published no apology for the misleading claims made in the original article, and has not given the altered version the same prominence as the original piece.  The newspaper has appended a statement to the altered article saying:

"This article was amended on 8 November 2012 to make it clear that the YouTube video featuring Herman Van Rompuy was made in June 2011. The original described it as 'recent'. It has also been changed to include First Minister Alex Salmond's denial of accusations that he made misleading remarks concerning legal advice on Scotland's EU membership and has asked an independent inquiry to investigate whether he misled Holyrood and so breached the ministerial code."

The changes to the article were made after readers' comments on the piece had been closed.

 

[Newsnet Comment - Criticisms have already been made of the coverage of the Scottish independence debate in the Observer and its sister paper the Guardian, with many complaining that editorials, opinion pieces and news reporting in the paper routinely misrepresent the independence case.

Another example of misleading reporting in the paper was an article from the Guardian series Reality Check - which bills itself as an objective analysis - that dealt with oil revenues.  The article, published in March this year, repeats the anti-independence claim that oil and gas revenues may be apportioned on a per capita basis, and presents this argument as equally likely an outcome as oil revenues being divided on a geographical basis.  

The paper says that on a geographic share, approximately 90% of North Sea oil revenues would accrue to an independent Scotland, however, the article adds: "If the calculation is done on the basis of population then that figure will be reduced to 9%."

The "per capita" argument is presented as equally plausible despite its being without any credible legal foundation.  Oil and gas, like any mineral deposits, are territorially determined.  A state accrues the revenues from all the mineral deposits lying within its territory.  For this purpose the territory of a state includes the continental shelf lying under the seabed off the country's coasts.]

This is all well established and non-controversial in international law, and in fact there is no other legally recognised basis for determining the apportioning of mineral reserves between states.  The Guardian's citing of the "per capita argument" as an equally possibly outcome is misleading, and creates doubt and uncertainty around an issue which ought to be transparent and obvious.]

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