Created on Tuesday, 17 November 2015 15:44
The ABSW has now received three formal complaints under its ‘Professional Conduct’ clause in the standing orders (standing order 16).
Before outlining the actions taken by the Board in response to these complaints the Board would like to provide some context to this unprecedented situation.
As stated on our website, the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW) exists to help those who write about science and technology, and to improve the standard of science journalism in the UK. We are an association of science writers, journalists, broadcasters and science-based communications professionals.
Founded in 1947, the ABSW has provided science journalists with networking, training, gossip, opportunities and jobs for over 60 years. We aim to promote the highest standards of journalism and writing by encouraging flair and bravery. We also hope to foster a mutually supportive community and to provide an environment for new ideas to develop and flourish.
Through debates and events, our discussion group and our science writing awards we help to create links between science writers, their subjects and markets.
The ABSW is neither a professional body, nor a trade union and does not see its primary role as taking action against our members with regards to their daily work as writers, journalists or broadcasters. However our standing orders do allow for a complaints procedure, the relevant standing order 16 reads as follows:
16. Members of the Association are expected to observe the highest professional standards. Wilful or frequent misrepresentation or inaccuracy, wilful breach of confidence, or behaviour in any way prejudicial to the interest of the public in accurate scientific reporting, or of the professional interests of the membership of the Association, shall be considered in breach of these standards.
A member against whom a formal complaint of infringement of this rule is laid shall be invited to meet the Executive Board, which will meet with at least five members present. A copy of the written complaint shall be communicated to the respondent at least three weeks before the hearing. An adequate record shall be kept of the hearing. The Executive Board has the power to warn, suspend or expel the member complained against. A written statement of the reasons for any suspension or expulsion shall be made to members of the Association at or before the next AGM of the Association.
A formal complaint must be in writing and duly signed by the complainant. If the complaint originates from within the Association, it shall be signed by not fewer than three members.
The ABSW has no other means by which to deal with complaints, there is no ‘informal’ procedure and The Board should not and cannot take action against any of our members without there being a formal complaint brought under this clause. It would be entirely inappropriate for the Board to decide to initiate some kind of enquiry into a member in any other way other than through the procedure as outlined in our standing orders. The Board hopes that all members consider how they would like to be treated if subject to complaint and that they would expect the Board to adhere to the procedures outlined in our standing orders.
As the ABSW has no previous experience of any complaint being brought against a member The Board has had to consider how this standing order works in practice. After considerable discussion the Board considers the following as an appropriate way by which to implement the complaints procedure.
The Board considers that normally a complaint would be received by the ABSW and that this complaint would not be made public until both the Board and the subject of the complaint had been notified. Clearly a complaint could be seriously prejudicial to a member of the ABSW and to publish it without any recourse to rebuttal by the subject of the complaint would be wrong. The Board would then consider the complaint requesting further details from the subject of the complaint where necessary in order to decide if the complaint warrants further action under standing order 16. The Board does not believe that any complaint received should automatically trigger action under standing order 16, each complaint must be considered on its merit. The Board hopes that members will understand the potential serious consequences for any member who is taken through the formal process of standing order 16. If the complaint is not taken forward then it would be for the Board and the subject of the complaint to decide if they wished the matter to be made public. If the complaint is taken forward through the formal processes of standing order 16 then the standing orders make it quite clear that:
An adequate record shall be kept of the hearing. The Executive Board has the power to warn, suspend or expel the member complained against. A written statement of the reasons for any suspension or expulsion shall be made to members of the Association at or before the next AGM of the Association.
If the Board decides to take no action at this stage again it would be for the Board and the subject of the complaint to decide what details are made public.
The Board considers the above process to be the most practical, fair and appropriate way to deal with complaints regarding its members both in terms of taking the complaint seriously and in terms of its duty of care to its members.
However in the case of the three complaints received by the Board these have already been made public by the complainant:
So in the case of these three complaints the Board can no longer adhere to the processes it would consider practical, fair and appropriate as outlined above.
The complaints received by the Board are as follows:
Complaint by Louise Mensch (non-member) against Connie St Louis, ABSW full member and Board member
Complaint by Louise Mensch (non-member) against Martin Ince, ABSW full member, President and Board member
Complaint by Louise Mensch (non-member) against Bob Ward ABSW associate member, and co-opted Board member
All three complaints relate in some way to the reporting of comments made by Sir Tim Hunt.
All three individuals have been informed of the complaints against them and are aware of the content of the complaints.
The Board met to consider all three complaints with a view to deciding if further action was warranted under standing order 16.
Board member Connie St Louis did not take part in this meeting of the Board and Board members Bob Ward and Martin Ince took no part in the discussion of the complaints relating to them.
Five members of the Board felt that they had a conflict of interest and so recused themselves from participating in the consideration of the formal complaint against Connie St Louis. In addition, Bob Ward indicated that he did not wish to participate in any potential process under Standing Order 16 about the professional conduct of an ABSW member as he is an Associate Member of the ABSW and is not a journalist. It was agreed that the three remaining Board members would consider the complaint and decide whether it warranted being taken forward to a hearing as described in standing order 16. Should that be the case, those three board members would then decide who to co-opt from the ABSW membership, taking into account their experience and conflicts of interest, to make up a committee of five individuals minimum (as required in standing order 16).
Connie St Louis was informed of this decision.
The remaining Board members considered the complaint against Connie St Louis separately and the result is reported later in this statement.
In the case of the complaints against Bob Ward and Martin Ince these were considered by the Board (with Martin Ince and Bob Ward not present) as the members present did not feel clear conflicts of interest in making a decision on whether the complaints should be taken forward.
Complaint against Martin Ince:
The Board considered that complaint against Martin Ince was incoherent and relied on spurious distinctions. The complaint was not about his ‘professional writing’ but about statements made on behalf of the Board and agreed by the Board. The Board’s statement regarding Tim Hunt not contesting Connie St Louis’ reporting related to the accuracy of the original tweet, not to any differences in opinion on context or intent.
The Board did not consider this complaint needed further action under standing order 16.
Complaint against Bob Ward:
With regard to the complaint against Bob Ward it was considered this related to tweeting in a private capacity not to reporting in any professional capacity. The Board considered that the tweets referred to in the complaint were made due to him being a co-opted member of the Board i.e.: asking Louise Mensch to email him direct and referencing emails to him as a Board member. It was considered that Bob Ward was doing this in the public interest i.e.: for clarity around ABSW procedures and processes. (At the time there was considerable misinformation around whether or not the Board had in fact received an official complaint and the process by which to make a complaint). It was considered that the tweets in question were part of a conversation rather than a report and did not prejudice the professional standards of the ABSW.
The Board concluded that the substance of the complaint against Bob Ward was misplaced and that no further action was needed under standing order 16.
Bob Ward and Martin Ince have been informed of the decision of the Board regarding these complaints.
Those Board members who had not recused themselves from participating in the consideration of the formal complaint against Connie St Louis examined the complaint against her separately. The outcome is reported here:
The Board members considering the complaint (referred to in this statement as the ‘Board subgroup’ or ‘subgroup’) would like to point out that the ABSW is not watchdog for science journalism. The purpose of standing order 16 is to provide a mechanism for the ABSW to uphold professional standards among its members and no more.
Also, standing order 16 cannot and should not function as a primary means for complaining about the substance of a member's journalism or professional conduct. Rather, the ABSW expects that any serious complaint about a member's journalism or conduct would have already been directed to the relevant media, regulator or law enforcement. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the ABSW assumes its members have complied with reasonable professional standards.
Standing order 16 also does not call for an 'investigation', which is what parts of the complaint invites the Board to do, and the Board reserves the right to look into whether the complaint warrants an action under standing order 16. The ABSW must treat its members and their professional interest and reputation with due care and consideration.
The Board subgroup has decided that it is not minded to begin any action under standing order 16 for the following reasons:
1. Many of the points the complainant raises do not fit the subgroup’s view of "wilful or repeated" misrepresentation.
2. The complainant does not offer clear evidence that Connie St Louis has done what the complainant accuses her of. Among other things, the complainant draws conclusions from audio recordings that we do not deem to be decisive; and offers quotes that appear to tell against St Louis without any objective evidence to back them up. The Board subgroup do not consider this evidence sufficient to show that St Louis's has behaved in a way that violates the standards set out in standing order 16.
The Board subgroup also considers this complaint to be vexatious and submitted with the goal of smearing an individual rather than with a constructive goal of upholding journalistic quality. The Board subgroup says this because:
The complaint includes evidence and quotations used selectively. For instance, the complainant asserts that no other witnesses agree with St Louis's version of the start of Sir Tim's remarks when this is not the case. Indeed, many other eyewitnesses appear to do so, as evidenced in a recent article: https://medium.com/@danwaddell/saving-tim-hunt-97db23c6ee93
2. The complainant has brought up matters that would most sensibly be addressed first and foremost through other channels. For instance, if the complainant considers the Today programme to be inaccurate a complaint to the BBC would be the obvious and sensible first step. Since the original reports have not been retracted in the media, the subgroup sees no reason to doubt their accuracy. Likewise, matters concerning St Louis' CV are not about journalistic standards. Rather they are matters for her employer - and indeed City University appears to be satisfied with her conduct. The subgroup has no reason to believe otherwise and it would not be appropriate for the ABSW to comment on this matter further.
The Board subgroup would also like to make it clear that this decision not to uphold the complaint should not be wrongly interpreted as a judgment either way on any of the individual points. Rather, the Board subgroup are saying that they have no credible evidence that Ms St Louis misrepresented anything, and so are not minded to begin any formal procedure under standing order 16.
Lastly, we would like to reaffirm the ABSW’s support for any member to report on controversial and politically sensitive issues in a free manner and without fear of reprisals, internet trolling or character assassinations.