Comment: Commissioner believed Spratt may have thought he was answering another question

Jimmy Spratt is a DUP MLA for South Belfast
Jimmy Spratt is a DUP MLA for South Belfast

When just over a year ago I phoned the DUP MLA Jimmy Spratt to say that it seemed he had said “except the nutters” at a Stormont hearing, I thought his response was about as unequivocal as it could have been.

“No, absolutely not, Sam. You print that if you want. I’ll be seeing you in court as well,” he responded.

We did print that and he never took the legal action which he then threatened.

Eventually, the issue went to Stormont’s standards commissioner, Douglas Bain. In January, he ruled that it was “inconceivable” that during the phone interview Mr Spratt would have denied using the phrase.

We then made public a recording of the interview which proved that he had used the words we attributed to him. That prompted Mr Bain to open a second probe into whether Mr Spratt had been dishonest and misled him.

Now, he has concluded that although that question was put to Mr Spratt and our record of his answer is accurate, that he may have thought he was answering another question.

Delving into Mr Spratt’s state of mind, Mr Bain discovered that the MLA had been “annoyed” by criticism on social media and did not “rate” me as a journalist. He found: “I am not satisfied that when he said the words ‘no, absolutely not, Sam’ Mr Spratt believed he was responding to the proposition that he had denied using the words ‘except the nutters’...” He added that poor reception means the MLA may have misheard the question.

But one glaring question is not addressed in the report.

If Mr Spratt was responding to a different question, why, when his interview was published on the front page of the News Letter, did he not ask us to correct (or sue, as he threatened to do) what would have been a serious error?