Minutes of Jimmy Spratt’s meeting with Douglas Bain show that he launched a tirade against the News Letter and claimed that he had never denied using the words “except the nutters”.
A month before that interview, I was contacted by Mr Bain who requested an interview about my conversation with the DUP MLA.
At the time, last September, I replied to the standards commissioner’s secretary that I was “somewhat reluctant to get involved in this process at all, not least because as a reporter I will at some point no doubt have to report on it” but acknowledged Mr Bain’s power to compel witnesses.
The email emphasised that “the facts of the story which the News Letter published after my conversation with Mr Spratt have never been challenged by him or by the DUP. Therefore, there is probably little that I can add to the investigation other than to confirm that I stand over everything which I wrote.”
Mr Bain replied that he wanted to speak to me and a brief interview was arranged at which I again made clear to him that the News Letter stood by the story.
A month later, Mr Spratt was interviewed by the commissioner. Unknown to me until the publication of the 114-page report two weeks ago, at that meeting Mr Spratt made numerous allegations against me and claimed he had been misquoted.
Minutes of that meeting record that when Mr Bain put it to Mr Spratt that he had denied using the word “nutters” to me, the DUP MLA “was adamant that it was lies.” Clearly in bullish mood, Mr Spratt told Mr Bain that “he didn’t consider the interview [with Mr Bain] to be of great importance”.
Later, the minutes record that Mr Spratt “made it very clear in terms of that comment that he had never denied saying ‘except the nutters’...”
Further into the meeting the minutes state that Mr Spratt “reminded Mr Bain that he had issued an apology which was very carefully worded. He had not on any occasion deny [sic] using the phrase ‘except the nutters’.”
Elsewhere in Mr Bain’s report, he states that it is a criminal offence to give “a false or misleading answer “during an interview with the standards commissioner.
The commissioner asked Mr Spratt about his phone call from the News Letter. The DUP MLA told him that he was having dinner at the La Mon House Hotel at the time where “the mobile signal was very poor and that made it difficult for Mr Spratt to hear all that Mr McBride was saying”
The minutes then record: “Mr Spratt said that Mr McBride had said that he had heard the recording of the committee hearing and that it seemed clear that Mr Spratt had said ‘except the nutters’.
Mr Spratt was adamant that at no time during the call had he denied using the words in question.”
Aside from Mr Spratt’s inaccurate summary of the law (it is entirely legal for journalists who have identified themselves to make an accurate record of what is said, whether in a shorthand note or by recording their own phone calls. It is illegal to hack into or record another person’s private phone calls.), his comment raises the question of why, if he was misquoted as he claims, he never once attempted to get the News Letter to correct what would have been such a gross inaccuracy.
However, despite confirming that he had threatened legal action against the News Letter if we printed what he at that point denied having said, Mr Spratt confirmed to Mr Bain that he had not even taken legal advice about the issue, much less issued proceedings for libel.
Although Mr Bain contacted me after that meeting to ensure that his secretary’s minute of our conversation was accurate, at no point was it put to me that Mr Spratt had claimed to have been misquoted, or that Mr Bain himself had accepted that there was no evidence of the MLA having ever denied saying what was alleged.
26 june 2013
DUP MLA Brenda Hale tells a Stormont committee that no one in her area opposes the Maze peace centre. Mr Spratt says “except the nutters”. Committee chairman Mike Nesbitt tells him: “Some of your interventions, such as calling the people who are against the Maze peace centre ‘nutters’, have not been helpful”. Mr Spratt says “I did not say that” before accusing Mr Nesbitt of “spinning”, adding: “I certainly was not calling anybody in this room, nor, indeed, people who have opposition to the Maze, nutters”.
27 June 2013
The Belfast Telegraph reports that Mr Spratt has denied using the word “nutters” in reference to opponents of the Maze. He admits using the word but says that it had been totally unconnected to the Maze: ”I certainly said nutters but that word was not used about the Maze”. He says he is seeking legal advice, seemingly against Mr Nesbitt. That night, when told by the News Letter that a recording of the committee appears to confirm that he said “except the nutters”, Mr Spratt says: “Absolutely not” and threatens legal action. Hours later, the DUP press office issues an apology from Mr Spratt for “any hurt caused to those who believed my comments were directed at them”
1 July 2013
The UUP complains to the Assembly Standards Commissioner, alleging that Mr Spratt has broken the MLA code.
21 October 2013
In an interview with the commissioner, Mr Spratt insists that “at no time during the call had he denied using the words in question”
21 January 2013
The commissioner’s report, endorsed by Stormont’s standards committee, clears Mr Spratt of having broken Assembly rules and says that he never denied having said “except the nutters”.