Complaint 00615-16 Prevent Watch v The Sunday Telegraph

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Complaint 00615-16 Prevent Watch v The Sunday Telegraph

Summary of complaint

1. Prevent Watch complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Organised campaign to hobble anti-terror fight”, published on 31 January 2016 in print, and headlined “Muslim extremists’ ‘campaign of lies’ to undermine the government’s fight against terror” published online on 30 January 2016.

2. The article was a report on “an organised campaign to undermine Britain’s fight against terrorism”. It said that “Islamist activists” were using “coordinated leaks to mainstream news organisations […] to spread fear and confusion in Muslim communities about the Government’s anti-terror policy, Prevent”. It said that “several widely reported recent stories about Prevent are false or exaggerated – and many of the supposedly ‘ordinary Muslim’ victims are in fact activists in the campaign known as Prevent Watch”.

3. The article named two such individuals. The first was a mother who claimed that her child had been “interrogated like a criminal” for using the term “ecoterrorism” in class, but whose legal claim against the school had been dismissed by the courts as “baseless”. It said that she was an “activist in the Prevent Watch campaign”, and was a key figure in another organisation “which believes in replacing secular democratic government with Islamic government”. The second was a father who claimed that following a Freedom of Information Act request, a local council had mistakenly released the first names of some primary school pupils thought at risk of radicalisation. A council spokesperson however said that the names had been obscured in the release it had sent, but the document had been manipulated by a third party to reveal them. The article said that while the man had presented himself as an ordinary parent, he was in fact also an activist in Prevent Watch, who had been scheduled to speak at a meeting with the group shortly after the story aired. The article stated that there was no suggestion that either of these individuals are supporters of terrorism. It also included comments from a counter-extremism think tank researcher who characterised media approaches of this nature as a “campaign of lies”.

4. The article also said that Prevent Watch had heavily promoted a story concerning a boy whose family was visited by police under Prevent having written at school that he lived in a “terrorist house”, a misspelling of “terraced house”. The article said that following the publication of the story, Police said the visit had nothing to do with Prevent, terrorism, or the spelling mistake, and had only been carried out because the child had also alleged that he was the victim of an assault.

5. The online and print versions of the article were substantively the same.

6. The complainant said that it was inaccurate for the article to describe Prevent Watch as “Islamist activists”, and to say that it was “linked” to the organisations Cage and Mend, which the newspaper had described as “a group known to sympathise with terrorists” and “an extremist front group” respectively. It said that it was also inaccurate to state that the mother named in the article was a Prevent Watch “activist”; the complainant said that she was in fact a client, and that there was no “activist” position in Prevent Watch. The complainant was also concerned that it was inaccurate to suggest that the father was acting in bad faith as an “activist” when he had criticised the local council; he was entitled to express his views about Prevent regardless of his association with Prevent Watch. 

7. The complainant also considered that it had been denied a fair opportunity to reply to the article prior to publication, and said that the responses it had given to the journalist had been ignored. In particular, the complainant was concerned that it had not been offered a right to reply to statements from the think tank researcher, which were critical of Prevent Watch and Cage, given that, in its view, the comments of the researcher had inaccurately suggested that Prevent Watch were “terrorist sympathisers”, and said that the organisation had carried out a “campaign of lies”.

8. The complainant identified a number of other points in the article it considered were inaccurate, including that the headline implied that anyone named in the article was a terrorist and that it had not reported the full circumstances of the “terrorist house” and “ecoterrorism” incidents; there were details in relation to these cases which were not yet in the public domain.

9. The complainant also considered that the article was discriminatory against Muslims because it carried the suggestion that it was controversial – simply on the basis of their religion – for an “ordinary Muslim” to also be a political activist, or to hold alternative political opinions. The complainant said that the article suggested that it was not possible to be both an “ordinary Muslim” as well as an activist, and considered that the article was inflammatory and amounted to “racial and religious bigotry”.

10. The complainant was also concerned that the article had made repeated irrelevant reference to religion, and considered that the irrelevant use of the terms “Muslim” and “Islamist” was both offensive and inflammatory.

11. The newspaper said that prior to publication, the journalist had informed Prevent Watch that the article would state that the organisation had links to Cage and Mend, but that the complainant had not clearly or specifically denied these links. It said that, in any case, it was clear that such links existed. The newspaper noted that a number of case studies presented by Cage to the Home Affairs Select Committee had been published on the complainant’s website in almost identical terms. The complainant’s website suggested that the cases had been referred to Prevent Watch rather than Cage: in Cage’s Select Committee report, the references to “Prevent Watch” had been replaced with references to “Cage”. It noted that on Twitter, Cage referred “victims” of Prevent to Prevent Watch; that Cage used Prevent Watch presentation slides at events; that Cage had praised Prevent Watch on social media; that Cage speakers had spoken at Prevent Watch events; and that Prevent Watch promotes Cage’s press releases. The newspaper also said that Prevent Watch had given joint presentations with Mend. It provided a number of social media posts in support of its position.

12. The newspaper said that it was also clear that both the mother in the “ecoterrorism” case and the father who had made the FOI request were Prevent Watch “activists”. They had both spoken about their cases at anti-Prevent events either organised directly by Prevent Watch, or by other organisations with a similar position in opposition of Prevent. These individuals had strong political views against Prevent, and had spoken publicly against Prevent.

13. The newspaper denied that the article amounted to “racial and religious bigotry”. It said that, in context, the article was drawing a distinction between an ordinary person and a political activist. The fact that individuals who had presented themselves as ordinary “victims” of Prevent were also political activists campaigning against Prevent at the time they approached the media with their stories, was information that would have affected the opinion of viewers and readers. It denied that the article was discriminatory.

14. While the newspaper denied that the comments of the counter-extremism think-tank researcher suggested that Prevent Watch were “terrorist sympathisers”, it argued that there was evidence to suggest that Prevent Watch itself has sympathy for terrorists. The newspaper noted that on the complainant’s website, it had presented a case study involving an individual found guilty of offences under the Terrorism Act 2000, but that it had denied that there was any “evidence of terrorist intent or criminal wrongdoing”, and had expressed sympathy for the person involved.

Relevant Code provisions

15. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.

iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.

iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual’s race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual’s race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story                                

Findings of the Committee

16. It was not in dispute that the mother in the “ecoterrorism” case had spoken against Prevent at a number events open to the public. The newspaper had provided promotional material for some events she was scheduled to speak at, in which she had been described as a “campaigner against Prevent”, and the complainant accepted that she had spoken at one of the events it had organised. It also accepted that the father in the FOI request case had spoken at the same event. The complainant accepted that both of these individuals were affiliated with Prevent Watch, and it was not in dispute that they were already affiliated with the organisation at the time they had approached the media with their respective stories. While the Committee noted the complainant’s position that there was no official “activist” position in the organisation, in the full circumstances it was not significantly misleading for the article to describe these individuals as Prevent Watch “activists”.

17. Neither was it significantly misleading in the full circumstances for the article to suggest that their stories were “false or exaggerated”, where the court had dismissed the claim of the mother in the “ecoterrorism” case as “totally without merit”, and where a council spokesperson had vigorously disputed the version of events presented by the father who made the FOI request. Further, the newspaper was entitled to report the comments of the think-tank researcher who characterised their media approaches as a “campaign of lies”. There was no breach of Clause 1 in respect of these points.

18. Further, where the complainant had published comments on their website in defence of a person convicted under the Terrorism Act 2000, it was not significantly misleading to characterise Prevent Watch as having “sympathised” with terrorists. Further, it was not significantly misleading to state that some of those involved in the campaign were “Islamist activists”  in circumstances where the complainant did not dispute the allegation that one of the people identified as a Prevent Watch “activist” was involved with a group which allegedly believes in replacing a secular government with an Islamic government. There was no breach of Clause 1 in respect of these points. The Committee noted that, in any case, the complainant was not in a position to confirm political views of the individuals named in the article.

19. The newspaper had been able to demonstrate that Cage and Mend had used Prevent Watch material in their own presentations, that Cage and Prevent Watch had promoted each other’s work on Twitter, and that they had each presented case studies with identical wording. The newspaper therefore had sufficient grounds on which to report that there were links between Prevent Watch and the organisations Cage and Mend. There was no breach of Clause 1 in respect of this point.

20. In respect of the complainant’s concern that it had not been offered a “right to reply” to the comments of the think tank researcher, the Committee noted that the newspaper had contacted the complainant for a response to a number of specific allegations prior to publication, and had made clear the general nature of the allegations to be included in the article. In these circumstances, it was not obliged to provide the complainant with an exhaustive list of all of the allegations to be published, and not asking the complainant specifically for a response to the comments of the think tank researcher did not raise a breach of Clause 1 (i).

21. The Committee considered the remaining concerns raised by the complainant about the accuracy of the article. It considered that the neither the print nor the online headline carried the suggestion that those named in the article were terrorists. The article set out the grounds for its criticism of these individuals, and specifically noted that there was “no suggestion” that they supported terrorism. Further, in the context of an article which accurately reported information publicly available about the “ecoterrorism” and “terrorist house” incidents, the omission of details which the complainant said were not in the public domain, did not render the article significantly inaccurate, misleading or distorted. There was no breach of Clause 1 in relation to these points.

22. The terms of Clause 12 protect identified individuals mentioned by the press against discrimination on the basis of their race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or any physical or mental illness or disability, and do not apply to groups or categories of people. The complainant’s concern that the article was discriminatory towards Muslims in general did not engage this Clause.

Conclusions

23. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 08/04/2016
Date decision issued: 15/07/2016


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