01108-18 Mike Ashley and Sports Direct v The Times

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01108-18 Mike Ashley and Sports Direct v The Times

Summary of complaint

1. Representatives of Mike Ashley and Sports Direct complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code in an article headlined “A self-serving tinpot regime is running rings round the stewards of our savings”, published online on 5 September 2017. 

2. The article was a comment piece, in the business section of the newspaper, which was highly critical of Mr Ashley, in connection to his role as Chief Executive of Sports Direct. The article began by making a number of claims about the complainant, before stating “apart from that, and a common rotundity, there is no similarity between [the complainant] and Kim Jong-un”. In support of its criticisms of the complainant, the article referred to “parliament’s investigation into [Sports Direct’s] sweatshop employment practices”, and claimed that “it found the key Shirebrook warehouse was run like a ‘Victorian warehouse’ with ‘gulag’ conditions”.

3. The complainant said that Kim Jong-un was an individual purportedly responsible for extensive humanitarian crimes, and for extreme social and political suppression. He said that there was no legitimate basis for the article to draw the parallel between Mr Kim and himself. In addition, the complainant said that the comparison was drawn on a false basis. He said it was inaccurate to claim that Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouse was “found” by Parliament to have been run like “Victorian warehouse”, or that it had “gulag conditions”. He said that in fact, these characterisations were made by the Assistant General Secretary of the trade union Unite, in the course of his evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee, as part of its inquiry in to working practices at Sports Direct.

4. The newspaper said that the reference to the Shirebrook warehouse as a “Victorian warehouse”, that had “gulag conditions”, were made in evidence given to the Select Committee. It said that the Select Committee then chose to quote these claims in its report on its inquiry, to summarise its findings. It said that this suggested that the Select Committee were accepting the evidence, and adopting the claims. It said that the Select Committee then found in its own words that “the way the business model at Sports Direct is operated, in both the warehouse at Shirebrook and shops around the country, involves treating workers as commodities rather than as human beings with rights, responsibilities and aspirations”.  The newspaper said it did not believe the article contained a significant inaccuracy on this point.

5. The newspaper said that the article was a comment piece, in which the columnist made comparisons between the complainant and Mr Kim in clearly limited terms, specifying, in the form of a list, the characteristics he believed they shared. These included that the complainant was a “supreme leader”, that he was “in charge of what many regard as a rogue institution, that his “inner circle is packed with family members and toadies”, that he “routinely flouts the norms of good behaviour and sticks two fingers up at his critics”, that he was a “relative lightweight, but has run circles around his much more powerful enemies”. The article then stated “apart from that, and a common rotundity, there is not similarity between Mike Ashley and Kim Jong-un”. The newspaper said that the comparison between the complainant and Mr Kim, was a matter of comment, with an adequate factual basis, and denied any breach of the Code on this point.

6. Sports Direct made a legal complaint to the newspaper on 2 October 2017, alleging that the article was defamatory. It requested deletion of the article from the publications’ website, and publication of a correction and apology. The newspaper responded on 11 October 2017, defending the article, and without proposing any further action. No further correspondence was exchanged between the parties, prior to the complaint to IPSO on 6 February 2018. Following IPSO’s beginning an investigation of the complaint, the newspaper offered to add a footnote to the foot of the online article, stating:

‘Victorian warehouse’ and ‘Gulag’ quoted in the article were originally used in evidence to the Committee by Steve Turner of Unite. The Committee chose to quote these words in their summary Terms and conditions at Sports Direct’.

After further correspondence, the newspaper offered to amend the online article to make clear it was referring to claims made by Unite in its evidence. It offered to publish the following, expanded footnote to the online article:

This article originally reported that Parliament’s investigation into Sports Direct's employment practices found the firms Shirebrook warehouse “was run like a “Victorian warehouse” with “gulag conditions”. In fact, these were not findings by the parliamentary select committee but claims made in evidence by the union Unite and cited by the committee in its report.   The article has now been amended to make this clear 

7.  The complainant rejected the newspaper’s final offer of resolution, noting in particular that the newspaper had not offered to apologise, despite that being appropriate in this case, and required by Clause 1 (ii).

Relevant Code Provisions

8.  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.

Findings of the Committee

9. It was inaccurate to attribute to Parliament the claim that the complainant's warehouse was like a "gulag", or that it was "run like a Victorian Warehouse". These were claims made in evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee, by a union official. The Committee recognised that these findings were referred to by the Committee, in its report, but did not consider that in doing so it had adopted these claims as established fact. The references had been included in the Select Committee's summary of the evidence heard, whereas its findings and conclusions appeared in the report from page 27 onwards. It was a significant inaccuracy to attribute the highly critical claims to Parliament, in the context where it was used to support the article's criticisms of the complainant. The mis-attribution of the claim represented a failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information, and a breach of Clause 1 (i).

10. The article contained a plain, and significant inaccuracy, requiring correction under Clause 1 (ii). However, the attribution of the union’s evidence to the Select Committee formed only a small part of the article’s overall criticism of the complainant; the inaccuracy did not substantially undermine the arguments made in the column. The second offer made by the newspaper to amend the article, and to publish a footnote setting out the inaccuracy, was satisfactory in terms of the prominence, and the wording. The Committee did not consider there was a failure to act promptly, such as to represent a breach of Clause 1 (ii). Given the limited effect of the inaccuracy on the article’s overall criticism of the complainant, this was not a case where an apology was required. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

11. The article did not suggest that the complainant and Kim Jong-un were directly equivalent, deserving of similar moral condemnation. Rather, the column advanced what was clearly a polemical comparison, in relation to a number of clearly identified features of their relationships to Sports Direct, and North Korea, respectively.  The Committee recognised that the complainant strongly disagreed with this comparison, but considered that it was a matter of comment and interpretation. The newspaper was able to show that the comment had been based on an adequate factual basis, and there was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information in making the comparison, in breach of Clause 1 (i). Nor did the Committee consider that the comparison was a significant inaccuracy or misleading statement, such as to require correction under Clause 1 (ii). This aspect of the complaint did not raise a breach of Clause 1.


12.The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

13.Having upheld a breach of Clause 1 (i), the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee considered that the breach of Clause 1 had been appropriately remedied by the offer to amend the online article, and to publish the footnote. In light of the Committee’s decision, the newspaper should take the offered action.

Date complaint received: 08/02/2018

Date decision issued: 04/05/2018


The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review. 

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