Decision of the Complaints Committee 01157-17 Patil v The Times
Summary of complaint
1. Neeraj Patil complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Bercow blocked Vaz revelations after accepting poll donations”, published on 11 February 2017. The article was also published online.
2. The main article in the newspaper was accompanied by an additional article with the headline “Rich pickings from Asian VIP circuit”. On the publication’s website, these appeared as separate online articles with the headlines “Bercow blocked Vaz revelations after accepting poll donations”, and “Rich pickings from Asian VIP circuit”. The texts of the articles were identical.
3. The main article reported that “John Bercow stopped the Commons being warned about police inquiries into Keith Vaz after accepting tens of thousands of pounds from the MP’s associates”. It went on to cite 10 individuals with connections to Mr Vaz that had made donations to John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons, one of whom was the complainant. The article reported that his company had donated £2,500 to Mr Bercow. It also reported that Mr Vaz had encouraged the complainant to place a bust of an Indian statesman opposite the House of Commons, and that at an event organised by Mr Vaz, the complainant gave such a bust to Mr Bercow. It reported Mr Bercow later received a bust of himself from the complainant.
4. The article reported that one of the donors, whom it named and who was not the complainant, had allegedly said that Mr Vaz had asked for him to make a donation to Mr Bercow. It reported that the other donors who had responded to the newspaper had said that they knew Mr Bercow, and denied that their gifts were influenced or solicited by Mr Vaz. It also reported that Mr Vaz had said that members of the Asian community contributed to the election campaigns of MPs such as Mr Bercow, who were admired because of their commitment to diversity. It reported that Mr Bercow had said that all the donors were known to him, and that he had met them at a variety of settings and a number of occasions. The article was accompanied by an image of Mr Bercow receiving the bust of himself from the complainant.
5. The additional article, under the headline “Rich pickings from Asian VIP circuit”, provided further detail on individuals it said had both donated to Mr Bercow, and had connections to Mr Vaz, claiming that “many of the donors to the Speaker are part of Mr Vaz’s social whirl”. It reported that Mr Vaz had referred to himself as “a leading member, if not the leading member of the Asian community in this country”. It reported that the complainant and Mr Vaz were “allies”, and that according to Indian media, Mr Vaz had campaigned for the complainant’s re-election as a Lambeth councillor. It reported that the complainant had said “Mr Keith Vaz has nothing to do with our donation to the Speaker”.
6. The complainant said that the article alleged that his donation to the Speaker was at the behest of Mr Vaz. He said that there was no connection between his donation to Mr Vaz and his donation to Mr Bercow, and that the article was therefore inaccurate. The complainant provided the correspondence prior to publication, in which the journalist had asked him why he made the donation, and what role Mr Vaz had played in encouraging it. In response, the complainant explained that “I personally know [Mr Bercow], we both served as councillors (Lambeth)”. He said he believed that Mr Bercow was a great asset to the political system, and said that Mr Vaz had nothing to do with his donation to him. The complainant said that despite this being clearly explained to the newspaper prior to publication, it proceeded to publish a false story, which represented harassment.
7. The complainant said that political donations are made by people of all racial origin, but that the headline to the additional article “incorrectly” used the word “Asian”. He said that this implied that people of Asian origin would simply make donations at Mr Vaz’s request, and that it brought the Asian community in London into disrepute, which was unfair and discriminatory.
8. The newspaper said that the article did not allege that the complainant had made his donation to Mr Bercow at the behest of Mr Vaz. It said that it had taken care to contact the complainant, prior to publication, and noted that the additional article recorded the complainant’s position that Mr Vaz had “nothing to do with our donation to the Speaker”. The newspaper said that it had also taken care to contact both Mr Vaz and Mr Bercow prior to publication, and had included their responses in the main article. It said it had been careful to make clear in the article that the donors to Mr Bercow had every right to make their donations, and that the Speaker had broken no rules.
9. The newspaper denied it had harassed the complainant. In relation to the complaint under Clause 12, the newspaper said that the relevance of Mr Vaz’s links specifically to the Asian community were clearly explained in the article, which reported Mr Vaz’s claim to be a leading member of the Asian community, and that the article’s reference to the Asian community as a whole were not in any sense discriminatory.
Relevant Code provisions
10. 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 3 (Harassment)
i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.
ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.
iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.
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
11. By contacting the complainant for his comments prior to publication, the newspaper had taken steps to ensure it reported accurately on his donation to Mr Bercow. The main article noted that the complainant was one of a number of Mr Vaz’s associates who had made donations to Mr Bercow, which was prefaced by the claim that one donor had said that Mr Vaz had asked for the donation. However, any ambiguity over possible connections between the complainant’s donation and Mr Vaz was addressed by the reference to the donors denying that their donations had been influenced or solicited by Mr Vaz. The position was made clear, further, by the inclusion of Mr Bercow’s published comment that all his donors were personally known to him. The main article was not misleading in the manner alleged, and there was no breach of Clause 1.
12. The additional article noted that the complainant was one of a number of Mr Vaz’s associates from the Asian community who had made donations to Mr Bercow, and part of the “Asian VIP circuit” under examination. It reported the complainant’s position that his donation to Mr Bercow was not connected to Mr Vaz, and did not claim that the complainant had been encouraged to donate to Mr Bercow by Mr Vaz. As in relation to the main article, the additional article was not misleading in the manner alleged, and there was no breach of Clause 1.
13. The articles reported that a number of associates of Mr Vaz had made donations to Mr Bercow. In circumstances where Mr Vaz had referred to himself as a leading member of the Asian community in the UK, the fact that a number of the donors were members of that community, including the complainant, was genuinely relevant to the story. The reference to “Asian” in the headline of the additional article did not raise a breach of Clause 12. The complainant’s concern that the article showed the Asian community in a bad light, or that it implied that people of Asian origin would simply make donations at Mr Vaz’s request, did not engage the terms of Clause 12, which protects individuals from discrimination, rather than groups as a whole.
14. Clause 3 generally relates to the conduct of journalists in the news gathering process. The complainant’s concern that the newspaper had published a story which was false, despite him having explained the correct position, did not engage the terms of Clause 3.
15. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 13/02/2017
Date decision issued: 05/07/2017
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