Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01212-19 Ashley v The Sun
Summary of Complaint
1. Mike Ashley complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “ASHLEY’S TWO FINGERS TO TOON FANS”, published on 4 October 2019.
2. The article reported that the complainant had “flashed a V-sign at booing Newcastle fans”. It described how he had “needed a police escort to his taxi” and had to “run past the fans” after leaving a restaurant as “a dozen protestors jeered him”. The article said that it was “once inside the taxi that he lost his cool and gave a V-sign to the Magpies fans”. The article was illustrated by two photographs of the protestors, and a third photograph of the complainant with his fingers positioned in a V-shape against his head, which was captioned “ASH CLASH…owner Ashley flicks two fingers at protestors after cops step in at restaurant”.
3. The article also appeared online on the same day under the headline “TRIGGER FINGERS Newcastle owner Mike Ashley makes V-sign at Toon fans after taking Rafa Benitez and squad out for dinner”, published on 3 October 2019. This article’s sub-headline said that the complainant “made [the] gesture after being booed”, and the article text said that he “made a V-sign to furious Newcastle fans” and that in footage uploaded to social media he was “clearly seen making a V-sign with his fingers”. The article was updated at various points to include a video of the incident – which showed the complainant leaving the restaurant, entering the cab, and holding two fingers to his neck in a V-shape – and a still image from this video, showing his fingers arranged in this manner.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) because it stated that he had “lost his cool” and made a “V-sign” to fans. He said that he was not making a gesture, and noted that the fans were positioned on the other side of the taxi at the time; he said that he had been photographed previously in public in the same pose, as this was a mannerism of his. He said that the publication had failed to contact him prior to publication to obtain his position on the matter.
5. The publication denied that the article breached Clause 1 (Accuracy). It said that the story had been based on a video of the complainant, in which he could be seen placing two fingers beside his head in a V-shape; it was therefore correct to say that he showed fans “two fingers” and made a “V-sign”. The publication said that, while the complainant might consider this finger placement to be a mannerism of his, he had to be aware that it could be construed as offensive, regardless of his intentions. The possibility of the gesture being construed in this way was increased by the nature of the situation the article reported on – namely, that the complainant had just been subjected to jeering from fans. The publication said that it was unnecessary to contact the complainant in advance of publication, where the article was simply reporting on the content of a publicly-available video.
6. Nevertheless, the publication noted that, as soon as it had been contacted by the complainant at the time the article was published, it had amended the article to include his denial. The amended version of the article was headlined “TOON-IAL: Newcastle owner Mike Ashley denies flashing V-sign at fans…”, and its first paragraph repeated this denial. The amended article went on to quote a spokesman for the complainant saying “Mike did not give a V-sign. He merely placed his hand on his neck and is looking in a different direction. It is obvious from the accompanying photographs that he is smiling and enjoying the evening”. In addition, in its first response as part of the IPSO process, the publication offered to publish a clarification and apology in its Corrections and Clarifications column on page 2, and online with a link in the top half the homepage for 24 hours. Its proposed clarification was as follows:
An article headlined “Ashley’s two fingers to Toon fans” (4 Oct) reported that Mike Ashley made a ‘V-sign’ to Newcastle fans. Mr Ashley informs us that the positioning of his fingers was not intended to be an offensive gesture and we are happy to place this on record. We apologise to Mr Ashley for any upset caused.
The offer was subsequently further amended as follows:
An article headlined “Ashley’s two fingers to Toon fans” (4 Oct) reported that Mike Ashley made a ‘V-sign’ to Newcastle fans. Mr Ashley informs us that the positioning of his fingers was not intended to be an offensive gesture, and we accept that. We apologise to Mr Ashley for any upset caused.
7. The complainant declined this offer of resolution.
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. The complainant had been recorded on video making a V shape sign with his fingers, after having been the subject of abuse from fans. The publication had based its report on the video footage, as opposed to relying upon a third-party account, and in these circumstances it was not incumbent on the publication to contact the complainant for comment prior to publication. In relying upon the video footage, the publication had not failed to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information in breach of Clause 1(i).
10. The nature of the shape made by the complainant with his fingers was open to interpretation. The print article reported that the complainant had raised "two fingers to Toon fans”; "flicks two fingers at protesters”; “flashed a V-sign at booing Newcastle fans"; and that "it was once inside the taxi that he lost his cool and gave the sign to the Magpies fans." The online article reported that the complainant "makes a V-sign at Toon fans”; "made a gesture after being booed” and was “clearly seen making a V sign with his fingers". The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that he had not intentionally made an offensive gesture. However, in light of the video footage, the publication’s interpretation of the nature of the shape which had been made by the complainant with his fingers was not significantly inaccurate or misleading so as to require correction; the video footage showed that the complainant had made a V-shape with two of his fingers, in circumstances where he had, a short while before, been jeered at by supporters. There was no breach of Clause 1(ii). Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the offer made by the publication to put the complainant’s position on record, in addition to the amendments already made to the online article.
11. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial action required
Date complaint received: 06/06/2019
Date decision issued: 13/09/2019