Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01230-20 Islamic Human Rights Commission v thetimes.co.uk
Summary of Complaint
1. The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thetimes.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) in four articles published 10 October 2019, headlined:
· “IHRC: Corbyn-backed group praises Iran and denounces West as the enemy”
· “IHRC: Rights body stays silent on the plight of women”
· “IHRC: Activists jailed for handing out flowers”
· “The Times view on the Islamic Human Rights Commission: Organised Hypocrisy”
2. The four articles appeared as part of one investigation into the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), an organisation with “a declared aim of defending global human rights”.
3. The first article reported that the IHRC was “run by self-declared Islamist revolutionaries closely aligned to Iran” and that, since 2013, it has received money from a “charity that received £250,000 from the taxpayer via Gift Aid”. It stated that the “IHRC has condemned more than 50 countries for alleged mistreatment of Muslims…however, the group has offered no support to women’s rights activists and religious minorities in Iran”. It reported that the chair of the IHRC, “spoke of Ayatollah Khomeini [the first Supreme Leader of Iran] as “a torch of light for the whole of mankind””, as well as saying that “Iran was… “the only nation standing against oppression, against tyranny…””.
4. The first article also reported that in addition to the chair, there were three directors of the IHRC. These included the “secretary of one of Iran’s leading policy-making bodies, the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution”; another individual who was reported to have said that the West was “the enemy” and that ““We are all Hezbollah””; and an individual “who at a rally days after the Grenfell Tower fire condemned “Zionists who give money to the Tory party to kill people in high-rise blocks””. It also stated that the IHRC’s “website fails to declare links to Iran, a lack of transparency highlighted by a leading Iranian campaigner” who said that ““Tehran uses this group to spin its propaganda...””.
5. The second article reported that the same named campaigner was ““beyond sad” that a British organisation [the IHRC] claiming to champion global human rights should choose to ignore the widespread abuses of “the world’s most horrible regime” [Iran]”. The third article listed “several recent human rights violations in Iran”, including the arrests of several female activists who had handed out flowers on a train. The article juxtaposed these abuses with the chair of the IHRC’s comments that Iran is the ““only nation standing against tyranny and oppression””. The fourth article, an opinion piece, criticised the group’s activities and questioned whether it should have received “£1 million of charity money since 2013”. This article went on to report that the group had “a lack of transparency about its true allegiances”.
6. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to claim that the group’s leaders are “closely aligned to Iran”; that the group “fails to declare links [or true allegiances] to Iran”; and that “”…Tehran uses this group to spin its propaganda…””. It said that the group is independent of Iran and that there was no proof of the alleged “links”. It also said that the charge that it has “condemned more than 50 countries for alleged mistreatment of Muslims” whilst ignoring the abuses of Iran was misleading. As a small organisation, it did not have the resources to investigate human rights abuses in every country and its work did not concern Iran. It said that the inclusion of comments from a named campaigner was misleading as the articles did not make clear her links to another organisation, which it said was Islamophobic. It said it was misleading to state that the group received money from a “charity that received £250,000 from the taxpayer via Gift Aid”. As Gift Aid donations are voluntary, it said this money did not come “from the taxpayer”. It also said that the comments from the other directors of the IHRC had been taken out of context; and that the articles failed to mention that the CPS declined to prosecute one of the directors for his reported comments on Zionism and the Grenfell Tower fire. Finally, it said that the third article breached Clause 12 (Discrimination) as it focused on the ethnicity and religion of two of its directors and, in doing so, was reductionist towards the activities and staff of the group as a whole.
7. The publication did not accept it had breached the Code. The claim that the group had “links to Iran” with its leadership being “closely aligned” to the country was not inaccurate. For example, one of the IHRC’s directors was the secretary of one of “Iran’s leading policy-making bodies”; a fact that was mentioned by the articles and accepted by the complainant. It said the allegation was also supported by the fact that, over 22 years, the group had failed to condemn Iranian human rights abuses. Iran had been described by an individual in the second article as “the world’s most horrible regime”; however, the group had instead chosen to focus on alleged abuses of human rights in over 50 other countries. Finally, it said it was not misleading to use the phrase “closely aligned” in circumstances where the leadership of the IHRC had used sympathetic language to describe Iran. According to the publication, its chair had called it … “the only nation standing against oppression, against tyranny…”; and, described the first Supreme Leader of Iran as “a torch of light for the whole of mankind””.
8. With regard to the complainant’s other points, the publication said it was not misleading to state that the charity that funded the IHRC “received £250,000 from the taxpayer via Gift Aid”. Money claimed by a charity via Gift Aid is a loss of tax revenue and it is not therefore inaccurate to describe this as taxpayer’s money; especially as it said the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee used the same language. It did not consider that the failure to add context to previous statements of IHRC directors rendered the articles misleading. It also said it was it not obliged under the Editors’ Code to reference a named individuals’ links to another group, where it had otherwise reported this person’s views accurately and distinguished between comment and fact.
Relevant Code Provisions
9. 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 correction, promptly and with due prominence, and –where appropriate- an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.
10. 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. Under the terms of the Editors’ Code of Practice, newspapers have the right to editorialise and campaign. The claims that the IHRC had “links to Iran”, with its leadership being “closely aligned” to the country was clearly the newspaper’s characterisation of the group and its activities. The articles went on to make clear the basis of this characterisation, such as the chair’s sympathetic comments about Iran and its leaders; the fact that the organisation had not condemned Iran’s alleged human rights abuses, whilst focusing on 50 other countries; and the fact that one of the IHRC director’s had been appointed to the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, a prominent policymaking body of the Iranian state. In these circumstances, the claims that the IHRC had “links to Iran”, with its leadership being “closely aligned” to the country, was not misleading in the way the complainant had suggested. There was no breach of Clause 1.
12. The complainant accepted that the IHRC’s work did not concern Iran and it was not disputed that the “IHRC has condemned more than 50 countries for alleged mistreatment of Muslims [but] offered no support to women’s rights activists and religious minorities in Iran”. The omission of the complainant’s position that the IRHC did not have the resources to investigate every country did not render the articles inaccurate or misleading as, where it did not affect the central thrust of the coverage; namely, how the organisation had chosen to use the resources it did have to pursue its stated purpose of defending global human rights. There was no breach of Clause 1.
13. It was not misleading to describe money received via Gift Aid as coming “from the taxpayer”. It was not in dispute that the taxpayer pays indirectly for Gift Aid in the form of forgone tax revenue and the language used in the article reflected that used by a relevant parliamentary body to explain the arrangement. There was no breach of Clause 1.
14. The complainant had said that the comments of the group’s directors had been taken out of context. However, the failure to mention that the CPS did not prosecute one of the directors for his comments on Zionism and the Grenfell Tower fire did not render the articles misleading, where the articles made no claim as to the criminality of these remarks. Regarding the chair and another director’s alleged comments, the complainant did not dispute they were accurately reported, even if they formed part of longer speeches and articles; neither did the complainant explain why quoting these remarks without further context rendered the article significantly misleading or inaccurate. There was no breach of Clause 1.
15. The failure to mention the alleged links of the named campaigner quoted in the articles to another group did not make the articles misleading. The Editors’ Code makes clear that the press has the right to publish individuals’ views where they do so accurately and distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact. The campaigner was named, her comments, including the claim that “Tehran uses this group to spin its propaganda”, were clearly presented as such and the complainant did not allege that the remarks had been inaccurately reported. There was no breach of Clause 1.
16. Clause 12 protects specific individuals from discrimination and does not, therefore, protect a business or organisation, including the IHRC. With regard to the concern that the third article was discriminatory towards named members of the IHRC, this specific article made no reference to the protected characteristics of any of the IHRC’s directors or staff; the only reference that there was, was to the comments by the IHRC’s chair on Iran and its “standing against tyranny and oppression”. Clause 12 was not engaged.
17. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 25/02/2020
Date decision issued by IPSO: 09/09/2020Back to ruling listing