01511-19 Scott-Samuel v The Mail on Sunday

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01511-19 Scott-Samuel v The Mail on Sunday

Summary of complaint

1. Alex Scott-Samuel complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “CORBYN'S SECRET LINK TO PREGNANT JEWISH MP'S TORMENTOR”, published on 17 February 2019.

2. The article, which appeared on the front page and continued on page 2, reported that “the anti-Semitism storm engulfing Jeremy Corbyn” had deepened, after Mr Corbyn “was linked to the official at the centre of allegations about the racist bullying of a pregnant Labour MP”. It said that the publication could “reveal previously undisclosed links between Mr Corbyn and Alex Scott-Samuel, who has led the drive to force out [the MP]”. The article said that the complainant had “even met the Labour leader to discuss what he considered the ‘victimisation’ of anti-Zionist Corbynistas like himself”.

3. The article went on to report that the Labour MP it referred to had “fought off a constituency motion of no confidence” which had been “approved” by the complainant, who was the chairman of her constituency party, “on the grounds that her campaign against anti-Semitism amounted to ‘disloyalty’ to Mr Corbyn”. It said that the complainant met with Mr Corbyn in 2016 “over what he claimed was the ‘victimisation of anti-Zionists’ in the party”, and that he had been given a “centre-stage position” during the leader’s speech at the 2018 Party Conference. The article said that Mr Corbyn was photographed “warmly greeting” the complainant following his speech.

4. The article said that the complainant had regularly appeared on an online show “aired on conspiracy theorist David Icke’s website”, where he had aired “controversial views”, including “blaming the 9/11 terror attacks on the UK, America and Israel and saying the wealthy Jewish Rothschild family were ‘behind a lot of the neo-liberal influence’ in the UK”. It said that the complainant had defended his “decision to approve a no-confidence motion” against the MP, “on the grounds that he is ‘himself Jewish’ adding that any suggestion the local executive is ‘party to bullying and anti-Semitism is a slanderous accusation’”. The article quoted the complainant as saying that he was “’hurt and offended by the allegations…that I am anti-Semitic or a conspiracy theorist’”.

5. The article also appeared online on 16 February 2019 in substantially the same format, under the headline “Revealed: Jeremy Corbyn’s secret link to the tormentor of pregnant Jewish MP [name]”.

6. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). He said that he had no “secret link” to Jeremy Corbyn, and that he had never “tormented” the Labour MP. He said that he had not “led the drive to force out” the MP, but had merely, as chair of her Constituency Labour Party, processed two motions which were critical of her. The complainant denied that he had personally approved these motions – they had been approved by the full Executive of the Constituency Labour Party (CLP) because they were properly submitted; the Executive had no choice other than to approve properly submitted motions. He said that he had not been named or referred to in these motions, and nor was he involved in their submission. He said that he had only met Mr Corbyn briefly, for three minutes, at a public meeting, when he had discussed the victimisation of anti-Zionists in the party, and that Mr Corbyn had shaken hands with everyone on the front row of the platform after his speech; he had not been given any special treatment.

7. The complainant also said that he was not offered any opportunity to respond to the allegations made in the article prior to publication: the statement included in the article had been taken from his Twitter feed.

8. The publication denied any breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). It said that it was reasonable to describe the complainant as the MP’s “tormentor” because he was chair of the CLP which had been accused of bullying her– including by the party’s deputy leader, who had explicitly referred to the motions against the MP in making this accusation, and stated that “the meeting to hear it should never have been scheduled”. It also said that the MP had herself referred to the motions in her resignation letter, written after the article was published, and noted that the complainant had been one of the two signatories to a media release responding to criticism of the motions on behalf of the CLP. The publication said that its article had not stated that the complainant had submitted the motions, but that he had approved them; it said it was clear that he had done nothing to prevent them, contrary to the preferences expressed by senior Labour figures. He could therefore also be considered to have “led” the drive to remove the MP, as the individual responsible for the actions of the local party.

9. In support of this position, the publication provided a letter from the CLP Executive to the MP criticising her for signing a letter which was critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit position. The publication also said the complainant had been among those who tried to stop the MP’s campaign for the party to adopt the full IHRA definition of antisemitism, and had proposed a motion to the annual Party Conference to this effect; it also said that the complainant had posted several times on social media suggesting that allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party had been exaggerated, which could be perceived as an attack on the MP, who had campaigned on the issue. The publication also provided a letter, signed by the complainant, in which the MP was asked to pledge her support for Mr Corbyn by a given date. It also said that the journalist had spoken to members of the CLP and sources close to the MP, who had told him of their belief that the complainant was at the forefront of attacks on the MP. The publication described sources’ accounts of a CLP meeting at which the MP had been “almost reduced to tears” by members’ conduct; the sources had said that the MP had been “appalled” by the complainant’s failure to intervene.

10. The publication said that the complainant had confirmed and had tweeted about the fact that he did meet with Mr Corbyn in 2016, and had discussed, as reported, the “victimisation of anti-Zionists”; it said it was not misleading to describe this link as “secret” where it had not previously been revealed and where the complainant had since deleted the relevant tweet. It said it was also correct to say that the complainant had been seated in a prime position during Mr Corbyn’s conference speech, and that Mr Corbyn had greeted him warmly following this speech.

11. The publication said that a journalist had contacted the complainant prior to publication, by phone, but had received no response; the journalist had then sent him a text message which had been delivered successfully on 15 February – the day before online publication. The complainant had then published a statement on Twitter on 16 February, prior to publication, and had emailed the journalist to inform him of this statement. The publication said that the journalist had previously emailed the complainant, earlier in the week, to ask for comments on the allegation that he was involved in bullying the MP; the complainant had not replied.

12. The publication provided the text of the complainant’s statement issued on Twitter, which had related to “allegations in the media that [he was] anti-Semitic or a conspiracy theorist”; it addressed his link to the online show, and to criticisms made of him about “references to an article I read on the history of neoliberalism”.

13. The publication also provided a copy of the text message the journalist sent to the complainant, prior to publication. The message asked for the complainant’s comment in relation to him having tweeted a photo of himself meeting Jeremy Corbyn to discuss the “’victimisation of anti-Zionists’”. The publication said that, irrespective of whether this message had relayed all the points covered by the article, it was clear that the complainant had been offered an opportunity to discuss the allegations with the journalist, but had declined to do so. It said that the complainant had also previously responded to the claims relating to the CLP itself, in a media release signed by him on its behalf, and this release had been quoted in the article.

Relevant Code Provisions

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

14. It was not in dispute that, under the complainant’s stewardship, the CLP Executive had accepted the two no-confidence motions for discussion at an upcoming meeting, and that he had subsequently defended the decision to allow these motions to be put to the meeting. The complainant had not suggested that he had expressed any opposition to the motions being tabled, or taken any steps to prevent this from happening. The publication had also provided evidence that the complainant had personally requested a ‘loyalty pledge’ from the MP, in the weeks before this meeting, and that he had prominently taken a different stance to the MP in relation to antisemitism allegations within the Labour Party. In these circumstances, and given the complainant’s overall responsibility for the local party, which it was not in dispute had been accused of ‘bullying’ the MP, the Committee considered that the publication had taken sufficient care over its characterisation of the complainant as the MP’s “tormentor”, and over the claim that he had “led” the “drive to force out [the MP]”. Given his responsibility for the actions of the local party, and his personal involvement in writing to the MP to request a pledge of loyalty, these claims did not give rise to any significantly misleading impression of the complainant’s actions that would require correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point, and where no significantly misleading impression had been created, the decision not to put these allegations to the complainant did not represent a breach of the Code.

15. It was not misleading for the article to refer to a “secret link” between the complainant and Jeremy Corbyn, where it had set out the substance of a connection which it said had been previously unreported, and where the complainant had deleted his tweet referring to this meeting. There was also no inaccuracy requiring correction with respect to the article’s account of the complainant’s “meeting” with Mr Corbyn: it was not in dispute that he had shaken hands with Mr Corbyn, following an appearance on the front row of the Conference platform, and had met with him to discuss the alleged victimisation of anti-Zionists in the Labour Party, albeit briefly. There was no breach of Clause 1 on either of these points.

Conclusions

16. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

17. N/A

Date complaint received: 17/02/2019

Date decision issued: 15/05/2019 

Review

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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