Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01815-21 Muslim Council of Britain v The Daily Telegraph
Summary of Complaint
1. The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Minister criticised over talks with Muslim Council leader”, published on 22 February 2021.
2. The article reported on the criticism faced by an MP after a meeting she had with a representative of the complainant. It reported that the MP had “since been accused of undermining Whitehall’s long-standing policy, in place since 2009, of ’zero engagement‘ with the [complainant].” It also gave a quote from government insiders who insisted the MP had met the representative “in a personal capacity as a constituency MP, rather than on behalf of the Government”.
3. The article also appeared online under the headline “Minister under fire for meeting with head of Muslim Council of Britain” and was published on 21 February 2021 in substantially the same format.
4. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 as there was no “zero engagement” policy that had been in place since 2009. The complainant said the correct position was that there had been a non-engagement policy instigated in 2009, but that this had not been continuous until the present time. It said the correct position was that Labour had instigated a non-engagement approach in 2009, the Conservative party had such a policy during the coalition government from 2010-2015 and the government from 2015-present. The complainant provided several instances of interactions between the complainant and the government since 2009. It provided a Tweet by former Labour MP John Denham from 2018 which said it was wrong to say that Labour broke relationships permanently with the complainant as he had re-established relations in 2010 when he was Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government; an article from 2014 which said that the deputy prime minister had written to the complainant to express concern about Islamophobia in schools; and said that the complainant had engaged with the Home Office in 2017-2018 and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government in 2019-2020.
5. The publication did not accept a breach of the Code. It noted the information provided by the complainant, but said the policy had been confirmed by the Prime Minister’s official spokesman who said: "It's a longstanding policy since 2009 and obviously it's the case that the Government is free to decide who and which organisations it does and doesn't meet with, as long as it doesn't act unlawfully”. The newspaper also said that it had put the matter to the Home Office prior to the publication of the article who had told it that “It has been Home Office policy not to engage with [the complainant] since 2009”.
6. The publication said that it was widely reported in 2009 that the Labour Party initiated a policy of zero engagement and referred to several further articles which discussed the non-engagement policy, and provided a letter from 2009 from the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, which stated that “it is only appropriate for us to suspend our engagement with the Muslim Council of Britain”. The publication said that the article made clear that the policy was of “Whitehall” and “the government”, which would be understood to mean that the policy was one of no official or meaningful engagement by the government and Whitehall.
7. The publication also said that the examples provided by the complainant did not demonstrate the policy had ended; it noted that the Tweet did not provide evidence of active meaningful engagement, and that if relations were established by a Labour Party MP in 2010 this only constituted less than four months prior to a general election, and the complainant accepted that the Conservatives had a continuing policy of zero engagement since 2010. It also said that the letter from the deputy prime minister in 2014 related to personal concerns rather than formal engagement, and that the unspecified instances of engagement referred to by the complainant did not disprove the policy of Whitehall and the government. The publication said that the fact that there had been individual acts of engagement did not mean that the policy had been overturned. It noted that the article under complaint demonstrated an MP engaging with the complainant, but did not suggest that there had been a change in government policy. It noted that the Tweet from John Denham, relied upon by the complainant referred to Sadiq Khan having stated that Labour broke relations permanently with the complainant. The publication also noted that the complainant had published a document in 2015 which stated that: “Over the years… there has been no meaningful and proper engagement with Muslim communities, not least the Muslim Council of Britain” and provided several other articles which stated that there had not been any engagement, including an interview with the complainant’s Secretary General who said there had been no “opportunities to engage since 2010”.
8. Whilst the publication did not accept that the Code had been breached, it offered to publish the following wording in its clarifications column and as a footnote to the online article:
We have been asked to clarify (Minister under fire for meeting with head of Muslim Council of Britain, Feb, 21) that while there has been a Whitehall policy of zero engagement with the Muslim Council of Britain since 2009, in January 2010 John Denham, for the Labour Government, announced he would re-establish relations. This proposal came to an end with the dissolution of Parliament on 6th April 2010.
9. The complainant did not accept the publication’s position. It said that the Labour Party had reinstated engagement, and the length of time this was for was not relevant. It also said that the Liberal Democrats did formally engage with the complainant during the coalition, including formal meetings with the Minister for Communities in September 2014, the Energy Secretary in 2014 and the Deputy Prime Minister September 2015 as well as Liberal Democrat Ministers attending the complainant’s functions and public letter exchanges with Liberal Democrat ministers. The complainant said that the policy therefore only applied to the Conservative Party.
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
10. The complaint related to the reference contained in the article to “Whitehall’s long-standing policy, in place since 2009, of ’zero engagement‘ with the [complainant]”, the accuracy of which was disputed by the complainant. The first matter for the Committee to consider was the basis for this statement and whether the publication had taken sufficient care over the accuracy of the reference. The publication had reported the contested claim after a spokesperson for the Prime Minister had said that there had been such a policy from 2009, and it had also approached the Home Office, which had stated that it was Home Office policy not to engage with the complainant since 2009. Given the story related to a governmental policy, the publication was entitled to rely on a statement given by the Prime Minister’s representative and had taken further care by contacting the Home Office prior to publication of the article. In these circumstances, the Committee found that the publication had taken sufficient care not to publish inaccurate information and there was no breach of Clause 1(i).
11. The Editors’ Code calls for the correction of significant inaccuracies, even where care was taken to report information accurately. The Committee, therefore, also had to consider whether the claim amounted to a significant inaccuracy which required correction. The article focused on criticism of the minister who recently met with the complainant, and mentioned briefly the historic nature of the policy of zero engagement, and clearly ascribed this policy to “Whitehall” rather than a particular political party. The complainant had demonstrated that there had been some contact between various MPs and the complainant over the period in question; however this did not in itself mean that the policy had necessarily been overturned: as with the recent example reported in this article, meetings could occur whilst a policy of zero engagement remained in place. While the actions of individuals might have been inconsistent with the policy, such instances of interaction did not amount to a withdrawal of the official policy.
12. It was not in dispute that a formal policy of non-engagement commenced in 2009, and although the complainant had demonstrated that there had been a few examples of interaction, there did not appear to be any formal communication stating the policy had ended; indeed, on occasions throughout this period representatives of the complainant had publicly referred to the absence of the engagement with government. While the Tweet from John Denham suggested the policy instigated by his government in 2009 was overturned in 2010, where that government was only in power for a few months of that year, it was not significantly inaccurate to omit reference to this alleged brief hiatus. The policy in question was a governmental policy, and officials representing the government were therefore best placed to pass comment on the status of that policy: government officials have twice confirmed the ongoing existence of a policy of non-engagement dating from 2009 when approached for comment. In these circumstances, the Committee did not find the assertion that a policy of non-engagement had been in place since 2009 amounted to a significant inaccuracy or misleading statement, and no correction was required under Clause 1(ii). It did, however, welcome the newspaper’s offer to publish a clarification.
13. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 22/02/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 30/06/2021
Independent Complaints Reviewer
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.Back to ruling listing