03653-15 Belaon v The Sunday Telegraph

Decision: No breach - after investigation

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Decision of the Complaints Committee

03653-15 Belaon v The Sunday Telegraph

Summary of complaint 

1. Adam Belaon, Research Director at Claystone Associates, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “’Terror link’ charities get British millions in Gift Aid”, published on 29 November 2014, and in an article headlined “Paris attacks: Why this could happen in Britain”, published on 11 January 2015.

 

2. The 29 November 2014 article reported on the use of Gift Aid by charities being investigated for alleged links to Syrian militants. It reported that Claystone had recently published a report critical of the Charity Commission for disproportionately investigating Muslim charities, and reported that Claystone was based at the same address as one of the charities under investigation by the Charity Commission.

 

3. The 11 January 2015 article was an opinion piece  which commented on the UK’s counter-radicalisation programmes following a meeting in Parliament, organised by Claystone to discuss its report “A Decade Lost: Rethinking Radicalisation and Extremism”.  It said that a recent Claystone report had claimed that “there was no link between non-violent Islamism and terrorism, and that the ‘organised terror’ inflicted on British society by the English Defence League and the far Right was of the ‘same order of magnitude’ as Islamist attacks in Europe”. The article went on to state that “many of the statements in the [Claystone] report were obvious lies”, and responded to its claims.

 

4. The 2014 article claimed that “Claystone is in fact closely linked to extremists, including Haitham al-Haddad”. The 2015 comment piece claimed that “[Claystone] is in fact closely linked to some of Britain’s most notorious extremists, sorry ‘political dissenters,’ including Haitham al-Haddad”, a well-known Islamic scholar. Both articles reported that Claystone shared a press contact number with the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), which the article claimed was an “Islamist-dominated group” which had hosted “numerous extremist and terrorist speakers at its annual conference” and had been “condemned by ministers for its ‘failure to fully challenge terrorist and extremist ideology’”.

 

5. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to claim that Claystone had close links to extremists, “Britain’s most notorious extremists”, or Dr al-Haddad. He also complained that it was inaccurate to claim that Claystone’s report contained “obvious lies”, and that it was misleading to suggest that there was a connection between Claystone and FOSIS. Reference to Claystone being based at the same address as a charity under investigation was misleading – there was no link between the two.

 

6. The newspaper said that the complainant had contributed articles to a news website run by Dr al-Haddad, including articles written in Dr al-Haddad’s defence. This included an article in which the complainant opposed the use of Terrorism and Extremism Behaviour Orders against 25 individuals, which a newspaper claimed included Dr al-Haddad. In a further article in which the complainant had criticised press coverage featuring Dr al-Haddad, the newspaper said he defended extremists as “well known Muslim spokespeople” and “orthodox Muslims”. The newspaper provided examples of views publicly expressed by Dr al-Haddad, which it said were clearly extreme.

 

7. The newspaper said that Claystone also had “strong links” to extremists via its press officer, the only other member of staff identified as working at the organisation. It said that before joining Claystone, he had been the official spokesperson for FOSIS for more than two years. This, said the newspaper, was a group that had hosted numerous extremist and terrorist speakers. It noted that in 2011, the Deputy Prime Minister had said that he was not willing for the Government to treat FOSIS as a credible partner. The newspaper also referred to comments made in the Home Secretary’s 2011 report reviewing the Government’s Prevent strategy. The report said that “we judge that FOSIS has not always fully challenged terrorist and extremist ideology within the higher and further education sectors”. In relation to the article’s claim that Claystone’s press contact number was the same as the press contact number for FOSIS, the newspaper accepted that the number had been used by FOSIS up until 2011. While it accepted that the articles should have referred to the number as having been previously used by FOSIS, it denied that this amounted to a significant inaccuracy.

 

8. The newspaper also noted that Claystone’s press officer had been President of University College London Islamic Society in 2005-2006. While President he had organised a meeting with a well-known speaker, who the newspaper claimed told students that “terrorism works”, and that a “permanent state of war exists between the people of Islam and the people who opposed Islam”. It noted that the press officer’s immediate successor as president of UCL Islamic Society was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was convicted of attempting to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day, 2009. In an interview given to the BBC shortly after the attempted bombing, Claystone’s press officer had said that Mr Abdulmutallab had been a “close friend” while they had been at UCL. The complainant said that the associations the newspaper alleged he had with extremists, and the alleged associations of the press officer, related to these individuals’ personal lives rather than their actions in their capacity as Claystone employees, and could not therefore be used to corroborate the articles’ claim that Claystone had such links.

 

9. The newspaper said it was entitled to characterise Claystone’s most recent report as having contained “lies” in the 2015 comment piece. It said that it was a “lie” to claim that there was no link between non-violent extremism and terrorism, and that it was a “lie” to claim that Islamist attacks were of the same order of magnitude as the “organised terror inflicted on British society” by the English Defence League and the far right. It said that the EDL had never killed anyone or “inflicted organised terror” in Britain, whereas Islamist terrorists have killed 54. The Claystone report commented on the media coverage of the Trojan Horse story in Birmingham schools, which it claimed placed the story in the official narrative of extremism that the Government was promoting. In that context, the report referenced a comment from David Cameron that “we are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology”. The newspaper said that this part of the Claystone report was misleading; when Mr Cameron had made this comment, he had been discussing so-called Islamic State rather than events in Birmingham.

 

10. The complainant said that the fact that he had written opinion pieces on the website owned by Dr al-Haddad’s charity did not support the “close link” alleged in the article. The complainant noted that Dr al-Haddad was no longer a trustee of the Foundation which operates the website, although he was at the time his articles were published. There were over 200 contributors to the website, and his articles were clearly presented as his personal views not Claystone’s, which did not represent acceptance of, or support for, the views of the site’s owner. The complainant noted that the views ascribed to Dr al-Haddad were shared by other orthodox religious groups, and could not therefore be considered “extreme”. He denied that he had defended Dr al-Haddad, and said that the article relied on by the newspaper related to the scape-goating of Muslim speakers in general and did not mention Dr al-Haddad.

 

11. The complainant explained that Claystone’s current press officer had previously been the press officer for FOSIS and that he had kept the same mobile phone number.  While this number appeared on old FOSIS material, which was still available online, it was last used by FOSIS in 2011, and first used by Claystone in 2014.  The complainant said that Claystone had never shared a press office or press office function with FOSIS, and there was no formal connection between the organisations. Moreover, the complainant did not accept that FOSIS was an extremist group. It had not been “condemned by ministers for its ‘failure to fully challenge terrorist and extremist ideology’”; the Home Secretary had in fact said that “we judge that FOSIS has not always fully challenged terrorist and extremist ideology within the higher education sector”.

 

12. The press officer had worked for FOSIS four years prior to his employment with Claystone. The work he did for FOSIS, as a volunteer, was not his own; he was directed to take “lines” by the organisation’s President. The press officer did not condone the actions of Mr Abdulmuttalab, who he had only been friends with while at university, and was not an extremist. The 2010 report of the Caldicott Inquiry on Mr Abdulmittalab’s time at UCL from 2005-2008 had rejected the idea that he had been an extremist when at UCL, or that he was radicalised there.  

 

13. The complainant said that the newspaper had misrepresented Claystone’s report in the 2015 comment piece. The report had in fact compared far-right violence with al-Qaeda inspired violence across Europe, rather than in Britain, as was suggested by the article.  The complainant agreed that the report criticised the ”conveyor-belt” theory; a theory which he said asserts that non-violent extremist views act as a potential “conveyor-belt" to violent extremism.  He said that it was inaccurate for the newspaper to refer to this legitimate criticism as “an obvious lie”. In reply to the newspaper’s response to his complaint, the complainant said that in the minds of the media, there was a link between the “Trojan Horse plot” and terrorism. It was therefore not misleading to use Mr Cameron’s remarks on so-called Islamic State as an example of the media coverage of the Trojan Horse story. The newspaper had failed to substantiate its claim that the report contained obvious lies: it had not provided any evidence of dishonesty or an intent to mislead, but simply pointed to opinions contained in the report with which the newspaper disagreed.

 

Relevant Code Provisions

14. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

 

i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

 

ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.

 

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

 

Findings of the Committee

15. The Committee recognised that the articles’ characterisation of individuals as “extremists” reflected an assessment of those individuals’ views. Such assessments are matters of opinion. The Committee acknowledged that an allegation of extremism is a serious one; however, it has a broad meaning and, as a statement of the author’s opinion, is something to which the Code grants considerable latitude.

 

16. However, the fact that the statement is a matter of opinion does not in itself absolve a newspaper of its obligations under Clause 1. The newspaper was required to demonstrate that there was a reasonable factual basis to support its position, in particular the allegation that Claystone had “close links” with the individuals it considered to be “notorious extremists”. This included demonstrating that Claystone had more than one such “close link”, as was the clear implication in both articles.

 

17. The newspaper had provided a number of examples which it believed supported its position – which included the press officer’s former work with FOSIS – and relied in particular on associations with two individuals: the complainant’s association with Dr al-Haddad, and Claystone’s press officer’s association with Mr Abdulmutallab. In the Committee’s view, given Mr Abdulmutallab’s conviction, and the nature of comments made by Dr al-Haddad, the newspaper had provided sufficient basis to support its characterisation of their views as “extreme”. These were high-profile individuals; the newspaper was not prevented by the Code from referring to them as “notorious extremists”.

 

18. The Committee was satisfied that, in circumstances where Claystone’s director of research had written a number of articles for a website hosted by Dr al-Haddad, some of which appeared to be in defence of him, it was not misleading for the newspaper to describe this association as “close”. Where Claystone’s press officer had publicly described Mr Abdulmutallab – in an interview given in response to his crimes in 2009 –as  having been a “close friend”, it was not significantly misleading for the newspaper to describe this association as “close” even where the reference was to their friendship while students. The Committee rejected the complainant’s assertion that any association was in his or the press officer’s personal capacities; they were both the public faces of Claystone and – in the complainant’s case – a director of the company. As the newspaper had provided a reasonable factual basis in support of its claim, the Committee did not find a breach of Clause 1 on this point.

 

19. The Committee turned to the complaint about the 2015 article’s reporting on a recent Claystone report about radicalisation. The Committee noted that this was a comment piece, in which the newspaper was entitled to express its disagreement with the report’s criticisms of the conveyor belt theory, and it was entitled to do so in robust terms. To refer to this aspect of the report as an “obvious lie”, whilst argumentative, was not significantly misleading.

 

20. The same article also claimed that Claystone’s report had said: “’organised terror inflicted on British society’ by the English Defence League and the far Right was of the same order of magnitude as Islamist attacks in Europe”. The report had actually compared Islamist attacks in Europe with far-right violence in Europe, rather than violence and attacks in Britain. Nevertheless, the Claystone report had made the general claim that the threat from “far-Right violence” was of the same “order of magnitude” as from “al-Qaeda-inspired violence” in the context of a report on the counter-radicalisation policy in the UK. The newspaper article had gone on to argue that “vile as it is, the EDL has never killed anyone or ‘inflicted organised terror’ in Britain; Islamists terrorists have killed 54”, making clear the nature of its criticism.  This aspect of the article had not significantly misrepresented the claims made in the Claystone report, and there was no breach of Clause 1.

 

21. The article’s claim that Claystone was based at the same address as one of the charities under investigation by the Charity Commission, was not in dispute. This did not raise a breach of the Code. 

 

22. Claystone’s press officer had previously worked as head of media for FOSIS. This explained why Claystone’s press contact number was the same as the press contact number which appeared on FOSIS’s press releases up until 2011. The article did not claim that Claystone and FOSIS shared a press office, but suggested that the shared telephone number indicated a connection between the organisations. Given that there was indeed a connection, namely, that Claystone’s press officer was previously the press officer for FOSIS, the Committee took the view that this aspect of the article was not significantly misleading.

 

Conclusions

23. The complaint was not upheld.

 

Remedial Action Required

N/A

 

Date complaint received: 20/05/2015

Date decision issued: 09/10/2015

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