05494-19 The Brexit Party, Oakeshott, and Tice v The Sunday Times

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 05494-19 The Brexit Party, Oakeshott, and Tice v The Sunday Times

Summary of Complaint

1. The Brexit Party, Isabel Oakeshott, and Richard Tice complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Trump leak scandal engulfs Brexit Party”, published on 14 June 2019.

2. The article, which started on the front page, was subheadlined “Police close in on ‘Eurosceptic Philby’ in Whitehall”. It followed the publication of leaked diplomatic cables, in which the then-British ambassador to the United States, Kim Darroch, criticised the President of the US, leading to the ambassador’s resignation; the story about the cables and their content was broken by Ms Oakeshott, a journalist.

3. The article under complaint reported that Mr Tice, the chairman of the Brexit Party, was “embroiled” in the scandal “as it emerged that he is in a relationship with the writer whose story brought down Britain’s ambassador to Washington”, a reference to Ms Oakeshott. It went on to note that “security sources said a suspect had been identified for the leaks amid ‘panic’ in Whitehall that a ‘pro-Brexit Kim Philby’ figure has been trying to undermine officials not deemed supportive enough of leaving the EU”. It said that “as police closed in on the mole”, “friends” of Ms Oakeshott confirmed that she had been in a relationship since last year with Mr Tice. While noting that “Tice and Oakeshott both denied he had played any role in the leak or in the handling of the documents”, it claimed that “news of the relationship will fuel the belief of Darroch’s allies that he was brought down by conspirators keen to replace him with a ‘pro-Brexit businessman’”. It quoted an anonymous “British diplomat” saying “It feels like there are a lot of Brexit Party-Faragist fingerprints around this”. It quoted an anonymous “friend of the couple” who acknowledged the relationship and commented “No doubt this will fuel conspiracy theories, but [Tice] categorically was not involved in obtaining or handling the information, nor has he seen it”. It also reported that when the cables were leaked, Mr Tice and another high-profile Brexit Party campaigner called for the ambassador to be sacked. The print article also reported Ms Oakeshott had “left her husband” and named her husband and his occupation.

4. The article also appeared online on the same day under the same headline. This version of the article was substantially the same as the print article, but also included a comment from Ms Oakeshott which stated “Oakeshott said: ‘Richard had nothing to do with the cables. He has never seen them, never handled them and was not involved in acquiring them.’” This version did not reference her husband by name, or report that Ms Oakeshott had “left” him.

5. All the complainants said that the article was inaccurate as it alleged that the Brexit Party and Mr Tice were “embroiled” in a scandal. It said that reporting on this scandal suggested that the Brexit Party was involved in the theft and the leak of the documents. They said that there was no evidence to support this, and the article made clear that there was no tie to the complainants; therefore the headline was not supported by the text. They also said that it was inaccurate to say that the Brexit Party was involved in any scandal involving the leaked documents.

6. Ms Oakeshott additionally said that the article breached Clause 1 because it reported “she and Tice have been in a relationship since last year and that she had left her husband”. She said this gave the misleading impression that Mr Tice played a role in the breakdown of her marriage.

7. Ms Oakeshott also said that the online version of the article was inaccurate as it contained a direct quote from her. She said this suggested inaccurately that she had given this quote directly to the publication, when in fact she had given the quote to another publication. She said this led to the misleading impression that she cooperated with the writing of The Sunday Times’ article. She said it was inaccurate not to report the source of this quote.

8. All three complainants also complained that they had not been contacted prior to publication of the article, which they said breached Clause 1. They only knew of the article’s intended publication after a separate source had told Ms Oakeshott about it and she had contacted a journalist at the newspaper.

9. Mr Tice and Ms Oakeshott each complained that the article represented an intrusion into their privacy in breach of Clause 2. Mr Tice said that the article reported on his relationship with Ms Oakeshott; he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to this information. Ms Oakeshott said that the article intruded into her privacy as it named her husband; she said that because he was not a public figure, she had a reasonable expectation of privacy as to his name and profession.

10. The publication did not accept any breach of the Code and denied that the story implied that the Brexit Party had a part in the theft or leak of the documents. It said that the headline and text of an article must be read together. The headline indicated that there was a connection between the Brexit Party and the leak, and this connection was explained in the text of the article by the relationship between Mr Tice and Ms Oakeshott. The leaking of the documents could clearly be described as a “scandal”, and the Brexit Party could be said to be “embroiled” in the scandal due to the relationship between Mr Tice and Ms Oakeshott. Its story did not suggest that Mr Tice was the “mole” being sought. There was a significant public interest in the story of how the cables had come into the public domain. It was relevant that Mr Tice had “spoken out” against Mr Darroch after the publication of the cables. It noted that Ms Oakeshott did not deny having discussed details of the earlier cables with Mr Tice before publication. The article made several references to Mr Tice’s denial of having been involved, including via Twitter. It did not accept that the headline was not supported by the text.

11. The publication did not accept that it was inaccurate to report that Ms Oakeshott had “left her husband”. It also disagreed that this implied that Mr Tice was the reason for the breakdown of her marriage. It had also reported that they had “separated”.  However, it had agreed to remove this reference on the evening of publication in the online version of the article at the request of Ms Oakeshott.

12. The publication denied that it had breached Clause 1 by not contacting the complainants prior to publication. It said Ms Oakeshott had been aware that the story would be run and that she had said another publication was going to run a similar story. In addition, it said that she had supplied a quote to a journalist working for the same newspaper that she had asked to be attributed to “a friend of” herself and Mr Tice; this was the quotation used in the story, which included the “categorical denial” that Mr Tice was involved in the leak.

13. The publication also did not accept that it had breached Mr Tice’s privacy. It said that there was a public interest in disclosing this relationship that outweighed any reasonable expectation of privacy that Mr Tice might have. It had also published a quote that was provided by Ms Oakeshott, though published as from a friend, which acknowledged that “[i]t is no secret that Isabel and Richard are in a relationship”.

14. The publication also denied that Ms Oakeshott’s privacy had been breached by naming her husband. It said that identifying Ms Oakeshott would have automatically identified her husband; the fact of the relationship was not private. It further considered that Ms Oakeshott’s acceptance of the publication of the fact of the relationship with Mr Tice undermined her claim to privacy. It did, however, remove her husband’s name from the online version of the article at Ms Oakeshott’s request.

Relevant Clause 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.

Clause 2 (Privacy)*

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The Public Interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest.

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

2. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

3. The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

4. Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time.

Findings of the Committee

15. It was accepted that the controversy over the leaking of the cables could reasonably be described as a “scandal”: the dispute was over whether it was inaccurate or misleading for the newspaper to report that the scandal had “engulfed” the Brexit Party, and whether the article had been otherwise misleading, in particular over whether it had carried the inaccurate implication that Mr Tice had a role in the leak.

16. The Committee carefully considered the newspaper’s justification for its claim that the Chairman of the Brexit Party had been “embroiled” in the scandal, and the claim that the scandal had “engulfed” the Party.  It noted that, in the first paragraph of the article, the newspaper had set out the basis for making these claims, namely that Ms Oakeshott, who was the journalist who broke the story, was in a relationship with the Chairman of the party.  In these circumstances, the Committee concluded that it was not inaccurate or misleading for the newspaper to present its position that the fact of the relationship between the two created a link which had drawn the Party into the scandal. The Committee did not establish a breach of Clause 1 (i) on this point. The Committee further decided that the article did not make the claim that Mr Tice had played a role in the leak; while it reported that an unnamed diplomat had made a  remark that “it feels like there are a lot of Brexit Party-Faragist fingerprints around this”, the article explained that the suspect is believed to be “in Whitehall”, is a “civil servant who had access to historic Foreign Office files”, and is a "Kim Philby figure”, a reference to a spy who had worked in the British intelligence services. These references could not reasonably be understood to be references to Mr Tice who is not a civil servant and does not work in Whitehall or for the intelligence services. The article also included repeated references to the denials of Mr Tice and Ms Oakeshott that he had played any role. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

17. The article explained that Ms Oakeshott and her husband had separated and that she was now in a relationship with Mr Tice. The one reference to Ms Oakeshott having “left her husband” did not imply that Mr Tice was involved or responsible for the separation. The article made no comment on the reason for the separation. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point, however the Committee welcomed the publication’s willingness to remove this reference from the online version of the article.

18. Ms Oakeshott also said it was inaccurate to include a quote in the article which she had given to another publication without attributing it to that publication, as this suggested she had willingly contributed to the article. However, the inclusion of the quotation, in circumstances where she had given the quote and its accuracy was not disputed, did not lead to a breach of Clause 1.

19. All three complainants said it was a breach of Clause 1(i) that none of them had been formally contacted by the newspaper prior to publication. In some cases, it may be necessary for publications to contact parties prior to publication in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1, but there is no freestanding requirement to do so. In this instance, the article was reporting on a number of factual matters which were not in dispute, including the existence of the relationship which Ms Oakeshott had confirmed prior to publication. Further, Ms Oakeshott and Mr Tice’s position that Mr Tice had no role in the leaks was included prominently in the article. There was no breach of Clause 1.

20. Mr Tice said that the article represented an intrusion into his privacy by reporting his relationship with Ms Oakeshott.  The fact of a relationship is generally not information about which a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.  Further, the existence of the relationship had been placed into the public domain by Ms Oakeshott who had told the newspaper about the relationship by providing the statement: “[i]t is no secret that Isabel and Richard are in a relationship”. Although she had expressed the wish that the quote was not attributed to her, given the disclosure the relationship could not reasonably be considered private. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

21. Ms Oakeshott further said that the article intruded into her privacy as it named her husband. The marital status of an individual, and the identity of the person to whom someone is married, is a matter of public record and therefore there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to this information. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

Conclusions

22. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

23. N/A

 

Date complaint received: 22/07/2019

Date decision issued: 13/01/2019

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