06223-19 Sutcliffe v The Mail on Sunday

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee 06223-19 Sutcliffe v The Mail on Sunday

Summary of Complaint

1. David Sutcliffe 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 “Key aide to Harold Wilson in No 10 ‘spied for Czechs too’”, published on 2 June 2019.

2. The article reported that according to declassified Czechoslovakian intelligence files, Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Parliamentary Private Secretary from 1964 to 1967, Ernest Fernyhough, “spied for Czechoslovakia’s secret police”. The article explained what was in the files: that Mr Fernyhough had met with a number of Czechoslovakian ‘handlers’  based in London, who assigned him a code name and that he had been described by one of them as his “most valuable source of information”; that Mr Fernyhough was given a formal rating which meant that he was a “confidential contact”; that it was recorded that he had “access to a lot of important information”; that he had provided intelligence which included details of Harold Wilson’s telephone calls with the US President and discussions about devaluing the pound; and that Mr Fernyhough had received gifts from the Czechs, including alcohol, chocolates and a free holiday to Czechoslovakia. It explained that Mr Fernyhough died in 1993.

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same terms with the headline “Revealed: Key aide to Prime Minister Harold Wilson spied for Czechoslovakia and passed on secret on secret details of phone calls with President Lyndon Johnson”. The online version included a number of bullet points below the headline, one of which said “Downing Street aide Ernest Fernyhough spied for Czechoslovakia’s secret police”.

4. The complainant, the grandson of Mr Fernyhough, said that it was inaccurate to describe his grandfather as having “spied for Czechoslovakia”. He said that following the article’s publication, he wrote to the head of the Czech Security Services archive, who said that she “refused” the allegation that Mr Fernyhough spied for the Czech Foreign Intelligence Service; she said that in her opinion, Mr Fernyhough was unaware that he was dealing with intelligence officers, and did not really ever say anything important or confidential. He also provided an article which appeared on an English language Czech website following the publication of the article under complaint reiterating these comments from the Czech Security Services archive. He queried the accuracy of the files relied on by the publication, as he said that the files showed that his grandfather was considered by the Czechoslovakians to be on the right of the Labour party which he said was not the case, and did not enjoy chocolate, which the files reported he accepted as a gift. He said that the claims made against his grandfather in the article had caused him and his family much distress.

5. The publication did not accept that there was a breach of the Code. It said that the article explained that the description was based on Czechoslovakian intelligence files, which it had established were genuine. It said that the reporter specialised in researching Eastern European archives, and had contacted the Czech Security Services archive to request files relating to several British politicians; Mr Fernyhough was included because he was known to be on the left of the Labour party, and had been associated with political movements linked to Eastern bloc spy recruitment. The reporter gathered these files in person and interviewed the head of the archive – the same person contacted by the complainant – who confirmed in writing that the files were genuine. He also corroborated details in the files, such as the dates of Mr Fernyhough’s employment and those of the handlers’ time in the UK, with official records.

6. The publication said that having established that the files were a genuine and reliable record of Mr Fernyhough’s relationship with Czechoslovakian intelligence agents, the contents provided a basis to claim that he “spied” for Czechoslovakia. It said that the files showed that Mr Fernyhough was assigned a handler who he met with multiple times at the handler’s request, was given a code name and accepted gifts. As such, he was considered by the Czechoslovakian secret services to be a reputable source of confidential information. Furthermore, the files recorded that Mr Fernyhough carried out “minor operational tasks” on behalf of his handlers, including being “willing to carry out active measure in parliament”. It said that it appeared that at least some of the information provided by Mr Fernyhough was confidential and not in the public domain at the time he shared it with the agents; for example, details of telephone conversations between Mr Wilson and the US President, and the files said that the accuracy of these reports from Mr Fernyhough “was fully confirmed by later developments”. The publication accepted that it was possible that Mr Fernyhough was unaware who he was talking to, or the Czechoslovakians’ motives, but this was not significant; he clearly volunteered information which was of benefit to the Czechoslovakian agents. However, it said that it was unlikely that Mr Fernyhough, a senior civil servant at the height of the Cold War, would have been unaware of the sensitivities around disclosing information to Eastern bloc diplomats.

7. The publication also noted that “spy” was clearly the publication’s own characterisation of Mr Fernyhough because it was presented in inverted commas, and it amended the online version of the article to incorporate this. Although it noted that the complainant did not have any first-hand knowledge of the issues reported in the article, and the email from the Czech Security Service archive did not deny that Mr Fernyhough could have been acting knowingly on behalf of Czechoslovakia, nor that he had been given some reward for his assistance, it said that it was happy put the complainant’s position on the matter on record. During the course of IPSO’s investigation, it offered to publish the following wording as a footnote to the online article:

“The family of Ernest Fernyhough would like to state that the director of the Security Services Archive in Prague, [name], has said she does not accept the allegation that Mr Fernyhough spied for the Czech Foreign Intelligence Service. [Name] said she thinks Mr Fernyhough met with Czech diplomats but did not know they were intelligence officers.”

Relevant Code Provisions

8. 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

9. The newspaper’s claim that Mr Fernyhough had “spied” for Czechoslovakia had been based on declassified Czechoslovakian intelligence files. The article reported that according to these files, Mr Fernyhough was considered to be a valuable source of confidential information by Czechoslovakian secret agents with whom he met; he was considered to be a “confidential contact”; he had provided details of phone discussions between the Prime Minister with the US President and discussions concerning the devaluation of the pound; and that he had received gifts from the agents, including a free holiday to Czechoslovakia. Where the article made clear that this information from the declassified documents was the basis for the description of Mr Fernyhough as a “spy” for Czechoslovakia, there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the claim, and no breach of Clause 1(i).

10. In addition to the points above which were included in the article, the publication provided further declassified intelligence files during IPSO’s investigation which demonstrated that Mr Fernyhough carried out “minor operational tasks” on behalf of the Czech intelligence agents including being “willing to carry out active measure in parliament” and that the accuracy of the information provided by Mr Fernyhough was “…fully confirmed by later developments”. The Committee acknowledged that whilst it was possible that Mr Fernyhough was not knowingly acting on behalf of Czechoslovakia, it was clear that he had passed information of value to Czechoslovakian secret service agents, when he held a position close to the Prime Minister which gave him access to confidential information and at a time of heightened security concerns between the UK and Eastern bloc countries. As such, and where this engagement with Czechoslovakian agents was made clear as the basis for the description, it was not significantly inaccurate to describe Mr Fernyhough as having spied for Czechoslovakia. In relation to the online version of the article, which did not use quotation marks to describe Mr Fernyhough as a spy, the Committee considered that this did not give rise to any significant inaccuracy – the main body of the article, like its print counterpart, clearly set out the contents of the intelligence files on which the description was based. As such, there was no significant inaccuracy in describing Mr Fernyhough as a spy for Czechoslovakia, and no correction was required under the terms of Clause 1(ii).


11. The complaint was not upheld

Remedial Action Required

12. N/A


Date complaint received: 20/08/2019

Date complaint issued: 18/02/2020

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