07457-21 Miah v The Oldham Times

Decision: No breach - after investigation

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 07457-21 Miah v The Oldham Times

Summary of Complaint

1. Raja Miah complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Oldham Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 3 (Harassment), Clause 12 (Discrimination) and Clause 13 (Financial journalism) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an online article headlined “Former council leader speaks out over campaign allegedly accusing him of covering up grooming gangs”, published on 6th July, and an article headlined “Man held over posts put online”, published on 24th July 2021. This article also appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline “Man, 48, arrested in connection with child sexual exploitation investigation".

2. The first article reported on comments made by the former leader of Oldham Council, during an interview with another publication, following his defeat in the local elections. The politician suggested that the allegations against the council about its failure to adequately address the issue of grooming gangs and corruption had “tipped” the election. The article identified the complainant as “someone that [had] posted numerous videos and messages [that alleged] sexual grooming was being covered up” by the council and who had specifically “target[ed]” the named politician. It went on to report that the complainant was “in charge of two collapsed school trusts, Manchester Creative Studio and Collective Spirit Free School, which were shut in 2018 and 2017 after falling into ‘special measures’ and opening up large financial deficits”. It added that the schools “paid more than £2m to multiple companies linked” to the complainant, with a government investigation finding a “number of significant failings in both the governance and financial control arrangements” at the two schools. It stated that “within months of the government probe being published”, the complainant was “blogging about council corruption and grooming gangs”. It also reported that, according to School News, the complainant had been “secretly blacklisted” from any involvement in schools. The article then included comments made by the complainant in an “interview” with a separate publication, The Mill, in relation to the claims made against him by the politician.

3. The second article reported that an unnamed 48-year-old man had been arrested by police in “connection with Operation Hexagon – [Greater Manchester Police’s] investigation into child sexual exploitation.” It reported that the man had been arrested “on suspicion of a racially-aggravated public order offence and malicious communications”, following a “series of articles posted on social media”. It added that the man had been released on bail, with an investigation ongoing, and included a statement from the police force.

4. The complainant said that the first article included a number of inaccuracies, in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). He had not been “in charge” of the two school trusts when they collapsed, were put in “special measure” or had “opened up large financial deficits”; these events had occurred after his tenure as Chief Executive. Furthermore, he denied that he had subsequently been “secretly blacklisted” from any involvement in schools. In support of his position, the complainant provided correspondence with the Department for Education. He said that this demonstrated that the Department denied the existence of a “secret blacklist” and confirmed that school trusts were free to employ him, in the absence of any barring orders. He also denied giving an “interview” to a separate publication and blogging about council corruption and grooming gangs “within months” of the government probe into the school trusts being published in May 2019.

5. The complainant said that the second article was only published as a result of his initial complaint to IPSO on 9 July 2021 and incorrectly reported that he had been arrested as part of a child sexual exploitation investigation.

6. The complainant expressed concern that the newspaper had made no attempt to contact him prior to publication, denying him the opportunity to address the serious claims put forward by the two articles. He said this decision and the publication of second article constituted harassment, in breach of Clause 3 (Harassment), and discrimination, in breach of Clause 12 (Discrimination).

7. The publication did not accept it had breached the Editors’ Code. It considered that the claim that the complainant had been “in charge” of two collapsed school trusts was accurate; he had been Chief Executive of both trusts and identified in the Department for Education’s investigation. It noted that IPSO had previously ruled on this point, finding that the complainant had remained Chief Executive of the trust after the problems first came to light, after one of the schools was placed in special measures, and had acted on the school’s behalf up until January 2017.

8. Nor did the publication accept that the first article was inaccurate to report that the complainant was “secretly blacklisted” from any involvement in schools. The text of the article made clear the status of this allegation, adding that it had been based upon a report by a separate publication. While the correspondence from the Department for Education had denied that the complainant was on a “secret blacklist”, it had noted that a former government minister had written to “all regional schools commissioner, requesting that they inform [him] directly should they become aware of any further involvement [of the complainant] within schools in their regions”.  It added that the letter provided by the complainant from the Department of Education also suggested that further correspondence between the complainant and the Minister existed. This correspondence said that the “Minister recognised that in the absence of a barring order, trusts were free to employ [the complainant] but felt that he was obliged to closely monitor what he perceived to be a genuine risk based on the findings of the investigation”.

9. Furthermore, it did not consider that its use of the term “interview” in the first article was significantly inaccurate, particularly in circumstances where the complainant had responded to a request for comment from a separate publication. The publication provided the correspondence between these two parties to demonstrate this.    Notwithstanding this, it offered, in a gesture of goodwill, to amend the online article to address this point. In addition, the publication provided a number of social media posts to demonstrate that the complainant had blogged about council corruption and grooming gangs “within months” of the government’s probe.

10. In relation to the second article, the publication said that it was entitled to report on police action. It maintained that the article did not name or identity the complainant as the individual arrested by Greater Manchester Police. Nor did it accept that the article reported that this individual had been arrested for child sexual exploitation. Rather, they had been arrested in connection with Operation Hexagon – established in 2019 to monitor and investigate allegations, particular on social media, regarding child sexual exploitation and harassment in Oldham. In order to demonstrate this, the publication shared its communication with the police in which a public statement on the arrest was provided by its press office, and who confirmed that the action had been taken in connection with Operation Hexagon. The publication also said that this operation had initially been focused on tackling child sexual exploitation but accepted that its scope had subsequently been broadened to include other offences.

11. The newspaper said that in relation to Clause 3, this generally related to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. It denied any direct contact with the complainant in relation to the articles under complaint, noting that the complainant had expressed concern that the publication had not attempted to contact him in relation to the first article. In addition, the publication denied a breach of Clause 12 and Clause 13. It said that the terms of these Clauses were not engaged.

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.

Clause 3 (Harassment)*

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Clause 13 (Financial journalism)

i) Even where the law does not prohibit it, journalists must not use for their own profit financial information they receive in advance of its general publication, nor should they pass such information to others.

ii) They must not write about shares or securities in whose performance they know that they or their close families have a significant financial interest without disclosing the interest to the editor or financial editor

iii) They must not buy or sell, either directly or through nominees or agents, shares or securities about which they have written recently or about which they intend to write in the near future.

Findings of the Committee

12. The complainant said that the article misrepresented his involvement with the two school trusts; he was not “in charge” of the schools when they “collapsed”, or when they were “shut” in 2017 and 2018, respectively. However, the article did not state that he had been in charge of these schools at those points in time. Rather, it stated that he had been “in charge of two collapsed school trusts” and that they were shut down. The Committee had previously established the complainant’s connection to the two school trusts: he had acted as a senior and public figure for both, serving as Chief Executive. The Committee had also established that he remained the most senior officer at the school after the failures came to light, acting on the schools’ behalf until January 2017. Taken in this context, and where the government’s investigation into the collapse of both trusts named and identified him and his position at each, the Committee did not find that characterising the complainant as being “in charge of two collapsed school trusts [...] which were shut in 2018 and 2017 after falling into ‘special measures’ and opening up large financial deficits” represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, or a significant inaccuracy. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

13. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s concern that the article had reported that he was subsequently “secretly blacklisted” from any involvement in schools. However, the article made clear the status of this allegation; it was presented as comment, rather than a statement of fact, and clearly attributed to the source of the claim. While the Department of Education had denied the existence of a specific “secret blacklist”, it did not appear in dispute that it was “closely monitor[ing]” the actions of the complainant in relation to his involvement in schools due to the “genuine risk” posed and that the Department’s communication with local school leaders regarding the complainant had not been made public. Given that the publication had presented the claim as an allegation and had provided a factual basis for the claim beyond the individual quoted, the Committee did not find that the publication had failed to take care or that the article contained any significant inaccuracy or misleading statement requiring correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). There was no breach of Clause 1.

14. The Committee then considered whether the first article was inaccurate to report that the complainant had provided comments to a separate publication in an “interview”. It was not in dispute that the complainant had provided comments to that publication following a request by a journalist and the article had clearly and accurately set out these comments; in these circumstances it was not inaccurate to describe this interaction as an “interview”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

15. In addition, the Committee did not consider that the first article was inaccurate to report that “within months of the government probe” into the collapse of the schools’ trusts had “blogg[ed] about council corruption and grooming gangs” where the publication had provided examples of posts by the complainant on these subjects within the stated timeframe. There was no breach of Clause 1.

16. The Committee next considered the complainant’s concerns under Clause 1 in relation to the second article. He considered that the article effectively identified him and misrepresented his arrest. The Committee noted that the information in the article about the person who had been arrested was limited to his age and the reasons for the police action. The Committee did not consider that this was sufficient to identity the complainant. The text of the second article – both online and in print – made clear that the complainant had been arrested on “suspicion of racially aggravated public order and malicious communications”, with these actions taken in connection with Operation Hexagon – a point confirmed in direct correspondence between the publication and the police. While it noted the complainant’s concern about the reference to the nature of Operation Hexagon, the article stated the reasons for the arrest. It was not inaccurate and there was no breach of Clause 1.

17. Furthermore, the Committee was clear that there is no standalone requirement to contact subjects of articles for comment prior to publication, although not doing so may constitute a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article if it gives rise to a significant inaccuracy. In this instance, the publication had reported publicly available information, including comments made by the complainant to a separate publication; the claims of other individuals and demonstrated a sufficient basis to support these allegations; and the actions taken by the police. Not contacting the complainant for comment in relation to either article in these circumstances did not give rise to any significant inaccuracy. There was no breach of Clause 1 in respect of this.

18. The Committee acknowledged that the publication of the second article had caused the complainant concern. However, the publication was entitled to report on information it had received from the police about the progress of a police investigation. The publication of a factual article on this subject did not constitute harassment, and there was no breach of Clause 3.

19. Clause 12 relates to prejudicial, pejorative, or irrelevant references to an individual’s protected characteristic. In this instance, the articles did not contain any such reference to a protected characteristic of the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 12.

20. Clause 13 states that journalists should not use for their own, or another’s, profit, financial information they receive in advance of its general publication. The complainant’s concern did not relate to this and so it did not engage the terms of the Clause.

Conclusion(s)

21. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

22. N/A


Date complaint received: 09/07/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 25/03/2022


Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint.  The Reviewer found that the IPSO process was flawed on the ground that the Committee had not given proper consideration to the complaint on one point, which related to the complainant’s relationship with the two school trusts. The complaint was therefore returned to the Committee to consider further this aspect of its decision. While the Committee did not take a view as to whether its initial decision had been flawed, it issued an amended decision in light of the concern identified by the Reviewer.

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