Decision of the Complaints Committee – 10211-21 The Tax Justice Network v The Times
Summary of Complaint
1. The Tax Justice Network complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Tax activists accused of wasting cash”, published on 27 August 2021.
2. The article reported that two of the “founders” of the Tax Justice Network had “quit”– with both the “chairman” and “a commentator on financial issues” departing the organisation. The article went on to report that the commentator “created the network’s Financial Secrecy Index in 2009”, and included several quotes from both the chairman and the commentator criticising the organisation on various grounds, such as the growth of the organisation’s staff and the pay of its senior managers. The article ended with a statement from the Tax Justice Network, saying it was “disappointed to see recent attempts by some of Tax Justice Network’s 2003 founders to subvert our current strategy process” before going on to state that the “behaviour” of the founders had “created a false impression of our work”.
3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form.
4. The complainant said that the article contained a number of inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1. It said that it was inaccurate to claim that either of the two men quoted had “quit” the organisation. The financial commentator held no paid or unpaid position with the network, had not been listed as a senior advisor of the network since 2013, and had not spoken at the organisation’s annual conference since 2017. The chairman had retired from his paid role as executive director with the organisation in May 2021, as planned, and without raising any concerns with the organisation, and then had resigned as chairman 3 months later. It said that an accurate article would have made clear that the chairman had previously retired from his paid role in May, rather than conflating his retirement and later resignation as chairman into one event, which it said gave the misleading impression that concerns over funding were the motivation for his departure from the network.
5. The complainant then said that a further inaccuracy arose from the article’s claim that the financial commentator had “created the network’s Financial Secrecy Index in 2009”. It said that the Index had emerged from “discussions among a range of people [….] in 2007” and that the commentator was not present at these talks, though it did note that the commentator was subsequently involved in early editions of the Index.
6. In addition, the complainant said that the article had breached Clause 1 by including “inaccurate and misleading accusations” from the two men about the network – in the words of headline – “wasting cash”. It said that the publication had not distinguished the men’s claims from fact; had not provided a balanced and fair picture of the network; and had not sought a response from the network to the allegations. It also noted that the article omitted to mention that the network’s financial accounts were publicly available, and that it was “consistently well assessed in funder audits and evaluations”.
7. The complainant said that it wished for a full correction and apology to be published in print and online, to address the alleged inaccuracies and apologise for any harm caused to the organisation.
8. The publication said it did not accept that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. It noted first that the article did not claim that the chairman or commentator had resigned from paid roles, and that the use of the word “quit” in the context of the article was a fair summary of what had happened: two of the founders of the network had disowned the organisation. It provided the resignation letters of both men, and further noted it had not claimed in the article that the financial commentator had held any position with the organisation, but merely that he had quit it. It considered this a fair summary of his letter, in which he had said that he “resign[ed] from association with the Tax Justice Network”.
9. The publication then said that it did not appear to be in dispute that the financial commentator was involved in the early editions of the Financial Secrecy Index, noting that he was thanked on the complainant’s website as one of those “who have contributed to the creation and construction of the index over the years”. It also linked to a post on the financial commentator’s website, in which he stated that he had “directed a project” for the complainant and that the “output” of the project was the Financial Secrecy Index.
10. Turning to the complainant’s concerns that the article had breached Clause 1 by including “inaccurate and misleading accusations” from the two men about the network, it said that the statements which the complainant disputed were the opinions of the two men and clearly distinguished as such. It noted also that the article included the complainant’s statement on the issues raised by the two men – thereby putting its position on the record. With this context, the publication did not accept that the article was significantly inaccurate on this point, or that it had not taken sufficient care. In addition, the publication said that there was no general “right to reply”, where Clause 1 (iii) refers only to the fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies. Where the publication did not accept that the article included any significant inaccuracies, it did not consider the terms of Clause 1 (iii) to be engaged.
11. The complainant said that, where the publication accepted that the financial commentator had held no position with the organisation, it was clearly inaccurate to report that he had “quit” the organisation. It further noted that the publication had made no attempt to check the veracity of the claim, beyond relying on the website of a “disaffected founder”. It also said that, while it accepted that the financial commentator had a role in the early production cycles of the Secrecy Index, it did not follow that he had created it.
12. While the complainant accepted that the article had included excerpts from a “somewhat relevant” statement it had published on the website, it said that the statement was presented as if it was the organisation’s response to the specific claims made by the men quoted in the article. It said this could not be the case, as the statement was published two days before the ‘resignation’ of the financial commentator.
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
13. The article explained the men’s association with the network, referring to them as “founders”. In addition, one had been described as a “chairman”, while the other was more generally referenced as a “commentator on financial issues”.
14. It was not in dispute that the chairman of the network had resigned from his role as chairman. The Committee was satisfied that the article was not inaccurate in its description of the chairman having “quit” the organisation, where it was not in dispute that he had held this role within the organisation, regardless of whether it was paid or unpaid (and whether he had previously held a paid role). There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
15. Turning next to the question of whether reporting that “commentator on financial issues” had “quit” the organisation, the Committee acknowledged that in isolation, the term “quit” could be taken to imply that the financial commentator held a formal role within the organisation. However, the article explained his connection to the network as one of its founders. Where this was the case, and it was not in dispute that he had a clear association with it that spanned many years before “disowning” it in what he referred to as a ‘resignation’ letter, the Committee did not consider that the claim that he had “quit” was inaccurate or required correction.
16. It was not in dispute that the financial commentator had played a role in the early production cycle of the Secrecy Index. Therefore, the Committee did not consider reporting that the commentator had “created” the Index in the context of an explanation of his close association with the network represented an inaccuracy in need of correction, or that the publication had failed to take care over the accuracy of the information; both the commentator’s website and the complainant’s website stated that the commentator had contributed to the creation of the index – with the commentator’s website referencing him “directing” a project which led to the Index. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
17. The publication was entitled to publish the criticisms of the two men, provided that, in doing so, the terms of Clause 1 were not breached. The Committee noted that the views of the men were clearly attributed to them, via the use of quotations, and that the headline made clear that the views were “accusations” rather than established fact. In addition, the statement from the complainant, taken from its website, clearly rebutted the criticisms and made clear that it considered that they had “create[ed] a false impression” of the organisation’s work. Where the criticisms by the men were clearly presented as their opinion, in line with the terms of Clause 1 (iv), and the article recorded the organisation’s broad denial of the claims, the Committee did not consider that the article breached Clause 1 on this point.
18. The complainant also raised concern about the reference in the headline to claims that the network was “wasting cash”, noting that the network’s financial accounts were publicly available, and that it was “consistently well assessed in funder audits and evaluations”. The Committee noted that it considers headlines in the context of the article as a whole. Neither the article as a whole nor the attributed comments within it claimed any misconduct or impropriety in relation to the organisation’s financial controls. Rather, the criticism as reported in the article related to concerns over the strategic direction of the organisation, including the decision to take on more staff. In this case, omitting information about the network’s publicly available accounts and audits did not make the article inaccurate or misleading; the article had made clear that the organisation rejected the two men’s claims. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.
19. Where the Committee did not find that the article included any significant inaccuracies, there was no requirement for the publication to give the complainant the opportunity to reply. Therefore, no breach of Clause 1 arose from the publication not seeking comment on the two men’s claims. In addition, concerns that the article had not provided a balanced and fair picture of the network did not engage the terms of Clause 1; it includes no requirement for balance.
20. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 24/09/2021
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 21/12/2021Back to ruling listing