11861-20 Commuter Club v The Sunday Times

Decision: Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

Decision of the Complaints Committee 11861-20 Commuter Club v The Sunday Times

Summary of Complaint 

1. Commuter Club complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “If you're waiting for a refund on the train ticket you're not using, expect long delays”, published on 31 May 2020 and an article headlined “Passengers rail against train refund delays” published on 7 June 2020. 

2. The first article reported on customers who had purchased annual rail tickets from the Commuter Club, a “rail fare loan company” which “in effect offers commuters loans”. The article reported that customers were owed refunds on tickets not used during lockdown, but could “expect long delays” with some customers waiting for more than two months. It stated that customers had “hundreds of pounds… taken out of their bank accounts”. It also reported comments from customers that they were “left desperate for information” and had been “ignored” by the Commuter Club. It also included a quote from a customer who said that “I’m desperate for information, and when no one gets back to you, you start to wonder if you’ll ever get your money”, after emailing the company 12 times. The article also included a comment from the Commuter Club which stated that “it has seen a 50-fold increase in cancellations since the start of the lockdown. It added that almost all refunds are processed within 60 days; 90% are processed within 30 days, and 70% within seven days”. A statement from a spokesperson said “We have taken the decision to prioritise processing refunds for our most vulnerable customers. We would like to reassure all our customers that even if it takes longer than normal to process a refund, the refund is nonetheless backdated to the date they stopped using their ticket.” 

3. The first article also appeared online in substantially the same format. 

4. The second article also reported on the “delays” faced by people who had bought railway tickets. Part of the article reported that “Last week Money reported the difficulties customers of Commuter Club were having” and said that a customer of the Commuter Club was owed £800 but had only been refunded £97. The article also included a quote from the Commuter Club which was directly in response to another named customer and stated that “We are managing an unprecedented volume of refund requests, with lower than normal staff numbers because of the pandemic”. 

5. The second article also appeared online in substantially the same format. 

6. The complainant, the company in the article, said that the articles were inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. It said it was inaccurate to describe the company as a “rail fare loan company” and denied that it offered loans to its customers. It said the correct position was that it introduced customers to lenders, who then provide the complainants’ customers with loans. 

7. The complainant said that it was misleading to report that its customers should “expect long delays” to receive refunds and that some customers had been waiting for over two months for refunds. The complainant explained that its terms and conditions provided that refunds would take 30 days to process, and that 90% of customers had their cancellation processed within those 30 days, with only 0.03% of refunds having taken over 60 days. It said that the statement that was included in the article “that almost all refunds are processed within 60 days; 90% are processed within 30 days, and 70% within seven days” was misleading as it did not include these precise figures. 

8. It also said that it was inaccurate to report that the complainant had taken money from one of its customer’s accounts as the complainant did not have a direct debit with the customer whose claim had been reported in the article.  The complainant said that the correct position was that the lender, which the complainant introduced to the customer, takes the money from customers. 

9. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report that customers were desperate for information, were ignored or that the company did not get back to customers. It said that it sent seven automated emails to complainants during the cancellation process. It said that the customer named in the article who had given the quote had received six bespoke emails, in addition to five standard emails. 

10. The complainant also said that there had been a breach of Clause 1 because it was not given the opportunity to comment on the experiences of the customers as reported in the article. 

11. With regards to the second article, the complainant said that it was inaccurate to report that the named customer had only been refunded £97 of the amount owed to her, as at the time of publication she had received the additional £880.01. It provided a Facebook post which it said made clear that the named customer had been paid. The post was by the named customer and said she had been told by the complainant that it would review the complaints of the customers who had not been refunded and seek to provide a prompt response. Another customer had commented to say that she had been refunded by the complainant. 

12. The publication did not accept that the first article had breached the Code. The publication noted that the complainant’s website stated that “At Commuter Club we buy you a great value annual ticket and let you pay monthly, via a low cost monthly payment plan." It said that its characterisation of the complainant as a “rail fare loan company” was not misleading, and was a plain-English description of the service provided by the complainant. 

13. The publication said that as 10% of the complainant’s 6000 refund requests were waiting for over 30 days, it was reasonable to suggest that customers could “expect long delays”. It offered to change the online headline to “prepare for” rather than “expect”. It also said it was not inaccurate to report that some customers had waited over two months for their refunds, and noted that the article had included the complainant’s comment that “almost all refunds are processed within 60 days; 90% are processed within 30 days, and 70% within seven days”. It also noted that it had told the complainant prior to publication that it would not use its chosen figure of only 0.03% of refunds taking longer than 60 days, so as not to be overly complex. 

14. The publication said it was not significantly misleading for the article to report that the complainant had taken money from the customer’s account, as the quote on the complainant’s website which stated that “At Commuter Club we buy you a great value annual ticket and let you pay monthly, via a low cost monthly payment plan" presented the deal as being between the complainant and the customer. As a gesture of goodwill it offered to amend the online article to clarify that the payments were taken by lenders. 

15. The publication said that whilst the complainant may disagree that customers were desperate for information, were ignored or that the company did not get back to customers, the article reflected comments made by customers it had interviewed, rather than the publication itself. It said that this was clear in the article and that customers were entitled to their opinion. 

16. The publication stated that it did not believe that the reports of the two named customers’ experiences were inaccurate, and therefore failing to ask the complainant to comment on these case studies prior to publication did not constitute a breach of Clause 1. It said that these had not been passed to the newspaper as the reporter had been unable to get permission from the customers to pass on their specific details. It did, however, apologise for not putting the allegations to the complainant before the article was published, and offered to publish a statement as a gesture of goodwill. 

17. The publication said that at the time the named customer had given her account to the newspaper, she had only been refunded £97, rather than the £880 owed and that this had been published in good faith without knowing that the situation had changed. It said that the Facebook post did not suggest that the woman had been refunded, but it acknowledged that the reported position was no longer the case.  The publication offered to amend the online article and to publish the following in the corrections and clarifications column both online and in print: 

A claim in our article "Passengers rail against train refund delays" (Money, June 7) wrongly suggested that Alison Smith was owed £800 by Commuter Club, but had only been refunded £97. Ms Smith had been refunded in full by Commuter Club on June 1. The information was given in good faith, but we failed to check it was still current prior to publication. We apologise for the omission and the error.

Relevant Clause Provisions 

18. 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 

19. The complainant described the services it provided as buying annual rail tickets for customers, for which the customer could pay monthly via a payment plan. The complainant also accepted that it introduced its customers to lenders from which they received loans. On this basis, it was not misleading to describe the complainant as a “rail fare loan company” which “in effect offers commuters loans”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

20. The complainant accepted that 10% of its customers who requested refunds waited for longer than the 30 day period set out in the complainant’s terms and conditions. In addition, the complainant accepted that some refunds took longer than 60 days, and that it was not inaccurate to report that some customers were waiting more than two months. Given that the “delay” was placed in context by the inclusion of the quote from the complainant in which it explained the periods within which refunds were provided, it was not misleading to report that customers could “expect long delays”. There was no failure to take care not to publish inaccurate information on this point under Clause 1(i), and no significant inaccuracy warranting correction under Clause 1(ii). 

21.  Reporting that the complainant had taken the payments from its customers’ accounts, when the lender introduced by the complainant had done so, was not significant in the context of an article which focussed on the delays some customers were experiencing in receiving refunds after making an application to the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

22. The Committee acknowledged that the complainant felt that it had provided its customers with information during the refund process. The article had included a quote from one of the complainant’s customers who said that she had been “desperate for information”, because she felt “no one gets back to you”.  The complainant said it had sent the customer four automated and five bespoke emails, however, the complainant said she had emailed the company 12 times. Where the quote was clearly attributed to the customer and had been presented as the customer's opinion, the publication had not failed to take care not to report misleading information.  In such circumstances, there was no requirement for the publication to have asked the complainant for its response to the comments made by the customer, and there was no breach of Clause 1(i). As there was no significant inaccuracy to correct, there was also no breach of Clause 1(ii). 

23. With regards to the second article, the complainant had not provided any evidence which demonstrated that the publication had known that the complainant had received the rest of her refund. The article reported that “Last week Money reported the difficulties customers of Commuter Club were having”, and the newspaper provided information which indicated that the customer had not received a refund seven days prior to the publication of the second article.  On this basis, the publication had not failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information and there was no breach of Clause 1(i). However, the position had changed during the period between publication of the first and second articles. As the claim that the customer had not received her refund was central to the article, it was significant and required correction under Clause 1(ii). 

24. The publication had offered to publish a correction in both its print and online corrections and clarifications column, where readers would know to find corrections. This was offered during direct correspondence with the complainant, prior to IPSO’s investigation. This was therefore offered promptly, and would satisfy the requirement for due prominence. The correction offered acknowledged the inaccuracy, and put the correct position on the record. The Committee considered that this was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii).

Conclusion 

25. The complaint was upheld in part under Clause 1(i).

Remedial action required 

26. The correction which was offered clearly put the correct position on record, and was offered promptly and with due prominence, and should now be published.

 

Date complaint received: 27/08/2020

Date decision issued: 04/12/2020

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