Decision of the Complaints Committee – 12005-20 Oliver v The National
Summary of Complaint
1. Neil Oliver complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The National breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Oliver gives support to slavery row historian” published on 3 July 2020.
2. The article appeared with a sub-headline which said that “[Organisation] president voices ‘love’ for [historian]”. It explained that the complainant had declared his “love” for a historian repeatedly accused of racism. It reported that the day before publication of the article, the historian had given an interview in which he made comments which had been widely condemned as being racist. The article explained that the interviewer had posted a tweet promoting the upcoming interview in response to which the complainant had tweeted “Tell him I love him, by all means”. The article reported what the historian had later said in the interview which had caused the controversy and that he had faced multiple allegations of discrimination in recent years.
3. The article also appeared online on 2 July 2020 with the headline “Neil Oliver declares love for 'racist' historian [name]”. The article was largely the same as the version which appeared in print. It explained that prior to the interview taking place, the interviewer had posted on Twitter to say “I am interviewing [historian] today on the lack of scholarship behind the assault on our past, our statues and behind the Black Lives Matter movement. I will have to resist the urge to tell him I love him” and this was what the complainant had responded to by saying “Tell him I love him, by all means”. It included a screenshot of this interaction. The online article also gave more details of the historian’s previous comments which had been criticised as being considered discriminatory – for example, in relation to the 2011 riots. It also reported that in 2015, a university was “forced” to take down a video fronted by the historian after staff and students claimed he had been “aggressively racist”.
4. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1. He said that the headline of the online article and sub-headline of the print article had taken his tweet out of context and gave the impression that he had declared his “love” for the historian after the controversial interview which was not the case. He said that he tweeted his support for the historian because he had shown him kindness in previous years. He noted that the text of the article reported that the historian had been accused of racism whereas the headline of the online article asserted as fact that he was a racist. He said that therefore, the online headline was not supported by the text. He also said that the newspaper should have contacted him prior to publication, and if it had done so he would have made clear that the tweet was not a gesture of support for the historian’s then yet to be broadcast racist views. He was also concerned that the article gave the impression that he was a supporter of racist views, which was not the case.
5. The newspaper did not accept that the article was inaccurate. It said that the complainant had tweeted that he loved the historian without qualification or explanation, and it was entitled to report this. It said that the articles made clear that the complainant had tweeted prior to the interview, but in any event, the historian had already been repeatedly publicly accused of making racist comments, and provided examples in addition to those included in the online article. As such, it said that even in the absence of his most recent comments it would still be accurate to report that the complainant had declared his love for the “racist” historian. It said that reporting on the complainant’s public tweets did not require the newspaper to approach him for comment prior to publication, and not doing so did not make the article an inaccurate report of his actions. Nevertheless, it said that if the complainant wished to expand upon his comments it would be happy to consider publishing an article or letter from him. It also noted that the tweet remained online without amendment even after the controversial interview was aired.
Relevant Code Provisions
6. 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
7. In his complaint, the complainant made clear that his support for the historian did not extend to his allegedly racist comments and views. The complainant’s tweet said that “I still love him” in relation to the historian and did not include any context or qualification for the complainant’s support for the historian, which the newspaper was entitled to report. The claim in the headline to the online article that the historian was racist was presented in quotation marks which indicated that it was a claim, rather than a statement of fact, and the newspaper was able to demonstrate that the historian had repeatedly been accused of racism. The headline reported that the complainant had expressed his love for the historian, which was an accurate reflection of the complainant’s tweet, and not that the complainant had expressed support for the allegedly racist views expressed by the historian. As such there was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the headline to the online article. There was no breach of Clause 1(i). Where the complainant accepted that he had sent the tweet in which he had expressed love for the historian and given that the historian had been accused of racism, there was no significant inaccuracy requiring correction under Clause 1(ii).
8. With regards to the main body of the articles, they both made clear that the complainant had posted his tweet on the day prior to the interview in which the controversial comments had been made by the historian. The online article also included a screenshot of the complainant’s tweet, making clear that it was in response to the interviewer promoting the upcoming interview. As such, it was made clear in both articles that the complainant had expressed his admiration for the historian prior to the interview being given. Furthermore, the articles did not suggest that the complainant had aligned himself with the allegedly racist views of the historian – it simply reported what the complainant had tweeted his admiration for the historian, and that the historian had expressed the views reported in the articles. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the body of either of the articles in reporting the complainant’s tweet, and no breach of Clause 1(i). There was no significant inaccuracy regarding the timeline of events or the nature of the complainant’s tweet about the historian and, therefore, no correction was required under Clause 1(ii).
9. There is no standalone requirement to contact subjects of articles for comments prior to publication, although not doing may constitute a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article if it gives rise to a significant inaccuracy. In this case, the article had accurately reported publicly available remarks made by the complainant, and not contacting the complainant for comment did not give rise to any significant inaccuracy. There was no breach of Clause 1 in not contacting the complainant for comment prior to publication of the articles.
10. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 24/07/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 24/11/2020