Decision of the Complaints Committee 16689-17 Walker v Sun.co.uk
Summary of complaint
1. Steve Walker complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thesun.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “FAKE NEWS TYCOON Boss of pro-Corbyn conspiracy website is entrepreneur who cashed in on NHS privatisation” published on 5 July 2017.
2. The article reported that the complainant was the individual behind a “pro-Corbyn conspiracy website”. It said that the website had spread “fake news”, such as the false claim that the government had attempted to cover up the number of people who had been killed in the Grenfell Tower fire, and had criticised any attempts to involve private firms in the NHS. It named the complainant as the individual concerned, and included photographs of him.
3. The complainant said that the article had inaccurately reported that his blog had “falsely claimed that the Ministry of Defence had issued a D-notice”, an official request to editors not to publish sensitive information. He said that the article made no such claim; rather, it had made clear that it was reporting claims made by others, which had not been substantiated. He had not published “false claims”; the report of the claims was true; and when the claims were proven to be unfounded, the blog was amended. He also objected to the article’s assertion that he had not checked whether the claims were true as the blog had made clear that the government had been contacted for comment, but none had been forthcoming.
4. The complainant also expressed concern that the article had included images taken from his Facebook profile without consent.
5. The complainant also said that the publication of this article, which he believed contained false information, amounted to harassment of him and his business.
6. The publication said that the complainant’s blog had stated that “multiple sources” had said that the government had issued a D-notice; clearly suggested that the government’s delayed response to his enquiry about the D-notice was suspicious; said “every instinct is screaming” that the allegation was true; and proposed reasons why the government might want to engage in a cover up, stating “is the Tory government inflating its own party interests into a national security issue in order to control the flow of information that will damage the Tory government”. It considered that the complainant could not distance himself from the story by asserting that the article reported claims made by others. It added that, in any case, its article had noted that the blog had characterised the allegations as claims.
7. The publication said that it was entitled to characterise the claims made by the blog as “fake news” as it had quickly transpired that the claims were baseless.
8. With regards to the pictures, the publication said that they were sourced from the complainant’s open Facebook site and from social media relating to the complainant’s business.
Relevant Code provisions
9. 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 2 (Privacy)
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. Account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information.
iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.
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.
Findings of the Committee
10. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had accused him of spreading “fake news stories” such as “false claims” that the government had issued a D-notice, when his blog had made clear that he was reporting claims that a D-notice had been issued. However, as these claims, which the complainant had repeated, had proven to be untrue, it was not significantly misleading for the newspaper to have said that the complainant had “spread” “fake news”. There was no breach of the Code on this point.
11. The Committee also noted that the complainant’s blog had strongly suggested that the claims were true: it had said “every instinct is screaming that [the claims are true]”. Given that the complainant had endorsed the credibility of the claims and had effectively adopted them, the Committee did not consider that it was significantly misleading for the publication to have reported that the complainant had “claimed” that the government had issued a D-notice. There was no breach of the Code on this point.
12. The Committee noted that the article had stated that the complainant had not checked whether the D-notice claims were true before publishing them on his blog, when the blog had made clear that he had attempted to contact the government for its comment. However, the newspaper was entitled to take the view that insufficient steps had been taken to check the claims before publishing them. Given that the claims had proven to be false, this was not a significant inaccuracy which required correction. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.
13. The publication had published images that had been taken from the complainant’s Facebook profile and from social media sites relating to the complainant’s business. The images showed the complainant’s face and they did not disclose information about which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in breach of Clause 2.
14. Clause 3 generally relates to the conduct of journalists in the news gathering process. The publication of this article, reporting on the complainant’s business interests and blog, did not represent harassment in breach of Clause 3.
15. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date decision issued: 23/10/2017Back to ruling listing