Decision of the Complaints Committee 16690-17 Walker v Mail Online
Summary of complaint
1. Steve Walker complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Revealed: Far left blogger behind ‘fake news’ story that government is gagging media over true scale of Grenfell deaths is corporate boss who sells services to the NHS” published on 30 June 2017.
2. The article reported that an “anonymous, left wing blogger” who published the “fake news story” that the government had gagged the media over the Grenfell fire disaster, was a “corporate CEO who sells private services to the NHS”. It said that the story that the government had issued a D-notice, an official request to editors not to publish sensitive information, had gone viral, but no such government D-notice had been issued. The article also said that the blog had falsely reported that Theresa May was being investigated by the Cabinet Office for a conflict of interest on Brexit. The article named the complainant as the blogger and included photographs of him. It said that his company had made money from the NHS by selling it a mailing system.
3. The complainant said that the article had inaccurately reported that his company sold services to the NHS, and that it benefited from the privatisation of the NHS, implying that the articles published on his blog were hypocritical. He said that the company provided a free service: clients were given access to the mailing system for free, and the company made money from the traffic generated, at no cost to the client.
4. The complainant also disputed that his blog had spread “fake news”. He said that his blog, which stated that Theresa May was being investigated by the Cabinet Office for a conflict of interest on Brexit, made clear that this was a claim being made elsewhere in the media. Similarly, the blog reporting on the D-notice made clear that these were claims being made by sources, and that the claims were unconfirmed. Contrary to the article, 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.
5. The complainant said that the article had included images taken from his Facebook profile without consent, including an image of him posing with his family. The complainant also raised concern that his interview with the journalist had been recorded, without his explicit consent.
6. The publication said that the article was accurate. It said that the complainant had spoken on the record to the reporter, and the reporter had a recording of the conversation to ensure that the subsequent article was accurate. The reporter had interviewed the complainant and had asked him whether he made a profit out of his business, and the complainant had said that as a business, it had to make a profit. It noted that the complainant’s job title was Sales Director, and the company website included testimonials using phrases such as “excellent value for money”.
7. The publication said that it was not inaccurate to report that the complainant’s blog had been accused of spreading “fake news”. Irrespective of whether the blog had made clear that it was reporting claims, the information it had distributed had been false.
8. With regards to the D-notice story, the publication said that the complainant’s blog was the first outlet to publish it, and the complainant had since accepted that it was inaccurate. It said that the blog had been widely criticised for spreading “fake news” following this story, and it considered that it should have been immediately obvious to the complainant that the allegations were false as D-notices were only used for matters of national security. It also argued that the blog had asserted that the claims were likely to be true: it had stated “if it is true that the government has issued a D-notice – and every instinct is screaming that it is” and went on to state that if it were the case “then the government has placed a national security gag on mainstream news editors to prevent them from disclosing what’s already known about the number of lives lost at Grenfell Tower.”
9. The publication also noted that its article had stated that the complainant’s blog had reported “claims” that Theresa May was under investigation by the Cabinet Office. It said that there was no evidence in this blog that the author had made any attempt to verify the claims.
10. The publication accepted that the complainant’s company distributed mailing software to clients for free, but it said that the company charged its clients for the letters sent using the software. It did not consider it significantly misleading for it have asserted that the “system” was sold to the NHS, as it was a fact that the “service” was sold to it. The publication said that the article had not accused the complainant of hypocrisy; rather, it had juxtaposed his business activities against the views he had expressed on NHS privatisation. Regardless, it offered to amend the assertion that the complainant’s company sold the mailing system to the NHS, to make clear that it “provided” the system to the NHS. During IPSO’s investigation, it made further amendments to the article to make clear that the blog had reported claims, and it offered to append the following footnote, with a similar wording to be published as a standalone correction:
A previous version of this article said that Foojit made money from the NHS “by selling its mailing system to the Levenshulme Health Clinic in Manchester”. Mr Walker has contacted us to point out that in fact Foojit’s mailing system software was provided to the Clinic for free. What the Health Clinic pays for is any letters it sends using Foojit’s services. In addition the article has been amended to say that the Skwawkbox blog posts published by Mr Walker reported on claims made by other sources. We are happy to make this clear.
11. The publication said that the photographs were sourced from the complainant’s open Facebook site and could also be found on his wife’s Facebook site. They merely showed the complainant, his wife and adult child; the child’s face had been blurred at the complainant’s request. The remaining images were sourced from publicly available resources, such as social media postings relating to the complainant’s business. The publication did not consider that any private information had been disclosed by publishing any of the images.
Relevant Code provisions
12. 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.
Findings of the Committee
13. The complainant’s business provided mailing software to its clients for free, and the business had charged the NHS for mail sent using the system. As such, it was not significantly misleading for the publication to have described this model as the complainant selling a “mailing system”, “mailing solutions” and “private services” to the NHS, and to claim that his company benefited from the privatisation of the NHS. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point. While this point did not raise a breach of the Code, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to publish a clarification to address it.
14. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the publication had accused him of spreading the “fake news” story that the government had “gagged” the media over the Grenfell fire disaster, when his blog had made clear that he was reporting claims that a D-notice had been issued.
15. The complainant’s blog had reported claims made by third parties that a D-notice had been issued in relation to the Grenfell fire disaster. As these claims had proven to be untrue, it was not significantly misleading for the publication to have said that the complainant had “spread” “fake news”. There was no breach of the Code on this point.
16. The article under complaint had not made clear that the complainant’s blog had repeated claims made by third parties about the D-notice: it had said that he was “behind the ‘fake news’ story”, and that he had “reported that officials had placed a D-notice”. However, the Committee also noted that the complainant had given significant weight to this claim in his blog. Indeed, the blog had strongly suggested that it was 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, it was not significantly misleading for the publication to have said that the complainant had “reported” that the government had issued a D-notice. There was no breach of the Code on this point.
17. The Committee also noted that the complainant denied the report that he had published “false allegations” that Theresa May was under investigation for potential conflicts of interest relating to Brexit, as he had merely repeated claims that had been made about Mrs May. However, the article had made clear that the blog had “repeated claims” that the Propriety and Ethics Team had launched an investigation into Mrs May. As such, the article was not significantly misleading on this point. There was no breach of Clause 1.
18. 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 did not disclose information about which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy.
19. Where the complainant was aware that he was speaking to a journalist, the journalist was not required to obtain his permission to record the conversation for note-taking purposes. There was no breach of Clause 2.
20. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action required
Date complaint received: 06/07/2017
Date decision issued: 23/10/2017
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