Decision of the Complaints Committee – 28414-20 Steshov v The Daily Telegraph
Summary of Complaint
1. Gleb Steshov complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Daily Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 14 (Confidential sources) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Russian-born soldier sues MOD over 'spy fears'”, published on 28 September 2020.
2. The article reported on a then-ongoing employment tribunal brought by Gleb Steshov against the Ministry of Defence. It stated that Mr Steshov, a “Russian-born soldier […was] suing the Ministry of Defence for race discrimination, claiming they thought he might become a spy, an employment tribunal heard.” It reported that, “in a statement submitted to the tribunal by Mr Steshov, he alleged that his attempts to join the Intelligence Corps were halted because the Army thought he might become a Russian spy”. It also said that “Corporal Steshov felt that the MoD had suspicions about his past and had put obstacles and excuses in his way to thwart him joining [the Corps…] Cpl Steshov believes that his failure to be selected as a Russian interpreter is due to fears he might engage in espionage.”
3. The article included details about the soldier’s employment claim, saying that he had sued the Ministry of Defence “for racial discrimination” and that he was “trying to claim a loss of earnings from the MoD, claiming that he left prematurely because of racial discrimination. He also wants compensation for personal injury and injury to feelings, for his exam grade to be removed from records, and for the tribunal to recommend that the MoD ‘take action to reduce the likelihood of continuing discriminatory conduct’.”
4. The article also included details about the ex-soldier’s background and the events that led to him bringing a claim against the MoD. The article reported that the soldier’s “family came from Russia seeking asylum from the KGB when he was 13”. It also said that “the tribunal heard” that he “wanted to join the army because he was ‘extremely grateful to the UK’” and that he did not raise an “official grievance” at the time of the incidents which led to the soldier bringing a race discrimination claim against the MoD. It said that he had attempted to join the Intelligence Corps on three occasions, and that he “accepted that his first application had failed on the grounds that he had not been a British citizen for at least 10 years. According to his statement, he accepted that a second application was knocked back because he had not taken a Russian language exam.” The article then stated that the complainant believed that a lower grade on the Russian language exam had been “reverse engineered”.
5. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form.
6. The complainant, the man who brought the claim against the Ministry of Defence, said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. He said that he had not sued the Ministry of Defence due to “spy fears”, and said that this was not referred to in his claim. It was also inaccurate for the article to attribute this claim to a “witness statement” he had made; he said that, instead, the claim was taken from interview notes between him and a superior which was included in the tribunal bundle – the accuracy of which he disputed. He noted that there were multiple tribunal bundles, and that what the newspaper had described as a witness statement had not come from his bundle, which he had provided to the reporter and which he considered to be the fullest and most accurate tribunal bundle. He also said that it had not been heard at his tribunal that his family had “come [to the UK] from Russia seeking asylum from the KGB”; rather, this reference came from a single historic newspaper article which was included in the respondent’s tribunal bundle and which had not been referred to verbally during court proceedings at the time of the article’s publication. As such, he said it was inaccurate to include this information in a report of the tribunal. He then noted that, at the time of his family’s emigration to the UK, the KGB no longer existed. He said that the publication had a copy of his original complaint against the Ministry of Defence as well as his tribunal witness statement, which was included in his tribunal bundle, so it was aware the alleged inaccuracies were not heard at the tribunal.
7. The complainant went on to identify what he considered to be further inaccuracies in the article in breach of Clause 1. He first said that it had not been heard at the tribunal that he was “extremely grateful to the UK” and that this was why he had sought to join the army. He then noted that he had raised a grievance against the Ministry of Defence at the time of the original alleged discrimination, in the form of a handwritten letter of complaint which the publication had in their possession; it was therefore inaccurate for the article to state that he had raised no “official grievance” at the time of the original incidents. He also said that, contrary to what the article reported, he did not accept the reasoning behind his two failed applications to join the Intelligence Corps, as he considered his applications had been rejected due to racial discrimination. He had also not said that the low grades on his exams had been “reverse engineered”; this was a term used by the Ministry of Defence. He then said that the article was inaccurate as it omitted what he considered to be a central part of his claim, which was the fact that dishonourable discharge documentation remained on his military record and which he considered included hate speech against him.
8. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 2 and Clause 14, as it contained what he considered to be private and confidential information about the circumstances of his family’s emigration to the UK which he said was not heard at the tribunal. He said that an historic local newspaper article, which referred to his family background, had been included in the Ministry of Defence’s tribunal bundle, but said that the judge had not referred to it during the tribunal at the time of the article’s publication and it therefore remained private information. He noted that the local newspaper article was no longer accessible online, therefore the information it contained could not be said to be in the public domain.
9. The newspaper said it did not accept that the Editors’ Code had been breached. It first said that the article was a fair and accurate contemporaneous report of then-ongoing tribunal proceedings. It noted that newspapers are required to accurately report what is heard in court and the content of documents submitted as a part of court proceedings; they are not required to independently investigate claims and allegations made during proceedings or in court documents.
10. The newspaper said that a news agency reporter had attended the tribunal and provided copy to the publication, and that the reporter had confirmed that the complainant’s witness statement had stated that the complainant believed he had been rejected from the Intelligence Corps due to concerns that he may engage in espionage. It was unable to provide a copy of the witness statement, as the reporter had only been allowed to view the witness statement and take notes – as was usual in such proceedings. It did, however, provide the first version of the copy from the reporter, which it said served as contemporaneous notes of the tribunal and which included a reference to “spy fears.” It said that the quote in the article was taken directly from the complainant’s tribunal witness statement.
11. The newspaper said that it understood that the complainant had submitted several witness statements which were contradictory, but considered that where one witness statement contained a direct reference to concerns that the complainant’s application had been rejected over “fears he might become a Russian spy” it was entitled to report this. It did not dispute that there were multiple tribunal bundles; however, it said that the reporter was working from the respondent’s tribunal bundle, which was the designated tribunal bundle.
12. The newspaper also provided a copy of the tribunal judgment, which noted that the complainant had been informed during his time in the army that he “may have difficulty obtaining DV (Developed Vetting) status due to familial links” and that this also applied to Enhanced Vetting (EV), which the tribunal described as “a more searching investigation of background and personal life for those at risk of espionage with access to secrets.” A letter referring to the complainant and referred to in the judgment had also stated that he would be “highly unlikely” to gain EV status and that he was rejected a third time as he was unlikely to gain this level of security clearance. The newspaper said, therefore, that taking the notes and the tribunal judgment into account, there was sufficient basis for the headline and article to state that the complainant sued the MoD over “spy fears”.
13. The newspaper went on to address further points of alleged inaccuracy identified by the complainant. It said that the claim regarding the complainant ”accepting” the reasons why his first two applications had failed was taken directly from the witness statement which the reporter had had access to during the tribunal. It said that this was also true of the claim that the complainant said his low exam grade was “reverse engineered”, and the publication also noted that it was clear that the complainant believed that his exam score had been rigged or the results falsified in some way. It noted that a fair and accurate report of proceedings does not become inaccurate due to omission of certain details. It said this was the case with the omission of any reference to the dishonourable discharge documentation; it accepted that the complainant had referred to this during proceedings, but noted that many issues had been raised by the complainant and the documentation did not form a crux of the claim nor was it something he could be compensated for. As such, it did not consider that it was inaccurate for the report to omit this detail.
14. Regarding the complainant’s concern that Clause 1 and 2 had been breached by the publication of information about the complainant’s family background, it noted that this information was included in the published judgment and therefore entered the public domain shortly after the article’s publication. It also noted that the tribunal judge had referred to the original newspaper article in the tribunal judgment.
15. The publication said that the terms of Clause 14 relate to the moral obligation of journalists to protect confidential sources of information. As the complainant was not acting in this capacity for the newspaper, this Clause was not engaged.
16. While the publication did not accept that the Code had been breached, it offered to amend the online version of the article to remove all references to “spy fears”, espionage, and the KGB as a gesture of goodwill, should that resolve the complainant’s complaint. It also offered to publish an update of the tribunal proceedings, should that resolve the complaint.
17. The complainant said that only one witness statement was provided to the tribunal, and it was the same one which he had previously provided to the publication; the quote had instead been taken from notes of an interview with his superior while he was in the army, the accuracy of which he disputed. The complainant did not dispute that the interview notes had appeared in a tribunal bundle, but he said that it was inaccurate to refer to them as a witness statement. He noted that the tribunal judgment referred to his witness statement, not statements, and that this demonstrated that there were not multiple witness statements. He also noted that the tribunal judgment, which the publication relied upon in response to his complaint for breach of privacy, had been published after the article and that a reporter had not been present when he was questioned in relation to the local newspaper article.
18. The publication, notwithstanding that it still did not accept that the Code had been breached, offered to amend the online version of the article to put the complainant’s position on the record. It proposed to add the following wording to the article:
UPDATE: Mr Steshov, a Russian born national, has asked us to make clear that his claims against the Ministry of Defence did not directly reference 'spy fears' and were for race discrimination, harassment related to race and victimisation related to race. Mr Steshov's claims were rejected by the Employment Tribunal.
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.
Clause 2 (Privacy)
i) Everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home, physical and mental health, and correspondence, including digital communications.
ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.
Clause 14 (Confidential sources)
Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.
Findings of the Committee
19. It was not the role of the Committee to make a finding on the accuracy of what was heard by the tribunal, or submitted as part of the tribunal bundle. Rather, it was the role of the Committee to find whether the Editors’ Code of Practice had been breached. This required the Committee to make a determination as to: whether the publication had taken care not to publish inaccurate, misleading, or distorted information; and whether the article included a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement, or distortion in need of correction.
20. The Committee first turned to the complainant’s complaint that it was inaccurate to report that he had brought the employment claim over “spy fears” and that this claim had been included in his witness statement. The Committee noted that it was not in dispute that a document included in the tribunal bundle had recorded that the complainant had expressed concerns that his application to join the Intelligence Corps had been unsuccessful because of suspicions that he may engage in espionage. The Committee understood that the complainant challenged the accuracy of this document and that there was a dispute between the complainant and the publication as to the nature of this document: the article described it as a statement submitted to the tribunal by the complainant, while the complainant’s position was that the document was a note of an interview between him and a superior. The question for the Committee was whether the publication was able to demonstrate that, in reporting the basis of the complainant’s employment claim, it had taken care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, and whether it amounted to a significant inaccuracy which required correction.
21. The Committee acknowledged the difficulties faced by the publication in demonstrating that it had taken care; it was unable to provide a copy of the document from the hearing bundle on which it relied due to the court’s prohibition on the removal of documents from the courtroom. The publication had, however, provided the reporter’s original copy which it said acted as contemporaneous notes. The copy included the quote which had been included in the article, which the reporter said had been transcribed directly from the document, and which was described in the copy as the complainant’s witness statement. The reporter’s notes of the hearing also recorded that the complainant had expressed concerns that he had not felt trusted because he had been born in Russia. Given that the publication was not able to provide a copy of the document from the tribunal bundle which it said included the claim, the Committee accepted that the reporter’s original copy and the notes of the hearing taken by him demonstrated that, in publishing the claim, the publication had taken care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information. There was no breach of Clause 1 (i) of the Editors’ Code of Practice.
22. The Committee then considered whether the publication had published a significant inaccuracy in reporting that the complainant had sued the Ministry of Defence over ‘spy fears’ and that this claim had been included in a statement submitted to the tribunal by the complainant. The complainant denied that this formed part of his claim before the tribunal and said that his witness statement had not included the quote which appeared in the article. The publication maintained that this had been part of the complainant’s claim and that the quote had been taken from one of the complainant’s witness statements. The Committee noted that, in the witness statement which the complainant accepted that he had submitted to the tribunal, he had said that "I knew the Intelligence Corps did not trust me because of my national origin". The tribunal judgment also noted the claimant's position that, because he was Russian, he would not have passed developed vetting or enhanced vetting. However, without the benefit of being able to consider the document upon which the publication relied and which it could not provide for the reason set out above, the Committee was unable to reach a finding under Clause 1 (ii) of the Editors’ Code of Practice on this point. Nevertheless, the Committee noted that the article made clear that the complainant was seeking compensation on the ground of racial discrimination, which was not disputed.
23. It was not in dispute that a document contained in the tribunal bundle included an account of the complainant’s family’s emigration to the UK. Therefore, it was not inaccurate to include this information in a report of the tribunal proceedings, despite the fact that the complainant disputed the account. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
24. The Committee considered the further alleged breaches of Clause 1 identified by the complainant. It noted that a witness statement, which the complainant provided to both IPSO and the publication, made reference to him wanting to join the army as he was grateful to the UK; it was not inaccurate for the article to report this. While the Committee understood that the complainant had raised a grievance against the MoD at the time of the original incidents of alleged discrimination, according to the tribunal judgment, this grievance had been dealt with by letter and in a meeting with a superior; it had not been investigated in line with what appeared to be official grievance procedures. The publication therefore was entitled to characterise this as the complainant not raising an “official grievance” at the time of the original incidents. It was not inaccurate for the publication to report that the complainant “accepted” the original reasons given for his first two unsuccessful applications to the Intelligence Corps, where the witness statement indicated that he did not challenge them and the tribunal judgment also indicated that he did not dispute them at the time. The Committee also found that, regardless of whether the complainant had used the specific term “reverse engineered” in reference to his low exam score, it was not in dispute that he believed that the testing centre had acted improperly in assessing his test and had lowered his scores; it was not inaccurate to characterise this as a claim that the scores were “reverse engineered” and doing so did not raise a breach of Clause 1.
25. Finally, the Committee considered whether it was inaccurate for the article to omit the fact that the complainant had referred to dishonourable discharge documentation being left on his file in his employment claim. The claim comprised of numerous grievances, and the decision as to which to cover in the article was a matter of editorial discretion for the publication, provided that the Editors’ Code was not breached. The basis for the complainant's claim and the remedies which he had sought were made clear in the article, with it reporting that the complainant was “trying to claim a loss of earnings from the MoD, claiming that he left prematurely because of racial discrimination. He also wants compensation for personal injury and injury to feelings, for his exam grade to be removed from records, and for the tribunal to recommend that the MoD ‘take action to reduce the likelihood of continuing discriminatory conduct’”. For these reasons, the Committee did not consider that omitting information about the claim concerning dishonourable discharge documentation rendered the article inaccurate, misleading or distorted.
26. The Committee next considered the question of whether Clause 2 had been breached by the publication of information about the complainant’s family’s emigration to the UK. It noted that Clause 2 (ii) makes specific reference to the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so. Neither party disputed that the information complained about had been included in the tribunal bundle to which journalists had been given access, and had previously entered the public domain via a local newspaper article published in 2001. Where the information had previously been published in a newspaper article and had been included in a tribunal bundle which was made available to journalists, the Committee was satisfied that the publication had not intruded into the complainant’s private life by publishing the information. There was no breach of Clause 2.
27. Clause 14 relates to the moral obligation journalists have to protect confidential sources of information. The complainant did not act as a confidential source of information, and as such the terms of Clause 14 were not engaged, and there was no possible breach of this Clause.
28. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 06/10/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 07/07/2021
Independent Complaints Reviewer
The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.