Decision of the Complaints Committee – 28636-20 Enright v The Times
Summary of Complaint
1. David Enright complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “This flawed inquiry assumes [name] was guilty” published on 13 October 2020.
2. The article was an opinion piece by a well-known columnist, who was named and pictured. In the article, the columnist gave her view on the ongoing Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which was examining institutional responses to allegations made against a former politician who died in 2015. She said that distinct from the merit of the allegations, she was concerned about the process of the inquiry. She explained that the allegations had been treated differently to other parts of the inquiry because they had been separated into a strand which focussed solely on the former politician, rather than other strands of the inquiry which looked at institutions. She said that the inquiry’s core question of whether the former politician received “preferential treatment” by institutions implied that the former politician was “guilty as charged”, which was not the case. The writer noted that one of the people who alleged they had been abused by the former politician had been exposed as having lied about being sexually abused by other high-profile persons and, that in 2017, all of those who had made such allegations against the former politician dropped their civil claims for compensation.
3. The writer also raised concerns that this strand of the inquiry would be carried out “in conditions of unprecedented secrecy” – only a few hours would be made public and that the accounts from participants and alleged victims would be heard in secret. She said that “The reason, we are told, is to preserve the anonymity of the complainants. But this doesn’t explain the extent of the secrecy imposed upon this hearing”. She explained that in this regard, the Inquiry had differed from similarly sensitive criminal trials in which the anonymity of witnesses was protected by screening them from the court, but in which the rest of the evidence would still be heard in public. She said that in carrying out the Inquiry in this way, its processes conflicted with the principle of open justice and removed the ability to scrutinise the evidence of any institution alleged to have acted improperly. She said that lawyers advising the Inquiry told its Chair that the hearing should not go ahead, for these reasons. She said that “It’s hard not to conclude that the degree of secrecy over the [former politician] strand is designed to obscure the fact that the principle of innocence has been abandoned.”
4. The article also appeared online in the same form with the same headline.
5. The complainant, a solicitor representing the alleged victims of the former politician at the Inquiry, said that the article was misleading in breach of Clause 1. He said that it was not because “the principle of presumption of innocence had been abandoned” that the sessions were closed to the public. He said that the court had decided to hold closed sessions after Counsel submitted to the Inquiry that this was necessary in order to protect the anonymity of the complainants and to ensure compliance with the law prohibiting the publication of information which identified an alleged victim of sexual assault. He noted that these reasons given by the court had been made publicly available. There was no suggestion that this decision had been made based on the presumption that the allegations made against the former politician were true and noted that the Inquiry would not be making any finding of fact on these points. He said that this impression that the Inquiry had acted improperly was strengthened by the writer’s claim that protecting anonymity was “the reason, we are told”. Finally, he said that it was inaccurate to report that all the alleged victims of the former politician had dropped their civil claims for compensation. He said that four people were pursuing claims for damages in the High Court arising from allegations of sexual abuse by the former politician.
6. The newspaper did not accept that the article was inaccurate. It said that it would be apparent from the presentation of the article – and its placement in both the “Comment” section of the print and online newspapers – that it was a comment piece putting forward the writer’s own opinions. It was not a news article reporting on the factual developments of the Inquiry. It said that the writer was entitled to pass comment on the adequacy of the Inquiry’s processes and question its reasons for holding the hearings in secret. It said that the article did not dispute that the anonymity of alleged victims would have been a genuine consideration of the Inquiry – instead, the writer questioned whether the measures necessary to protect this anonymity extended to the additional level of secrecy imposed on this strand of the Inquiry, as she was entitled to do. The writer made clear that she accepted that the identities of alleged victims were often protected in legal proceedings, but she contrasted the process used in criminal trials where witnesses’ identities were protected but the court remained open, with the conditions imposed on the Inquiry.
7. It said that the article had taken care to distinguish this comment from fact and was not misleading as to the reasons provided by the court as to why the hearings would be heard in secret. The article set out that the Inquiry’s reasoning that the evidence being heard in secret was “to protect the anonymity of complainants” and that this was “the reason, we are told”. The article did not make any claim of fact otherwise as to the reason why the Inquiry had decided to hear evidence in secret. It said that the comment that “It’s hard not to conclude” made apparent that it was the writer’s own assessment that the secrecy of the Inquiry was “designed to obscure the fact that the principle of innocence has been abandoned” – not a statement of fact as to the reasons given by the Inquiry. It said that it was not misleading to report that all of those who had made allegations against the former politicians had dropped their civil claims for compensation – the people referred to by the complaint were pursuing action against a Council for alleged failure to protect them from harm, not against the former politician himself.
Relevant Code Provisions
8. 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
9. The columnist had expressed skepticism about the Inquiry’s processes, including the decision to conduct the proceedings in “conditions of unprecedented secrecy” and had speculated as to why this was the case. The question for the Committee was whether this scepticism and speculation was adequately distinguished as comment in line with the requirements of Clause 1(iv).
10. The article had been published in the “Comment” section of both the print and online newspaper under the columnist’s byline which, together with the appearance of the writer’s name and photograph, indicated that she was expressing her own opinions in the article. The complainant said that the Inquiry had decided to hold closed sessions to protect the anonymity of the complainants, which was accepted by the publication. The Committee noted that the article had made this clear by reporting that “the reason, we are told, is to protect the anonymity of complainants” and that the article did not claim that the Inquiry had provided any other reason for its decision. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article’s reporting of the reason given by the Inquiry as to why the hearings were not to be held in public. There was no breach of Clause 1(i). The columnist said that it was “hard not to conclude” that the decision was “designed to obscure the fact that the principle of innocence has been abandoned”. This was clearly presented as the conclusion which had been reached by the columnist following her consideration of the matters which she had discussed earlier in the article and was not reported as the explanation provided by the Inquiry. There was no failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact and no breach of Clause 1(iv). The article was not inaccurate or misleading on these points and no correction was required under the terms of Clause 1(ii).
11. The Committee noted that it was not in dispute that all the civil claims made against the former politician had been dropped, and that the remaining claims were against a council. It was not, therefore, inaccurate to report that all those who had made claims against the former politician dropped their civil claims for compensation in 2017. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.
12. The complaint was not upheld.
Remedial Action Required
Date complaint received: 23/10/20
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 20/01/21