28831-20 Ross v thejc.com

Decision: Breach - sanction: publication of correction

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 28831-20 Ross v thejc.com

Summary of Complaint

1. Kal Ross complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thejc.com breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Riverside Labour branch secretary defies leadership with letter supporting 'emergency meeting' on Corbyn and EHRC report”, published on 2 November 2020.

2. The online article reported the Secretary of the St Michael’s branch of Liverpool Riverside Labour Party, Kal Ross, contacted members urging them to support an emergency meeting following the publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into anti-Semitism with the Labour Party and the subsequent suspension of former leader, Jeremy Corbyn MP. The article, which included a screenshot of this correspondence, reported that both the Secretary and Chair of the branch were themselves “supportive” of this proposal, provided that there was “sufficient support” amongst branch members for it. The article went on to suggest that this communication, written “on official Labour-Party-headed paper”, appeared to “openly defy” the message from Labour’s General Secretary David Evans to all Labour Party branches and members that discussion of the EHRC report and its findings was “not competent business” for meetings. The article also noted the Leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer MP, said that findings of the EHRC report were clear and “leave no room for equivocation”. It reported that the publication had approached the Labour Party for comment.

3. The online article was promoted on the publication’s Twitter page. It was shared with the same headline “Riverside Labour branch secretary defies leadership with letter supporting 'emergency meeting' on Corbyn and EHRC report”. It also included an image showing the communication shared with members of St Michael’s branch.

4. The complainant, the Secretary of the St Michael’s branch, said that the newspaper had “failed to fully redact” his e-mail address that, he suggested, was clearly visible at the bottom of the image. This image appeared both within the online article and on social media, with only the former “cropped” by the publication to remove reference to his e-mail address.

5. The complainant expressed concern that the publication of his e-mail address and the correspondence he shared with the members of the St Michael’s branch had intruded into his privacy, in breach of Clause 2. He said the branch had “currently just under 500 members”, with 20 per cent of its memberships generally not in the practice of opening party-related e-mails. He argued that official internal party communication should not be shared outside of the Labour Party, adding that this article represented a clear breach of data protection regulation.

6. The complainant also said that the newspaper reported numerous inaccuracies, in breach of Clause 1. Firstly, he said the article reported that the communication he had shared with members was sent on “on official Labour-Party-headed paper” when it was, in fact, an e-mail sent via the Labour Party’s ‘Organise’ platform. Secondly, whilst he accepted that both he and the Chair did support, in principle, the right of members to call a meeting, he said that the article had distorted the reason for his communication members of the St Michael’s branch: he had contacted members to “inform them of a request for [a] lawful discussion on the EHRC report”. Thirdly, he disputed that the meeting was in contravention of the message issued by the General Secretary of the Labour Party, David Evans. In support of its position, the complainant shared extracts of the e-mail shared by David Evans to Labour Party branches:

“In accordance with the guidance previously circulated, I would also like to take this opportunity to remind you that motions or discussions that seek to question the competence of the EHRC to conduct the investigation in any way, or repudiate or reject the report or any of its recommendations are not competent business and must be ruled out of order. This is because the NEC has a responsibility under Labour Party rule to ensure that the Party meets its legal responsibilities, which includes responding accordingly to the EHRC’s statutory investigation”

7. He also cited the guidance issued by the Governance and Legal Unit of the Labour Party, which stated:

“While we have no desire to stifle legitimate debate and we recognise that it is important for members to discuss and engage constructively with the report and its recommendations, you must bear in mind that the country is watching us. The way in which the Labour Party responds to this report and deals with antisemitism is a key test of our credibility as a political party. As part of that, it is critical that we create a safe space for our Jewish member and begin to immediately improve our culture at all levels to ensure something like this can never happen again. At all times CLPs, branches, and individual members should be mindful of the language they use online to discuss this sensitive issues as well as their obligations under the Labour Party’s Code of Conduct: antisemitism and other forms of racism, Code of Conduct: Social Media Policy, and Code of Conduct: Member’s Pledge. Any breach of these codes of conduct – including in motions – will be dealt with robustly via the Labour Party’s disciplinary processes.

8. Finally, the complainant said that the newspaper made no attempt to contact him or the St Michael’s branch prior to publication, denying them a proper right of right of any opportunity to comment on the articles’ serious claims.

9. The publication denied any breach of Clause 2 (Privacy). It denied that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to the communication that he shared with members of St Michael’s branch. It added that there was a public interest in highlighting the reaction and the response of the Labour Party and its members to the publication of the EHRC report. It did not accept that the complainant’s e-mail address was either visible or legible, as it had been redacted by a third-party prior to publication.

10. The publication did not accept the article breached Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code. It said it had been approached directly by members of the St Michael’s branch, who each raised concerns that the complainant was “attempting to organise a meeting in defiance” of the General Secretary David Evans via an official party communication. It maintained that this communication was in contravention of the terms sent to all Labour branches by the General Secretary prior to the publication of the EHRC report. The publication said it approached the Labour Party for comment on the story prior to publication on more than one occasion. 

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.

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. 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.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

*The Public Interest

There may be exceptions to the clauses marked * where they can be demonstrated to be in the public interest. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself.

The regulator will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain or will become so.

Editors invoking the public interest will need to demonstrate that they reasonably believed publication - or journalistic activity taken with a view to publication – would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest and explain how they reached that decision at the time

Findings of the Committee

11. At the outset, the Committee was clear that it was not its function to determine whether an individual had breached a political party’s own internal disciplinary processes or guidance, or the legality of any discussion, but rather its function was to determine whether the publication had breached the Editors’ Code.

12. The article drew a contrast between the complainant’s action and the message conveyed by the Labour Party’s leadership in response to the publication of the EHRC report. The article reported that the correspondence shared by the complainant “appear[ed] to openly defy Labour General Secretary David Evans’ message to all Labour Party branches and members which said that discussion of the EHRC report was “not competent business” for meetings”. However, this did not reflect the full extent of David Evans’ comments on this matter, namely: “any motions or discussions that seek to question the competence of the EHRC to conduct the investigation in any way, or repudiate or reject the report or any of its recommendations, are not competent business and musty be ruled out of order”. He did not say, as the article suggested, that all discussion of the report should be avoided, but rather specifically that discussion seeking to question the competence of the EHRC and reject the findings of the report should be ruled out of order. The Committee considered that the omission of this qualifying information served to misrepresent the message issued by David Evans to Labour Party branches and members which had formed the basis for the article. This represented a clear failure to take care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information, in breach of Clause 1 (i). This was a significant inaccuracy that would mislead readers, and no correction had been offered leading to a further breach of Clause 1 (ii).

13. In such circumstances, and where there was no suggestion within the communication shared by the complainant that the proposed discussion was to criticise the EHRC or the findings of the report, the Committee considered that there was an insufficient basis to suggest that the complainant’s correspondence to members did, or even “appear[ed] to”, openly defy the Labour Party’s leadership on this matter, as suggested by the publication. This represented a further failure to take care, in breach of Clause 1 (i). This was deemed significant due to the position of the complainant and nature of the allegation and as such required correction under Clause 1 (ii). The publication had not offered to publish a correction and there was a further breach of Clause 1(ii).

14. In regard to the other points of complaint made under Clause 1, the Committee was satisfied that, in circumstances where the correspondence stated that the complainant was “supportive” of the idea put forward by members of the branch to convene an emergency meeting to discuss the publication of the EHRC report and suspension of Jeremy Corbyn, it was not significantly misleading for the publication to report this. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. In addition, the Committee did not consider that the article was significantly inaccurate or misleading to report that the correspondence shared by the complainant had been written on “official Labour Party-headed paper”, given that the Labour Party’s official branding was clearly visible in the image of the communication included within the article and where the complainant accepted that he issued this communication via the Labour Party’s own ‘Organise’ platform. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

15. The Committee was clear that there is no requirement under the Code to contact individuals prior to publication. In this instance, the newspaper had contacted the Labour Party for comment and was reporting on a communication, of which it was in possession, and therefore did not require comment from the complainant as his position was made clear in this correspondence. There was no breach of Clause 1.

16. The Committee had regard for the terms of Clause 2 (i), which specifically reference respect for a person’s digital communications. The question for the Committee was whether the article, in reporting the comments made by the complainant in his correspondence to members of the St Michael’s branch, had reported information about which the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy. In the view of the Committee, this correspondence related to a political matter in the complainant’s capacity as Secretary of the St Michael’s branch and not an aspect of his own private life. Given that it was circulated to 500 recipients, who were not necessarily personal associates but rather political associates of the complainant. As such, the Committee did not consider that this amounted to private correspondence; the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over this correspondence and reporting its contents did not intrude his privacy. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

17. The Committee then considered whether the sharing of the complainant’s e-mail address represented a breach of Clause 2. In circumstances where the complainant was using the e-mail address to correspond on political, not personal matters, to an audience of close to 500 recipients, who were not friends or family, but members of his branch of the Labour Party, the Committee did not consider that publication of this information represented a breach of Clause 2.

18. Finally, the Committee noted that any concerns about data protection were outside the parameters of the Editors Code and its own remit, but rather was a matter for the Information Commissioners Office. As such, the Committee made no ruling in reference to this aspect of the complaint.

Conclusion

19. The complaint was upheld in part under Clause 1.

Remedial Action Required

20. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. In circumstances where the Committee establishes a breach of the Editors’ Code, it can require the publication of a correction and/or an adjudication, the terms and placement of which is determined by IPSO.

21. The Committee considered that the newspaper did not take the necessary care when reporting the message conveyed by Labour’s General Secretary David Evans regarding the discussion of the EHRC report. This formed the basis of the article and the claim that the complainant had openly defied the Labour Party’s leadership. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction to put the correct position on record.

22. The Committee then considered the placement of the correction. This should appear below the headline of the online article and be published as a separate item on the newspaper’s online homepage. This should appear for 24 hours before being archived in the usual way. The wording of this correction should state that it was published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording and position of this correction should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

 

Date complaint received: 03/11/2020

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 26/05/2021

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