Decision of the Complaints Committee – 29184-20 Abassi v Manchester Evening News
Summary of Complaint
1. Kamran Abassi complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Manchester Evening News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge), Clause 12 (Discrimination), Clause 15 (Witness payments in criminal trials) and Clause 16 (Payments to criminals) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Drug dealers 'working in homes to recruit kids'”, published on 12 November 2020.
2. The article, which appeared across pages 18 and 19, stated that a sister publication’s 10-month investigation had uncovered claims that Care 4 Children (C4C) staff were grooming children to sell drugs. It stated that the sister publication had seen “notes” from a meeting after claims that one child was “being exploited by staff via drugs running for them”. The article detailed the claims made by the whistle-blowers including that C4C did not properly act when concerns were raised. It made clear that these charges were denied by C4C, with the article including a statement from C4C.
3. The article reported that the sister publication had also sought comment from the complainant, who was the founder and managing director of C4C, but he had “declined to comment”. The article also included a photograph of the complainant, with the caption identifying him by name. This was published alongside a photograph of the exterior of C4C’s offices.
4. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “Drug dealers 'are working in care homes to recruit kids', investigation claims” , although it additionally reported that C4C had won “£8.8 million worth of contracts from Darlington Borough Council to provide residential children’s homes services”.
5. The complainant, who had ceased to occupy the role of Managing Director of C4C in September 2020, some weeks prior to the article’s publication, and was not making a complaint on behalf of the organisation, said that the article was inaccurate and misleading, in breach of Clause 1. First, the complainant said that contrary to the online article’s claim, C4C had not won “£8.8m worth of contracts with Darlington Borough Council” to provide children homes services. He said the organisation had won only part of this particular contract, shared between 17 providers and 5 local authorities. This was part of a multiple awardees contract as shown by the tender that was publicly available online.
6. Second, the complainant did not accept that there had been a “ten-month investigation” by the sister newspaper but rather the article had been based upon information obtained from a “disreputable” source. He said that the headline of the article had presented the serious and damaging allegation that drug dealers worked in C4C homes as fact.
7. Third, the complainant said that the inclusion of the photograph with the caption identifying him by name gave the misimpression that he was involved in illicit activity and discredited him. Furthermore, he expressed concern that the reporter from the sister publication had approached him for comment only two days prior to publication and whilst a police investigation into the matter was still ongoing.
8. In addition, the complainant said that one former employee of C4C, who he believed to be the lead whistle-blower, had reportedly made self-admissions to “selling” his story to the investigating newspaper after failing in their attempts to “extort” money from the company. Because of this, he said that the material published had been obtained by this individual using “illegal recordings”, in breach of Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge). He also suggested that as a result of the previous convictions of this individual and his “deep-rooted connections” to a criminal gang, the publication was in breach of Clause 16 (Payments to criminals). Though the complainant accepted that the police investigation into the matter had concluded without further action, he said that the article had been published whilst their investigation was ongoing, and the whistle-blower could quite conceivably have been called as a witness. As such, he considered it was also in breach of Clause 15 (Witness payments in criminal trials).
9. The complainant also said the article breached Clause 2 (Privacy) by publishing a photograph of him in the driveway outside his home, which he accepted was visible from the public street outside, without his consent and permission. He questioned the decision by the newspaper to identify him and suggested that this was influenced to some extent by his race and colour, in breach of Clause 12.
10. The publication did not accept any breach of the Editors’ Code. Notwithstanding this, the publication accepted that the online article was inaccurate to report that C4C had won £8.8m worth of contracts with Darlington Borough Council, amending the text of the article and publishing the footnote correction to record this:
“A previous version of this article stated that 'Care 4 Children Residential Service Ltd won £8.8 million worth of contracts from Darlington Borough Council'. In fact, Care 4 Children won part of this contract as part of a multiple awardees contract. We are happy to clarify this.”
11. Whilst the publication accepted that the complainant’s first point of complaint represented an inaccuracy, it did not accept that this was significant given that C4C had won part of the contract from the council.
12. In addition, it did not accept that the complainant’s further concerns raised a breach of Clause 1. It noted that the article made clear that the claims that drug dealers worked in C4C care homes to recruit children was not a claim of fact; rather, it was conjecture and presented as such, by way of the use inverted commas in the headline and attributing these claims to the whistle-blowers within the text of the article. It noted that the complainant’s concern about the length of the sister newspaper’s investigation was speculative and not based upon any evidence. It added that the article did not report or suggest any wrongdoing on the part of the complainant, with the caption of the disputed image showing his likeness and the text of the article clearly indicating his role at the organisation. It denied a breach of Clause 12.
13. In regard to the complainant’s privacy concerns under Clause 2, the newspaper maintained that the photograph had been taken in a public place where the complainant had no reasonable expectation of privacy. It observed that the complainant had accepted that his driveway, where he had been positioned when the photograph was taken, was clearly visible from the street outside his home, and did not reveal any personal information about him other than his likeness. It did not accept a breach of Clause 2.
14. The newspaper made clear that it did not accept that the information regarding illegal activity at the homes was obtained by subterfuge, in breach of Clause 10. It said that no “hacking or any other unlawful [or] illicit activity” was undertaken by the other publication in order to view and obtain the notes from the internal meeting at C4C. It also explicitly denied the unauthorised removal of confidential documents. However, the publication did not provide any further information in relation to this, citing its obligation to protect the whistle-blowers. Nor did it accept the concerns raised by the complainant in relation to Clause 15 and Clause 16. The newspaper maintained that no payment, or offer of payment, had been made to the whistle-blowers and noted that the complainant had provided no evidence to substantiate the alleged ‘self-admissions’ made by the person whom he believed to be the lead whistle-blower. It added that in any event Clause 16 did not prohibit anyone with a criminal record receiving payment from a newspaper. The newspaper made clear that the article did not attempt to glorify, glamorise, or exploit crime.
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.
Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge)*
i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held information without consent.
ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means.
Clause 12 (Discrimination)
i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.
ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.
Clause 15 (Witness payments in criminal trials)
i) No payment or offer of payment to a witness – or any person who may reasonably be expected to be called as a witness – should be made in any case once proceedings are active as defined by the Contempt of Court Act 1981. This prohibition lasts until the suspect has been freed unconditionally by police without charge or bail or the proceedings are otherwise discontinued; or has entered a guilty plea to the court; or, in the event of a not guilty plea, the court has announced its verdict.
*ii) Where proceedings are not yet active but are likely and foreseeable, editors must not make or offer payment to any person who may reasonably be expected to be called as a witness, unless the information concerned ought demonstrably to be published in the public interest and there is an over-riding need to make or promise payment for this to be done; and all reasonable steps have been taken to ensure no financial dealings influence the evidence those witnesses give. In no circumstances should such payment be conditional on the outcome of a trial.
*iii) Any payment or offer of payment made to a person later cited to give evidence in proceedings must be disclosed to the prosecution and defence. The witness must be advised of this requirement.
Clause 16 (Payment to criminals)
i) Payment or offers of payment for stories, pictures or information, which seek to exploit a particular crime or to glorify or glamorise crime in general, must not be made directly or via agents to convicted or confessed criminals or to their associates – who may include family, friends and colleagues.
ii) Editors invoking the public interest to justify payment or offers would need to demonstrate that there was good reason to believe the public interest would be served. If, despite payment, no public interest emerged, then the material should not be published.
Findings of the Committee
15. The Committee was clear that a newspaper’s obligations under the Editors’ Code extends to all editorial content it publishes, including material obtained from sister publications.
16. In this instance, the online article had incorrectly reported that that C4C had won “£8.8m worth of contracts with Darlington Borough Council” to provide children homes services in February 2020; this was demonstrably incorrect as the award was a matter of public record, with the scope and value of this contract available online. This clearly showed C4C was one of a number of providers awarded the contract. This represented a failure by the newspaper to take care over the accuracy of its statement and it amounted to a significant inaccuracy, as it misrepresented the allocation of public money to private companies for the provision of care. As such, the newspaper was obliged, in accordance with the terms of Clause 1 (ii), to correct this promptly and with due prominence.
17. Upon receipt of the complaint, the newspaper had amended the online version of the article, appending a footnote to the piece to record this alteration; this footnote identified and corrected the inaccuracy. This put the correct position on record and had been made as soon as the newspaper was notified of the inaccuracy. This footnote correction, in conjunction with the amendments to the online article, was published with sufficient promptness and the proposed location deemed sufficiently prominent that the terms of Clause 1 (ii) had been met, and there was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).
18. The complainant expressed concern that the article gave the misleading impression that he was involved in illicit activity by placing an image of him, captioned with his name, alongside an image of a white substance within a plastic bag. The image of the substance was clearly a stock image, to illustrate the broader allegations within the article. There was no suggestion that the complainant was involved in any “drug dealing” activities; his connection to the story was made clear in the text of the article. As such, the Committee did not find a breach of Clause 1 on this point.
19. The complainant had also expressed concern under Clause 1 that the sister newspaper had approached him for comment only two days prior to the publication of the article whilst a police investigation was ongoing. There is no obligation imposed by the Editors’ Code for newspapers to approach individuals for comment prior to their inclusion in an article. Rather, Clause 1 (i) requires publications to “take care” not to publish inaccurate or misleading information; in some instances, a publication will need to put allegations to an individual in order to meet this obligation, but this will not be necessary in all cases. In this instance, the sister publication had approached the complainant for comment two days before publication, which the Committee considered was adequate time for him to respond. In addition, the Committee noted that the complainant had not identified any inaccurate or misleading allegations about him included in the article which he suggested should have been put to him for comment prior to publication. Furthermore, when the sister publication had contacted his representatives, it had been informed that the complainant did not intend to engage with its enquiries. This was made clear in the both the online and print articles. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the timing or manner of the sister publication’s approach to the complainant demonstrated a failure to take care and did not, therefore, find a breach of the Editors’ Code on this point.
20. Clause 2 is designed to ensure that an individual’s private and family life is respected. The complainant said that the newspaper had breached his privacy by obtaining and publishing a photograph of him in his drive, without his permission and consent. It was accepted by the complainant that his driveway was visible from the public road. The Committee did not consider that the complainant had a reasonable expectation of privacy while standing in a drive that was visible from the road. The Committee also noted that the published photograph disclosed only the complainant’s likeness; it did not disclose any private information and did not show him engaged in private activity. Furthermore, it identified him in the context of his previous professional role with C4C; this was not private information. In such circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the publication of the photograph represented an intrusion into the complainant’s private life. There was no breach of Clause 2.
21. Clause 12 relates to prejudicial, pejorative, or irrelevant references to an individual’s protected characteristic. In this instance, the article did not contain any such reference to a protected characteristic of the complainant. There was no breach of Clause 12.
22. The Committee noted that the complainant had raised further concerns over the accuracy of the allegations against C4C and the nature of the sister publication’s investigation, particularly in relation to the manner in which the information contained in the article had been obtained, citing Clauses 10, 15 and 16 in his complaint. In circumstances where these points related specifically to C4C, its employees and the sister newspaper’s investigation of the organisation, the Committee considered that it would require the direct involvement of C4C – or its authorised representative – in order to be in a position to make a ruling on these points of complaint. The complainant had confirmed that he was neither acting on behalf nor with the consent of C4C. In the absence of C4C’s involvement, the Committee could not consider these aspects of the complaint and therefore made no ruling on the points raised.
23. The complaint was upheld in part under Clause 1.
Remedial Action Required
newspaper had amended the online article and published a footnote correction,
which identified the inaccuracy and put the correct position on record. No further
action was required.
Date complaint received: 23/11/2020
Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 28/10/2021Back to ruling listing