Ruling

00828-16 – The British Institute of Resource Development v The Sun

    • Date complaint received

      23rd June 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00828-16 - The British Institute of Resource Development v The Sun

Summary of Complaint

1.The British Institute of Resource Development (BIRD) complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment), and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Exscamination”, published on 11 January 2016. The article was also published online on 10 January 2016 with the headline “Sun investigation: £1,000 gets a diploma for bogus students….who can use it to get degree places or NHS jobs”.

2. The article reported that an undercover journalist had paid a third party £1000 for a Level 4 diploma in Health and Social Care Management from BIRD, despite having no experience, and without attending lectures, submitting coursework or sitting exams. It reported that BIRD was “handing qualifications to bogus students who can use them to scam university places and milk thousands in grants”. It reported that the journalist received a receipt recording the £1000 as “application admin and approval of prior learning fees”. It reported that the third party completed a university application for the journalist, in which it was claimed that he had been awarded the diploma.  It reported that the journalist attended a talk from Bird’s CEO on how to pass a university interview and apply for student grants in the next month. He then received his diploma and met with staff at a named university, who confirmed his place on a BA course three days later. 

3. The article explained that the third party was not employed by BIRD, but was allowed to “roam its corridors”. It stated that “there is no suggestion that [the CEO] was involved in the fraud, or aware of it, or that the college itself was aware of the con”. It reported that in response to the investigation, BIRD’s CEO said he was “shocked”, that Bird would be “strengthening the whole system”, and that the third party would be banned from the premises. It reported that the body overseeing and accrediting BIRD had suspended accreditation, and launched an inquiry.

4. The article reported that the diploma awarded to the undercover journalist could “help get NHS and private healthcare jobs”. It reported that the chairman of the College of Medicine had said that “I’m horrified at what The Sun uncovered. This is extremely injurious to healthcare and patient safety”.

5. The online version of the article was accompanied by a video which set out the findings of the investigation. This included a secretly recorded video which purported to show the journalist’s dealings with the third party. The video also appeared to show another student arranging for the third party to complete his work. The online article was sub headlined “EXCLUSIVE: We pay a fixer £1,000 for a diploma — which gets us a place on a BA degree course”. The text of the article was otherwise identical to that which appeared in print.

6. The complainant said that when the journalist applied to BIRD, he had used a fake address and fake bank statements.  It said that the journalist had said he had GCSEs, but when he was asked for his academic credentials, he told BIRD that he had lost them, but wanted to find them and provide copies later. Because the assessment session had already begun, the journalist’s admission was approved on the basis of a conversation with him, and his subject knowledge. The complainant said that to verify the authenticity of the coursework submitted by the journalist, it asked him if it had been prepared and submitted by him, which the journalist confirmed.

7. The complainant said that there was no public interest in reporting the outcome of this deception. He said that the awarding of the diploma in this instance was an isolated incident; after re-verifying the documents submitted by students in applying to BIRD, no further such cases had been discovered. In addition, the complainant said that students were only provided with their certificates and transcripts after a final student audit had been completed; this audit included verification of their previous qualifications, verification of their subject knowledge, and oral examinations on the coursework submitted by the students. The complainant said that the journalist’s diploma was cancelled after he failed to respond to a request that he attend an oral examination.

8. The complainant was concerned that the newspaper had used a hidden camera to record a talk given at the BIRD open day. It was also concerned that at a meeting after the investigation had taken place, a journalist from the newspaper had secretly made an audio recording of a meeting with BIRD’s CEO; a meeting during which the CEO had refused to take part in an interview. The complainant said that the newspaper had filmed the coursework submitted by its undercover journalist; it said that all students’ coursework is confidential and that this was intrusive.

9. The complainant said that BIRD’s CEO did not coach the students on how to pass university interviews or claim grants. The CEO gave an overview of the interview process and explained the advantages and drawbacks of a student loan, but did not tell students what they “must say” in the interview.

10. The complainant said that when recording a talk given by representatives of a university at BIRD, the journalist did not film their faces, and their names were not included in the article. In contrast, BIRD’s CEO was visible in the video of his lecture, and was named in the article. The complainant said that this divergent approach represented harassment.

11. The complainant said that the chairman of the College of Medicine was “of disputed character”, and that his comment had been given on the erroneous assumption that a Level 4 diploma from BIRD could be used to gain employment in the healthcare sector. While the complainant did not dispute that a BIRD employee had told the undercover journalist that he could use the diploma to obtain a job, it denied that the journalist had been told that the diploma guaranteed a job, or that it would allow someone to work as a carer. The complainant said that all learners at BIRD were bona-fide, and there were no “bogus students”.

12. The newspaper denied that there was a breach of the Code. It said it received allegations from a confidential source that it was possible to obtain diplomas from BIRD without having to study or take any assignments. The source provided contact details for someone described as a “fixer” who would arrange for people to obtain the diploma without any qualifications or skills. The newspaper said that there was a clear public interest in investigating and exposing the alleged wrongdoing at an academic establishment. It said that if the allegation was verified, it would call into question the credibility of some respected universities, and would show abuse of the student grants and loans system. The newspaper said it viewed the allegation as serious in the context of the large number of students who miss out on degree places because they fall short of the required A-Level grades.

13. The newspaper said that making direct enquiries of BIRD would have potentially enabled those involved to cover up or destroy evidence and documentation; the only way to verify the allegation was by using an undercover journalist posing as an unqualified student.

14. The newspaper said that the proposal to use an undercover journalist was considered and authorised by the Managing Editor, the Deputy Managing Editor, Head of Content, Head of News and Editorial Legal Counsel. This proposal included the relevant background details, the details of the proposed subterfuge and details of the public interest. The newspaper said that the story was reviewed by the duty lawyer, and approved for publication by the senior editorial team.

15. The newspaper noted that the complainant’s action plan following publication of the article under complaint included reporting the third party to the police for “unauthorised and unethical activities”, dismissing BIRD’s compliance officer for negligence, carrying out an audit for all students on the Level 4 diploma course and verifying all applicants’ previous qualifications. It noted that a university had terminated its partnership with BIRD, and that it did so on the basis that BIRD was “unable to rebut the allegation of fraud referred to in the national press on 11 January 2015 [sic]”.  It said there was a clear public interest in showing that the system at BIRD was such that an unqualified student doing none of the required coursework was able to pay money and obtain a place at university, entitling them to tax-payer funded student finance.

16. The newspaper disputed the complainant’s claim that BIRD’s CEO refused to take part in an interview. It said that the journalist clearly introduced himself, and handed the CEO his business card. A lengthy discussion followed in which the CEO could see the journalist taking notes, and knew the tape recorder was on. The newspaper said that at one point, the journalist asked the CEO if he would appear on video. The CEO refused, but the interview continued; the CEO did not ask the journalist to go “off-the-record”, or ask for the interview to cease.

17. The newspaper said that the CEO gave detailed descriptions of the student loan and grants system in his talk to students. In relation to the article’s claim that the CEO gave a talk on how to pass an interview to the university partnered to BIRD, it said the CEO told the students how they should respond to specific questions they were likely to be asked. The newspaper said that during this talk, the CEO told the students the name of the diploma awarded to them by BIRD.

18. The newspaper said that a BIRD employee had told the undercover journalist that he could use the diploma to obtain a job in care or social work. It said that the chairman of the College of Medicine was an appropriate expert to contact for independent comment.

19. The complainant questioned the motivations of the newspaper’s confidential source, and said that the logical response to the allegations would have been to enquire about the accreditation agency’s assessments of BIRD.

Relevant Code Provisions

20. 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.

Clause 3 (Harassment) 

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must   identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii) Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

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.

The Public Interest

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

i) Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.

ii) Protecting public health or safety.

iii)   Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.

iv)   Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.

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

21. The newspaper had received a detailed allegation that it was possible, via a third party, to pay money to BIRD and obtain a diploma without doing any studying or assignments. This diploma would then enable the recipient to obtain a place at university, to access student loans and potentially to obtain grants and other financial benefits. There was a clear public interest in verifying this allegation given the expectation that a diploma of this kind could not be dishonestly obtained, the importance of maintaining confidence in such qualifications, and the potential abuse of the university admissions system.

22. The allegation was of potentially serious misconduct as was reflected in the complainant’s subsequent decision to refer the third party to the police, the suspension of its accreditation, and the named university's decision to terminate its agreement with the complainant.  It was reasonable for the newspaper to decide that attempts to verify the allegation through open means would be unsuccessful given the possible reputational consequences for BIRD.  The newspaper said it had prepared a memo for consideration by senior editorial staff, who considered that the public interest justified proceeding with the investigation.

23. The newspaper demonstrated that it reasonably believed that the undercover investigation would both serve, and be proportionate to, the public interest.

24. The aim of the investigation was to show that it was possible to obtain a diploma from BIRD via a third party, without the necessary qualifications, and without studying or completing any assignments. The journalist’s claim that he had completed his GCSEs but had lost his certificates was necessary to verify the claim that the diploma could be obtained without the necessary qualifications. The journalist’s claim that he had completed his own coursework was simply part of the method for obtaining a diploma without having to study, or complete any assignments. These misrepresentations formed part of the very allegation that the newspaper had established a public interest in verifying.

25. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had used a hidden camera to film the CEO’s lecture on university admissions. However, this was a lecture on university admissions at a BIRD open day, which the journalist would have been entitled to attend and record in his capacity as a student at BIRD.

26. These aspects of the undercover investigation were proportionate to the public interest served by the investigation as a whole.

27. Following the investigation, the decision to publish the article was made by the senior editorial team. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that the awarding of a diploma to the undercover journalist was an isolated incident. Nevertheless, the investigation had demonstrated that the allegation was true; it was possible, via a third party, to obtain diplomas from BIRD without having to study or take any assignments.

28. The public interest which justified the undercover investigation also justified publication of the material obtained. Publication of the material obtained as a result of the subterfuge and the use of clandestine devices did not raise a breach of Clause 10.  

29. Regardless of whether the CEO was aware that the journalist was making an audio recording of their meeting, he understood that he was speaking to a journalist in relation to the outcome of the newspaper’s undercover investigation. The fact that during this meeting, the CEO declined to take part in a camera interview did not alter this fact. The use of a recording device in these circumstances was not clandestine; the device was only used to record a conversation to which he was already a party in his capacity as a journalist. In these circumstances, the use of a recording device did not engage the terms of Clause 10.

30. It was not in dispute that BIRD’s CEO had spoken about the university interview, reminded students of the name of their diploma, and discussed the student finance system. It was not misleading to report that the CEO “gave a talk on how to pass the interview and claim grants”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. The investigation had demonstrated that it was possible to obtain a qualification from BIRD without the necessary qualifications or completing the required coursework. In addition, the footage taken by the undercover journalist showed another student arranging for the third party to complete his assignments.  Given the results of the investigation, it was not inaccurate to report that BIRD was “handing qualifications to bogus students”.

31. It was not in dispute that a member of staff at BIRD had told the journalist that a Level 4 diploma could be used by a student to secure a job. Given the diploma was in health and social care management, it was not significantly misleading to report that the diploma “could help get NHS and private healthcare jobs”, or to report the chairman of the College of Medicine’s comment that the findings of The Sun’s investigation were “extremely injurious to healthcare and patient safety”. The complainant’s opinion of the chairman of the College of Medicine did not provide grounds for finding that reporting his comments was misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. 

32. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had filmed the undercover journalist’s coursework, given that coursework is, in principle, confidential. However, any confidentiality in relation to the coursework belonged to the undercover journalist, and filming the coursework did not raise a breach of Clause 2.

33. The purpose of Clause 3 is to prevent journalists engaging in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit. The complainant’s concern that the CEO was identifiable from the journalist’s video, while staff from the university staff were not, did not engage the terms of Clause 3.

Conclusions

34. The complaint was not upheld.

Complaint Received: 16/02/2016
Concluded: 08/06/2016