Ruling

00894-17 Wass v The Mail on Sunday

    • Date complaint received

      7th August 2017

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 00894-17 Wass v The Mail on Sunday

Summary of complaint

1. Sasha Wass QC complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Mail on Sunday breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Revealed: How top QC ‘buried evidence of Met bribes to put innocent man in jail’”, published on 9 October 2016.

2. The article arose out of confiscation proceedings relating to Bhadresh Gohil, a lawyer convicted for money laundering offences, following a trial at which the complainant was leading counsel for the prosecution. The article reported allegations made by a barrister for Mr Gohil in court that the complainant had “lied to judges in order to hide damning evidence of police corruption” at Mr Gohil’s appeal against conviction. The article reported that Mr Gohil’s barrister had claimed in court that the complainant had “buried” an official Metropolitan Police report, which had confirmed that “there was evidence that officers in an anti-corruption unit had taken bribes“ from ex-Metropolitan police officers working for RISC, a private investigation firm.

3. The article reported that the complainant had “admitted” to the newspaper that she had seen the dossier in April 2014, two months before she had “backed” charging Mr Gohil, who had brought the report to the attention of the authorities, with attempting to pervert the course of justice. It said that Mr Gohil’s barrister had stated in court that when his client was charged “the police, the prosecuting barristers and the CPS all had possession of the file containing evidence of the Met’s infiltration by RISC”. It said that Mr Gohil had consequently been paid £20,000 by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in an out-of-court settlement for the three weeks he had spent remanded in custody. 

4. The article also gave background information about Mr Gohil’s conviction. It said that he had previously been convicted for money laundering in relation to his work with James Ibori, a former provincial governor in Nigeria. It said that Mr Gohil “continues to protest his innocence” and that he had “pointed out” that he had been “cleared of wrongdoing after a probe by the Solicitors Regulation Authority”. It said that during Mr Gohil’s imprisonment, he had received documents which had suggested that RISC was bribing police officers. Mr Gohil had then used these documents to lodge an appeal against his conviction, claiming that the case against him had been “contaminated by corruption”. It said that during the appeal hearing, the complainant had told the court that Mr Gohil’s claims were “manufactured really out of nothing and unsupported by any evidence at all”, and the court had rejected the appeal. It said that the complainant, and her colleague, had received an email from the CPS, which said that the police had requested that a sentence in the Crown’s response to the appeal be deleted. The article explained that the CPS had removed that sentence, and that Mr Gohil’s barrister had used this as the basis for an allegation, made in the confiscation proceedings, that “the document had been tampered with in order to mislead the Court of Appeal”.

5. The complainant said that the article was not a fair and accurate report of court proceedings. It made a number of false and damaging allegations against her, including that she had knowingly covered up police corruption by hiding and tampering with evidence of corruption; that she had prosecuted a man for perverting the course of justice while knowing him to be innocent and because he had been a whistle-blower who had uncovered the corruption she had sought to hide; that she had opposed bail on a whim and in order to silence him; and that she had lied to the court.

6. The complainant alleged a large number of inaccuracies, which fell into three themes: the way in which the allegations heard in court were presented, including reporting of her denial of those allegations; the impression given regarding the extent of her role in taking decisions about the proceedings against Mr Gohil; and the accuracy of the background information reported on the case.

7. The complainant said that the article had failed to explain that the proceedings in which these allegations had been made were confiscation proceedings, and therefore to make clear what was at stake for Mr Gohil and why he might have been motivated to attack those who had previously prosecuted him. The article had also failed to allow her a presumption of innocence, while allowing a man who had pleaded guilty to serious fraud to assert his innocence. The complainant said that the reporter had not been in possession of all the relevant material in order to support the assertions made in the article. Instead, he had relied principally on information given to him by a barrister who could not be considered impartial as he was acting in support of his client’s case, and that of a disbarred solicitor and convicted criminal.

8. The complainant said that the damage had been compounded by the newspaper’s failure to report accurately and fully her denial of the allegations. The article claimed that she had “admitted” to the newspaper that she had seen the dossier revealing police corruption in 2014. In fact, she had told the newspaper before publication that in April 2014, she had been made aware of Operation Limonium, and that she had been assured by the police that the officer concerned had been investigated and exonerated of any wrongdoing. She had acted in good faith on the basis of this information; the operation had not “reveal[ed] RISC’s ‘infiltration’ of the Met”, as reported. She said the first time she saw the dossier was in December 2015. It could not therefore be said that she had “buried” evidence. She expressed concern that the newspaper had failed to include the denial she gave to the reporter before publication that “[she] would not and did not at any time conceal evidence of corruption. [She] would not and did not knowingly mislead the court”.

9. The complainant also said that the article had inaccurately suggested that she had “tampered” with evidence. It was the CPS and police who had sought amendments to the memo in question, despite the fact that her junior counsel had advised that the suggested amendment ought not to be made. She said that she had informed the reporter in advance of publication that “the document you referred to… was a formula that the CPS chose to put before the Court of Appeal to reflect the findings of Operation Limonium”. She said the newspaper had adopted the position taken by Mr Gohil’s lawyer that the inclusion of a particular sentence in the email would have “given the court reason to wonder whether the Crown was revealing the truth about Mr Gohil’s corruption claims”, which was misleading. In reality, the alleged corruption had been investigated and the police officer concerned had been exonerated.

10. The complainant was also concerned that the article had deliberately suggested that she had taken decisions about the conduct of the case against Mr Gohil for obstruction of justice, which had in fact been taken by others. She had not “changed her mind” over whether to oppose Mr Gohil’s application for bail shortly before he was due to be released from prison; this decision had been taken by the CPS, and the complainant had been notified of it in July 2015. Further, she had not “backed charging Mr Gohil for perverting the course of justice”. She had played no role in the decision to bring proceedings against Mr Gohil, which had been approved by the Director of Public Prosecutions in conjunction with the CPS. That decision had been separated from her, as trial counsel, by a Chinese wall. This assertion had given the misleading impression that she had made the decision to bring the charges against Mr Gohil in order to prejudice his appeal and represented a further unfounded allegation of prosecutorial misconduct.

11. The complainant also expressed concern that the article had given the “fanciful” impression that the Court of Appeal’s decision to reject Mr Gohil’s appeal was based on her statements in court. The Court of Appeal had carefully considered the extent of the evidence and had dismissed it on its merits. She noted that the Court of Appeal judgment had been available to the reporter, in which the Court had stated, in relation to the evidence provided in support of Mr Gohil’s appeal, that “none impressed us”.

12. The complainant was also concerned about the accuracy of information given on the background to the case. She said that the report that Mr Gohil had been cleared by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) was inaccurate; rather, the SRA had closed the file, pending the outcome of his trial. This assertion was significantly misleading, as it gave credibility to his claims of innocence and supported the idea that she was responsible for a miscarriage of justice.

13. The complainant also said that the article presented a misleading account of the “whistle-blower” documents used by Mr Gohil in his appeal. She said that the article presented these as genuine when, in fact, the documents had not been sent to him in prison, but had been created by Mr Gohil himself. The newspaper had accepted Mr Gohil’s account without any further investigation, and had failed to report compelling evidence of his corruption.

14. The complainant considered that the newspaper had reported that she was “no longer prosecuting cases for the CPS and had ‘returned the briefs’ in all the cases where she has been instructed”, to create the misleading impression that the CPS had demanded she return her briefs because she had behaved improperly. The true position was that at a meeting in February 2016, she had been thanked by the CPS for her contribution to the Ibori cases and it was agreed that a new team of prosecutors would be instructed. In April 2016, as a result of the termination of the perverting case against Mr Gohil, the disclosure processes in the Ibori cases were put under review, and she voluntarily decided to return her cases for the CPS; she had been under no obligation to do so.

15. The newspaper said that the central allegation made in the article, that the complainant had buried evidence which might have assisted the defence in a case she had prosecuted, was an accurate report of a statement made in open court. There was a strong public interest in reporting the allegation, which concerned potential wrongdoing by Crown prosecutors and serious claims of police corruption. It noted that the week before the article was published, the CPS had issued a statement confirming that there was evidence of police corruption, which should have been disclosed to Mr Gohil’s defence. It noted that the complainant was no longer taking cases from the CPS.

16. The newspaper said that it had taken care to approach the complainant for her comments on the allegations before publication, and had published her response. However, as its article was an accurate report of public court proceedings, it was not required to investigate all the allegations, nor to attempt to prove whether or not the allegations were well-founded.

17. The newspaper accepted that the complainant had said that she was “aware” of the investigation into possible police corruption and that she had not therefore “admitted” that she had “seen” the “dossier revealing police corruption”, as reported. However, it did not consider that there was a significant difference between seeing the dossier and being aware of the investigation. It had reported her position that it was in January 2016 that she had been provided with “new information” and that she had “advised the Director of Public Prosecutions personally to drop the case”. It had also reported her position that she had been assured by police that the corruption had been “investigated and dismissed”.

18. The newspaper did not accept that the article had accused the complainant of “tampering with evidence”. It had reported, accurately, the circumstances in which the memo had been amended and made clear that the amendment was made by the CPS. The omission of her statement that she had no input in the decision to amend the email in question was not misleading.

19. The newspaper did not consider that the article had given the impression that it was the complainant who had decided to charge Mr Gohil. It had accurately reported that she had “backed” the decision, given that she was leading counsel for the prosecution and had been involved in the case for many years.

20. With regards to the complainant’s concern that the article had suggested that she had taken the decision to oppose Mr Gohil’s bail only shortly before he was due to be released, the newspaper accepted that the decision had been made in July 2015 and not November 2015. It said that Mr Gohil’s barrister had said in court that the decision had been made “to avoid the custody time limits”, and Mr Gohil’s defence had incorrectly informed the reporter that the Crown had changed its position only shortly before Mr Gohil had been due to be released from prison. The newspaper offered to amend this reference in the online article, but it did not consider that it was a significant inaccuracy, which required correction, as the CPS had not opposed bail in November 2014 or in January 2015, so it was correct that it had changed its position. It was also not significant whether this decision had been made by the CPS or by the complainant as she had represented the Crown in court. There was also no suggestion of malice on the complainant’s part.

21. The newspaper denied that the article had given too much weight to Mr Gohil’s claims of innocence, given that the article had made clear the seriousness of his offences. It was in the public interest to report that he was appealing against his conviction and that the grounds for that appeal related to police corruption. It acknowledged, however, that since publication, the SRA had confirmed that it had closed its file pending the outcome of Mr Gohil’s trial; so it had been incorrect to report that the SRA had cleared him of wrongdoing.

22. The newspaper did not accept that it was inaccurate for it to report that Mr Gohil had received documents which had suggested that RISC had bribed police officers. Mr Gohil’s prosecution for forging documents had been dropped and he had subsequently received substantial compensation. In any event, the article had also reported that the complainant had told the Court of Appeal that Mr Gohil’s claims of corruption had been manufactured.

23. The complaint was made directly to the newspaper on 14 October 2016, and the parties made efforts to resolve the matter. On 2 February, the complainant contacted IPSO as she was concerned that she had yet to receive a satisfactory response from the newspaper. IPSO began its investigation on 21 February 2017, and on 11 March 2017, the newspaper offered to make various changes to the online article, including the publication of the following footnote:

This article has been amended since publication to make clear that Ms Wass did not admit seeing the dossier about police corruption in April 2014 before Mr Gohil was charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice. She says she was assured, at that time, that there was nothing adverse to report. Also, Mr Gohil was not cleared of wrongdoing by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

On 12 April, the newspaper confirmed that a similar wording would be published in the Corrections and Clarifications column in print; and on 24 May 2017, the newspaper amended the wording to include an apology. The wording was as follows:

Regarding an article on October 9, 2017, “How top QC ‘buried evidence of Met bribes’…”, we would like to make clear that Sasha Wass QC did not admit seeing a dossier about police corruption in April 2014 before a defendant was charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice. We apologise for this error. Ms Wass says she was assured, at that time, that there was nothing adverse to report. Also, the defendant Bhadresh Gohil was not cleared of wrongdoing by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

24. At the end of IPSO’s investigation, the newspaper noted that the Court of Appeal had recently agreed to list a full hearing of Mr Ibori’s application for permission to appeal against his convictions, and it provided a copy of the grounds for the appeal. It considered that the grounds of appeal relied strongly on allegations that the complainant had misled the court by failing to disclose material that would have assisted the defence, and said that this provided further justification for its having reported on the matter. It noted that the grounds of appeal alleged that the complainant’s junior and CPS lawyers had been given details of the corruption inquiry in 2012, and the newspaper argued that the police had apparently rejected the complainant’s assertion that she had known nothing of the detail of the inquiry until January 2016. The newspaper said that the writer had been aware of the substance of these allegations when he wrote the article; he had been informed by confidential sources that counsel had seen documents in 2012, and that the police had challenged her claim about not seeing them until 2016.

25. The complainant said that the newspaper had sought to rely on documents that were not in existence at the time of publication. She said that the grounds of appeal contained claims made by a convicted criminal who was seeking to appeal his convictions; it was not evidence which could be relied on to support the article. Furthermore, the Grounds of Appeal had provided evidence to support her complaint: it was admitted that there was no evidence to prove the claim that the lawyers in the case were complicit in any misconduct. Should there be any such evidence, the complainant submitted that it would have been identified in the Grounds of Appeal.

Relevant Code provisions

26. 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

27. The newspaper had published at length extremely serious and potentially damaging allegations about the complainant’s conduct, integrity and credibility, and described her as “facing professional ruin”.

28. The newspaper was entitled to report on proceedings heard in open court, but in circumstances where such damaging allegations were being made, it had an obligation to ensure that it did so in a manner that was accurate and not misleading. This included the publication of material in the article which related to matters that had not been heard in court but which provided context for those claims.

29. The Committee noted that the grounds of appeal, provided by the newspaper at the end of IPSO’s investigation, had repeated the allegations made against the complainant. However, the accuracy with which the allegations had been reported was not changed by the fact that they had been amplified in a document, produced after publication, on which the Court of Appeal had yet to rule.

30. The newspaper had contacted the complainant for her comment on the allegations made against her in court before it proceeded to publish them. However, the Committee was very concerned that it had failed to accurately report her denials of the allegations. The complainant had not, as the article claimed, “admitted she had seen the dossier revealing RISC’s ‘infiltration’ of the Met” in April 2014, which the newspaper conceded. In addition, the newspaper had failed to report the complainant’s denial that “[she] would not and did not at any time conceal evidence of corruption. [She] would not and did not knowingly mislead the court”. The article was significantly misleading on these points: the claim that she had seen the dossier suggested that she had direct knowledge of its content, which she denied, and the failure to publish the complainant’s further denial of impropriety could potentially give support to the allegations of professional misconduct. This represented a serious failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 (i).

31. The Committee was also concerned that the article had given the misleading impression that the complainant had taken key decisions in the case, which had, in fact, been taken by others. It noted in this regard that the newspaper had asserted that she had “backed charging Mr Gohil for perverting the course of justice”. However, the decision to bring proceedings against Mr Gohil had been made by the Director of Public Prosecutions, not the complainant. The article had also asserted that the complainant had “changed her mind” and had taken the decision to oppose Mr Gohil’s bail shortly before he was due to be released from prison. While the Committee acknowledged that the complainant had acted on behalf of the CPS and had not opposed bail in court, it was not her decision as to whether bail should be opposed, and the decision had not been made “a few days before he was due to be freed”; the decision had been made in July 2015, and Mr Gohil’s scheduled release was in November 2015.

32. The Committee considered that these inaccuracies, together, had given the significantly misleading impression that the complainant had had greater influence over the conduct of the case than was the position, and that she had potentially abused this authority. The impression given supported the damaging allegation that she had “buried evidence…to put [an] innocent man in jail”. This represented a further failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i). A correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).  

33. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had suggested that she had “tampered” with evidence when the decision to amend the email in question had been taken by the CPS. However, the article had not claimed that the complainant had “tampered” with evidence; it had accurately quoted Mr Gohil’s barrister, who had claimed in court that “a document was tampered with in such a way as to mislead the Court of Appeal”. The article had made clear that the amendment to the document had been made by the CPS. The newspaper was entitled to publish its opinion that the inclusion of the amended sentence “would have given the court reason to wonder whether the Crown was revealing the truth about Mr Gohil’s corruption claims”. There was no breach of the Code on this point.

34. The Committee also considered the complainant’s concern regarding the assertion that the court had “accepted everything she said and rejected the appeal”. While the judge would also have considered the strength of the evidence provided by Mr Gohil’s defence, the complainant had argued in court that Mr Gohil’s claims of police corruption were unfounded, and the court had subsequently dismissed the appeal. In these circumstances, the Committee did not consider it was significantly misleading to state that the court had “accepted” what the complainant had said in court. There was no breach of the Code on this point. 

35. With regards to the accuracy of the reported information on the background to the case, the Committee was concerned that the article had inaccurately reported that, despite his conviction for fraud, Mr Gohil had been cleared of wrongdoing by the SRA. This assertion in the article had given the significantly misleading impression that Mr Gohil’s claims of innocence were supported by the SRA’s findings. Moreover, it had given further unjustified credibility to the allegations of misconduct made against the complainant in court. The newspaper’s failure to check this assertion before publication represented a further breach of Clause 1(i). This point required correction in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1 (ii).

36. The complainant had expressed concern that the newspaper had adopted as fact Mr Gohil’s position that he had received documents, suggesting police corruption, while in prison. It was not disputed that this was Mr Gohil’s position in his unsuccessful appeal, and the article made clear that his appeal had been dismissed. The article further made clear the complainant’s position that Mr Gohil’s claims were “manufactured really out of nothing and unsupported by any evidence at all”, and that they were “bogus”. In such circumstances, the Committee did not consider that the reference to these documents was significantly misleading and there was no breach of the Code on this point.

37. It was accepted that the complainant was “no longer prosecuting cases for the CPS”. The article had not given the misleading impression that the CPS had demanded that she return her briefs because she had acted improperly. Indeed the article stated that she was currently prosecuting for the Serious Fraud Office. There was no breach of the Code on this point.

38. The newspaper had first been made aware of the complaint on 14 October 2016. The newspaper initially offered to consider amendments to the online article in December 2016 and subsequently offered to make further amendments and to publish a correction on 11 March 2017. The wording of the correction offered by the newspaper made clear that the complainant had not admitted to seeing a dossier about police corruption in April 2014, and it recorded her position that she had been assured that there was nothing adverse for her to report to the court. It also stated that Mr Gohil had not been cleared of wrongdoing by the SRA, and it included an apology, which was required under the Code, given the seriousness of the inaccuracy that suggested she had admitted having seen the dossier in 2014. However, while the newspaper had discussed making amendments to the online article, it did not offer to publish a correction in print for nearly five months. Furthermore, the wording offered had not addressed the misleading impression given by the inaccurate assertions that the complainant had “backed” charging Mr Gohil, and that she had ”changed her mind” in relation to his bail application shortly before he was due to be released from prison. This represented a failure to correct significantly inaccurate information promptly and a breach of Clause 1(ii) of the Code.

Conclusion

39. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial action required

40. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

41. The newspaper had published significantly inaccurate information and it had failed to comply with the obligations of Clause 1(ii) by promptly offering to publish a correction. As such, the Committee required the publication of an adjudication.

42. As the inaccurate information had appeared on page 38 and 39 of the print edition, the Committee required the newspaper to publish the adjudication on page 38 or further forward.

43. The wording of the headline to the adjudication should be agreed with IPSO in advance, or in the absence of agreement, as determined by the Complaints Committee. It should refer to IPSO, include the title of the newspaper, make clear that the complaint was upheld, and refer to the subject matter. The placement on the page, and the prominence, including font size, of the adjudication must also be agreed with IPSO in advance.

44. The adjudication should also be published on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the full adjudication appearing on the top half of the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived in the usual way.

45. If the newspaper intends to continue to publish the online article without amendment to remove the misleading statements identified by the Committee, the full text of the adjudication should also be published on that page, beneath the headline. If amended to remove the misleading statements, a link to the adjudication should be published with the article, explaining that it was the subject of an IPSO adjudication.

46. The terms of the adjudication to be published are as follows:

Following an article published on 9 October 2016 in the Mail on Sunday, headlined “Revealed: How top QC ‘buried evidence of Met bribes to put innocent man in jail’”, Sasha Wass QC complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the newspaper had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice. IPSO upheld the complaint and has required the Mail on Sunday to publish this decision as a remedy to the breach.

The article arose out of confiscation proceedings relating to Bhadresh Gohil, a lawyer convicted for money laundering offences following a trial at which the complainant was leading counsel for the prosecution. The article reported allegations relating to the complainant’s conduct of the prosecution, made by a barrister for Mr Gohil in court.

The article also gave background information about Mr Gohil’s conviction. It said that he had previously been convicted for money laundering; that he “continues to protest his innocence”; and that he had “pointed out” that he had been “cleared of wrongdoing after a probe by the Solicitors Regulation Authority”.

The complainant said that the article included a number of damaging allegations about her conduct of the prosecution that were entirely without foundation. She also said that the newspaper had inaccurately reported that she had made key decisions in the case against Mr Gohil, giving the impression that she had acted out of spite.

She was further concerned about the accuracy of information given on the background to the case. She said that the report that Mr Gohil had been cleared by the SRA was inaccurate; rather, the SRA had closed the file, pending the outcome of his trial. This assertion was significantly misleading, as it gave credibility to his claims of innocence and supported the idea that she was responsible for a miscarriage of justice.

The newspaper said that the article’s central allegation was an accurate report of a statement made in open court. It also said that it had taken care to approach the complainant for her comments on the allegations before publication, and it had published her response.

During IPSO’s investigation of the complaint, the newspaper offered to publish a correction, addressing some of the inaccuracies raised by the complainant.

The Committee was very concerned that the newspaper had failed to accurately report the complainant’s denials of the allegations. This represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. It was also concerned that the article had given the misleading impression that the complainant had taken key decisions in the case, which had, in fact, been taken by others.

The Committee considered that these inaccuracies together had given the significantly misleading impression that the complainant had had greater influence over the conduct of the case than was the position, and that she had potentially abused this authority. The impression given supported the damaging allegation that she had “buried evidence…to put [an] innocent man in jail”. This represented a further failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1(i). A correction was required in order to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).  

The Committee was also concerned that the article had inaccurately reported that, despite his conviction for fraud, Mr Gohil had been cleared of wrongdoing by the SRA. This assertion had given the significantly misleading impression that Mr Gohil’s claims of innocence were supported by the SRA’s findings. Moreover, it had given further unjustified credibility to the allegations of misconduct made against the complainant in court. The newspaper’s failure to check this assertion before publication also represented a breach of Clause 1. This point also required correction.

The wording of the correction offered by the newspaper addressed some of the inaccuracies raised by the complainant, and it included an apology, which was required under the Code, given the seriousness of the inaccuracy. However, while the newspaper had discussed making amendments to the online article, it did not offer to publish a correction in print for nearly five months. Furthermore, the wording offered had not addressed the misleading impression given by the further inaccuracies about the complainant’s conduct in prosecuting the case. This represented a failure to correct significantly inaccurate information promptly in breach of Clause 1(ii) of the Code. The complaint under Clause 1 was upheld.

Date complaint received: 02/02/2017
Date decision issued: 20/07/2017