Ruling

01061-18 A Man v The Sunday Times

    • Date complaint received

      8th November 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01061-18 A Man v The Sunday Times

1. A man complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy) and Clause 3 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Labour welcomes back banned activists and Holocaust denier”, published on 4 February 2018.

2. The article reported that a “Holocaust denier and a leading member of Militant” were “among a first wave of expelled hard-left activists who have been readmitted to the Labour Party”. It said that a “leak from Labour Party headquarters” demonstrated the “resurgent left’s control over the party after recent elections to its governing body”. It said that some “activists” had been allowed to re-join despite belonging to groups “proscribed” by the party. As examples, it named a member of Militant; an individual who had previously been banned from the party for his comments about Jews and Zionism; and a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. In addition, it named the complainant as someone who was set to have their application to the party reviewed, and said that he had been “convicted of 21 counts of theft and forgery and jailed for seven years in 1981”. It also said that in 1990, a High Court judge had declared him a “vexatious litigant” and had “banned him from taking legal action in England and Wales”. The piece was illustrated with images of the individuals referred to in the article, including one of the complainant.

3. The complainant said the newspaper had published private and confidential information about him, which had been unlawfully leaked, and this was not justified in the public interest.

4. He said that the details of his Labour Party membership and appeal against suspension were protected by the Data Protection Act. As such, he had a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the information. He considered that any application for membership of a political party and any issues concerned with appeals to a review body in cases of refusal of membership were confidential and private, in the same way as medical or dental files, or membership of a private club.

5. He noted that unlike the other individuals referred to in the article, whose memberships had been withdrawn and subsequently restored, he had not yet been successful in having his cancelled membership restored.

6. The complainant also considered that the publication of his photograph in the article was intrusive, given that the reference to his appeal was intrusive and unjustified.

7. The complainant said that the emails sent to him by the journalist before the article was published had amounted to harassment. He considered that as the details of his appeal to the Labour Party National Executive were private and confidential, the attempt to contact him was unjustified.

8. The complainant provided the pre-publication correspondence. The first email the complainant received from the reporter had been sent at 13.59 on 2 February 2018. The complainant said that in that email, there appeared to be an earlier email of the same date, which he had not received. The complainant speculated that the earlier email had never been sent, and had been created in order to give the false impression that he had been given more time to reply to the journalist’s inquiries.

9. The complainant said that the article had contained inaccuracies. It had wrongly stated that he had been “banned” from taking legal action in England and Wales because he had been declared a “vexatious litigant”. In fact, the order required him to obtain permission from the High Court to institute civil proceedings or to make an application in civil proceedings. The newspaper had given the misleading impression that he could not, under any circumstances, commence any legal proceedings whatsoever. He was also concerned that this reference had implied that he was a former Labour Party member who had been “banned” from membership, along with the other “activists” referred to in the article.

10. The complainant said that the information regarding his convictions and sentence had also been inaccurately reported, as the original sentence of seven years’ imprisonment had been reduced on appeal to five years.

11. The complainant said that by referring to him in the article, the newspaper had given the misleading impression that he was a Holocaust denier, and that all those who had appealed against their suspensions were political extremists.

12. The newspaper denied that it had breached the Code. It said that the article concerned a matter of significant public interest, namely that there had been a shift in power within the National Executive Committee (NEC) and, as a result, Labour’s membership policy had changed. The article gave examples of the people who had previously had their membership withdrawn but who were now, following the first meeting of the reconstituted NEC, being allowed back into the party. The complainant’s exclusion related to concerns that his membership would affect the reputation of the party, and he was mentioned as someone whose application was set to be reviewed.

13. The newspaper did not consider that membership of a political party was a private matter. It also did not consider that the complainant’s application to the Labour party or his appeal were private, given that his appeal was being considered by the Labour Party’s governing body and legitimate questions were being asked about that body’s attitude towards members who had previously been excluded. The fact his appeal was being considered by the NEC fell squarely into a matter of significant public debate.

14. The newspaper said that the complainant had raised issues of confidentiality and data protection before publication, and it had proceeded on the basis that the article was justified in the public interest.

15. The newspaper did not consider that the photograph of the complainant had revealed any private information about him.

16. The newspaper also denied that the article contained significant inaccuracies. It did not consider that it was significantly misleading for the article to have stated that the complainant had been “banned” from taking legal action in England and Wales. It said that the Civil Proceedings Order, which had been made against the complainant, placed a significant restraint on his right of access to justice and was a step which the court only took in extreme circumstances. The fact that there was a caveat which would allow him to bring a case if the court had previously vetted it, and found that there were reasonable grounds for bringing it, did not detract from the key point which was that his free access to the court system had been removed. The newspaper did not consider that the omission of this caveat represented a breach of Clause 1.

17. As a gesture of goodwill the newspaper offered to amend the online article so that it made clear that the complainant could initiate civil proceedings if he obtained permission from the court. It also offered to amend the reference to the complainant’s prison sentence, if he were to supply evidence about its reduction following appeal.

18. The newspaper said that there was no suggestion in the article that the complainant was a Holocaust denier.

19. The newspaper also denied that its reporter had engaged in harassment. The journalist had acted properly and professionally, and the complainant had appeared content to engage in email correspondence, which was always courteous and even amicable. Given the simplicity of the allegations put to him, the complainant had been given sufficient time to reply.

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.

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 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.

Findings of the Committee

21. The fact that someone is a member of political party – or that their membership has been suspended – is not generally information about which they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Membership of a political party is an expression of political affiliation, which is not information which in ordinary circumstances relates to an individual’s private and family life.

22. The Committee considered that, in certain circumstances, an individual may have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to an appeal made to a political party in respect of a decision to suspend membership. The Committee noted that the article only made reference to the fact of the complainant’s appeal to the Labour Party; it did not include any further detail about the grounds for that appeal. Furthermore, there was a public interest in reporting that the NEC, whose board had three new members, had readmitted members of the party who had previously been banned, and that it was currently reconsidering a previous decision to exclude the complainant from the party. The Committee concluded that, to the extent that the reference to the fact of the appeal represented an intrusion into the complainant’s private life, the public interest that the newspaper had identified, and which it had considered before publication, justified publication. There was no breach of Clause 2 on this point.

23. The newspaper had published an image of the complainant without his consent. However, it was already in the public domain at the time of publication; it had been taken in a public place; and it only showed his face. It did not disclose any private information about him in breach of Clause 2.

24. The reporter had contacted the complainant before the article was published in order to obtain his comment on the forthcoming article. The complainant had not told the reporter to stop contacting him; he had engaged with him; and the correspondence had been courteous throughout. The reporter had not harassed the complainant in breach of Clause 3.

25. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the reporter had provided an email, which he had not received, in order to give the impression that he had been given more time to respond to the allegations before publication. However, in the email, which the complainant had received, the reporter had given the complainant 24 hours to respond to his questions. This did not represent harassment in breach of Clause 3.

26. It was accepted that the complainant had been declared a “vexatious litigant”. The article had stated that this meant that he was “banned” from “taking legal action in England and Wales”. While the order actually meant that the complainant could initiate civil legal proceedings if he first obtained permission from the High Court, in the context of this article, which was not a detailed examination of the effect of such an order, this was not a significant inaccuracy that required correction under the terms of Clause 1. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

27. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that his sentence of seven years had been reduced to five years following appeal. However, as he had initially received a seven-year sentence, it was not inaccurate for the newspaper to have stated that he had been “jailed for seven years”. Not reporting that this sentence had been reduced to five years following appeal did not represent a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1.

28. There was no suggestion in the article that the complainant was a Holocaust denier or a “banned activist”. It was clear that his inclusion in the story was due to his appealing the Labour Party’s decision to suspend his membership due to his previous convictions for theft and forgery. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusion

29. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required 

Date complaint received: 03/02/2018

Date decision issued: 18/10/2018