Ruling

01446-16 Booth v Daily Mail

    • Date complaint received

      9th June 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01446-16 Booth v Daily Mail 

Summary of complaint 

1.    Lauren Booth complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Daily Mail breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) in an article headlined “How Cherie’s sister has become a cheerleader for Islamic zealots”, published on 11 January 2016. It was published online with the headline “How Cherie’s sister has become a cheerleader for Islamic zealots: Twice bankrupt, and living as a Muslim convert with a ‘husband’ who has a second wife around the corner, she’s now raising cash for a deeply troubling cause”.

2.    The article was a profile of the complainant, which noted that she is a half-sister of Cherie Booth, wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and that she had converted to Islam a number of years ago.

3.    The complainant identified what she believed to be a number of inaccuracies in the article. She said that the article had given the clear impression that her partner, Sohale Ahmed, is still married to his former wife and is a bigamist; this was untrue as Mr Ahmed was not married to both women at the same time. Similarly, the complainant and Mr Ahmed are not an “adulterous” couple. Her and her partner’s household is not “interconnected” with the household of Mr Ahmed’s former wife Faiza Ahmed, and Mrs Ahmed no longer lives “around the corner” in the house owned by Mr Ahmed, but several miles away.

4.    The complainant said that the statement in the headline that she is a “cheerleader for Islamic zealots” was barely referenced in the article and was not supported by it. She said that it was inaccurate to describe her as “arguably extreme” as she has mainstream political views and is often invited to speak on university campuses. She said that her career as a journalist had not been built on “sharing indiscreet tittle-tattle about the Blairs”; this claim was damaging to her career and discredited her work. She had not been “let go” from her job at television station Al-Jazeera, but had resigned after eight months. The complainant said that Peace Trail, a charity in which she is involved, is not opaque; it is working with the Charities Commission because it has been slow in submitting certain accounts, but that is not unusual or a sign of fraudulent activity.

5.    The complainant’s relationship had not “scandalised” her local town. She disputed that the charity Helping Households under Great Stress (HHUGS) funds the families of terrorists and is “notorious”, as the charity does not solely work with the families of men under investigation for alleged terrorism offences. The complainant objected to the use of the word “paramour” to describe her partner, as it implied that their relationship was secret or unacceptable, when this was not the case. The complainant said that the article had given the impression that she had converted to Islam in order to make money; this was untrue and could damage her relations with the Muslim community. She also said that she had never been a presenter on Al-Jazeera. The complainant was concerned that the article had given the impression that she had expressed interest in writing a “tell all” memoir about the Blair family; she had no such plans. Further, she was concerned that the article had suggested that she forces her daughters to wear hijabs. The complainant also said that only some of her responses to the journalist’s pre-publication questions were published, which represented an additional breach of the Code.

6.    The complainant was also concerned that the article had discriminated against her. She said that the reference to her “pale” skin colour was irrelevant and prejudicial, and that describing the ceremony in which she and her partner had formalised their relationship as “religious”, in inverted commas, was prejudicial and showed a lack of respect for an Islamic ceremony with deep significance. Placing the words “husband” and “marriage” in inverted commas was prejudicial for the same reason.

7.    The newspaper did not believe that its article was inaccurate or discriminatory. The article had explicitly stated that the complainant’s partner was not breaking the law; it had not suggested that he was a “bigamist” in the criminal sense of the word. However, it was true that Mr Ahmed had entered into an Islamic marriage with the complainant while, in law, he was still married to his wife. In 2013 Mrs Ahmed had also given an interview to the newspaper’s Sunday title, in which she had accused the complainant of “stealing” her husband and destroying her home; she had also claimed that she had still been in an intimate relationship with her husband after he had started a relationship with the complainant. The newspaper said that the house in which the complainant and Mr Ahmed live, and the house in which Mrs Ahmed lives, are close to each other, and no reasonable reader would have understood the homes to be physically interconnected. They are interconnected because Mr Ahmed’s wife lives there, and so do his children. “Around the corner” is not a precise term, but merely implies proximity. While Mrs Ahmed may have moved from the house owned by Mr Ahmed to a house a few miles away, this would not render the article significantly inaccurate. 

8.    It was the journalist’s opinion that the complainant’s political allegiances placed her at a “far-flung outpost of the political spectrum”, and he was entitled to make this comment based on the organisations the complainant supports. The newspaper said that the complainant is a patron of both HHUGS and CAGE, another organisation. The newspaper said that CAGE campaigns to “sabotage” the Government’s anti-extremism programme, and that one of its leaders called an Islamic State killer a “beautiful young man”. The complainant is quoted in their fundraising literature and she has been invited to speak at their events. These organisations take political positions which the newspaper said are not aligned with those of most people in the UK, and their leaders can reasonably be described as “zealots”. The newspaper said that HHUGS funds the families of men who have proven to be terrorists. It said that it had funded the family of Abdel-Majed Bary, a fighter with so-called “Islamic State” and the son of a convicted terrorist; the description of HHUGS as “notorious” was not inaccurate. 

9.    The newspaper checked its database, along with those of its Sunday title, and found 72 articles written by the complainant which included references to the Blairs. It said that the complainant only became a full-time journalist when Tony and Cherie Blair entered the political spotlight. Her first job in journalism was for the Evening Standard, and its archives showed that her first article for that newspaper was headlined “Lust and loathing on the Tube; are men more likely to offer a seat to a woman wearing a low-cut top? Broadcaster and former model Lauren Booth, half-sister to the Prime Minister’s wife Cherie, tests reactions on the Underground”. The complainant’s second article was a diary piece in The Spectator in which she wrote about the transformation she had witnessed in Tony Blair as his political career developed. It remained the newspaper’s position that the complainant had built her career “sharing indiscreet tittle-tattle about the Blairs”. 

10. The newspaper said that it had taken reasonable care to establish how the complainant’s employment at Al-Jazeera had come to an end. The journalist had sent two emails to the station’s press office, but received no reply. He had then emailed a contact who works there and was told that the complainant had been “fired”. Since this had not been confirmed by an official spokesperson, the article described it as her having been “let go”, which the newspaper did not believe was significantly inaccurate. The newspaper said that Peace Trail and its parent company had not filed accounts with the Charities Commission or Companies House, despite being legally required to do so; it is impossible to tell what happens to the money raised. Since publication of the article the company had applied to be struck off, and so may never file accounts. 

11. Given the comments made by Mrs Ahmed in 2013, the newspaper believed that the reference to the complainant’s relationship having “scandalised” the local town was justified. The newspaper said that the word “paramour” is usually used with some irony to mean a lover or a beloved; it can also refer to an “illicit lover”. The newspaper said that at various stages in the complainant’s and Mr Ahmed’s relationship both definitions of the word had been accurate. The newspaper said that the article had set out the complainant’s stated reasons for converting to Islam: she had had an “intensely spiritual” experience in an Iranian mosque. The article had noted that her conversion had taken place a few days before she had been declared bankrupt, but had not said that she had converted to realise new career opportunities. The article had not suggested that the complainant’s conversion had not been genuine, but to the contrary had set out how observant she is to the faith. 

12. The newspaper provided a link to support its claim that the complainant had presented a programme for Al-Jazeera (although the complainant said that she had been the subject of that documentary and not the host, and that it had been shot before her conversion to Islam). The complainant had been quoted in another newspaper in 2006 as saying that “at the moment I’m writing a novel memoir about my early life up to the age of 17”. It was accurate to say that the complainant had planned to write a memoir, and the article had not implied that the memoir would be about the Blairs. The article had also not suggested that the complainant “forces” her daughters to wear hijabs; the girls are minors and it was entirely reasonable to suggest that they are influenced by their mother’s views and choices. 

13. While the newspaper did not believe that its article had been significantly inaccurate, it offered to publish the following clarification in its Corrections & Clarifications column on page 2; the article had been published on pages 12-14: 

“An article on 11 January said that the home Lauren Booth shares with Sohale Ahmed and the house Mr Ahmed shared formerly with his wife Faiza and their children were ‘around the corner’ and ‘a stone’s throw’ away from each other. We have been asked to clarify that the two homes are in fact about three miles apart. We also accept that Ms Booth resigned from her role at the Al Jazeera television station and was therefore not ‘let go’ by the company, as stated. We are happy to set the record straight.” 

14. The newspaper also offered to amend the online article and append a version of the clarification as a footnote. 

15. In relation to the concerns raised under Clause 12, the newspaper said that the thrust of the article was about the complainant’s journey from being a well-known journalist who frequented the London party scene, to her new life: a white British woman living in a largely Asian community, in an Islamic marriage, dressing in conservative Muslim clothing. The complainant’s status as a white Muslim commentator and activist is unusual, particularly given her familial relationship to a former Prime Minister. The word “marriage” was placed in inverted commas to indicate that it is not a legal marriage under UK law, and is therefore not what a reader would ordinarily imagine a marriage to be; it was not discriminatory. 

Relevant Code provisions 

16. 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. 

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 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.

Findings of the Committee 

17. The article had accurately set out the status of Mr Ahmed’s relationships with both Mrs Ahmed and the complainant, and had made clear that he was not a bigamist. It remained true that Mr Ahmed was legally married to his wife while also being in a religious marriage with the complainant. His wife lived a few miles away, and the article had not suggested that the houses were physically “interconnected”. Mr Ahmed owned the house “around the corner” at the time of publication, and while it was inaccurate to say that Mrs Ahmed lived in a house that is owned by Mr Ahmed, they were still legally married and lived in close proximity to each other. In these circumstances, the Committee did not identify any significant inaccuracies which would require correction under Clause 1 (ii).

18. The article had described how the complainant was a patron of both HHUGS and CAGE. The newspaper considered these organisations to be “notorious” and run by “Islamic zealots”; these were subjective assessments based on the newspaper’s opinion, and on information it had provided concerning the organisations’ activities. Given the complainant’s involvement in the two organisations, the newspaper was entitled to describe her as a “cheerleader” for them. The journalist expressed his view that the complainant’s opinions were at a “far-flung (and arguably extreme) outpost of the political spectrum” on the basis of material presented concerning the organisations with which she publicly associates herself. The statement was clearly distinguished as the journalist’s opinion and did not raise a breach of Clause 1. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of this aspect of the story, and the headline was supported by the text of the article. 

19. The newspaper had explained its basis for saying that the complainant had built her career on “sharing indiscreet tittle-tattle about the Blairs”, and the journalist was entitled to express his opinion about how the complainant had launched her career in journalism. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. The article had noted that the complainant had not worked for many of the media outlets listed on her Twitter page for a number of years, and in this context reported that she had been “let go” from her job at Al-Jazeera after six months. The Committee understood that the complainant had in fact resigned; the reference in the article was therefore inaccurate. However, the article had not gone into detail about the circumstances of her departure from the company, and it was accepted that she had left prematurely. In this context - and while the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to correct this point - the inaccuracy was not significant and a correction was not required under the terms of the Code. 

20. It was not disputed that Peace Trail had never filed accounts with either the Charities Commission or Companies House. It was not inaccurate to describe it as “opaque” or to question what had happened to the monies raised. It was clear from the interview given by Mrs Ahmed in 2013 that she had been very unhappy with her husband’s new relationship. Given that she lived in the same town as the complainant and Mr Ahmed it was not significantly inaccurate or misleading to say that the complainant and her partner had “scandalised” Heaton Mersey. Further, the newspaper was entitled to describe Mr Ahmed as the complainant’s “paramour”. The word does not have a single accepted definition, and can simply mean “lover”. Its use did not require correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). 

21. The article had noted that the complainant’s conversion to Islam had occurred at a time when she was experiencing financial difficulty, and that following her conversion she had been offered work with Islamic media organisations, as well as giving talks on Islam. The newspaper was entitled to note this, and had not stated as fact that the complainant had converted to Islam because she saw it as a “career opportunity”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. The complainant had worked at Al-Jazeera for a period. In this context, the reference to her having been offered a “presenting spot” on Al-Jazeera was not significantly inaccurate or misleading and did not require correction. 

22. The article had not suggested that the complainant’s “tell-all memoir” would be about the Blairs, and it was accepted that she had indeed planned to write such a memoir. Similarly, the article had not suggested that the complainant forces her daughters to wear hijabs; rather, it had noted that, following their mother’s conversion to Islam, the girls do wear hijabs. There was no failure to take care over these points, and the Committee did not establish any significant inaccuracies. There was no breach of Clause 1. 

23. Clause 1 does not require newspapers to publish responses to pre-publication queries in full. Clause 1 (iii) says that a fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given when reasonably called for. As the Committee had not established any significant inaccuracies an opportunity to reply was not required; there was no breach of Clause 1 (iii). 

24. The Committee understood the complainant’s concern about the reference to her being “pale-skinned”. It noted that the article was a profile of the complainant which focused on her conversion to Islam, its manifestations, and her religious marriage to a Muslim man. In this context, the newspaper was not prevented from noting the complainant’s colour, and that it was relatively unusual within her new community. In all the circumstances, the reference to her being “pale-skinned” was genuinely relevant to the story and did not raise a breach of Clause 12 (ii). 

25. The complainant is not in a marriage to her partner which is recognised under UK law. The newspaper was entitled to draw a distinction between a legal marriage and a religious one, and to use inverted commas around the terms when explaining the distinction to its readers. There was no breach of Clause 12.

Conclusions 

26. The complaint was not upheld. 

Remedial Action Required 

N/A 

Date complaint received: 01/03/2016

Date decision issued: 24/05/2016