Ruling

01555-17 RT v The Sunday Times

    • Date complaint received

      10th August 2017

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 01555-17 RT v The Sunday Times

Summary of complaint

1. RT UK complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “UK advertisers shun ‘Putin’ TV channel,” published in print and online on 5 February 2017

2. The article reported that several British brands had stopped advertising on the television channel RT UK “amid accusations that it is spreading 'propaganda and fake news' for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.” The article reported that Damian Collins MP, the Chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, had “called for all British companies to boycott the ‘disinformation and propaganda’ channel”. It reported that Mr Collins had said that “British companies should not be advertising on channels that disseminate fake news designed to spread fear and confusion.” The article reported that the complainant had said it was an “editorially independent, autonomous, non-profit global news organisation”.

3. The complainant said that the newspaper was free to publish its opinion on RT UK, and it acknowledged it had been accused of broadcasting “disinformation and propaganda”. However, it said that to suggest that there were accusations of broadcasts of “fake news” was inaccurate, as there was no fair and reasonable basis for making such an accusation. It said that RT UK is licensed and regulated by Ofcom, which had never recorded a breach of accuracy against the channel.

4. The complainant was concerned that the decision of certain companies to stop advertising on RT UK, as reported in the article, followed these companies being approached for comment by the newspaper, and that some or all of these companies would not have withdrawn their advertising had they not been approached by the newspaper. It said that while it was not aware of what the newspaper had said to these advertisers, it may have included some of the false claims about RT which subsequently appeared in the article.  The complainant was concerned that the advertising cancellations reported in the article were therefore artificial, having been caused by the newspaper.

5. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to claim that Mr Collins had said that British companies should boycott RT. It said that Mr Collins had subsequently confirmed to it that none of his comments to the newspaper specifically referred to RT, or any other named organisation. His comments had been aimed broadly at any channel or website which produced ‘fake news’. He said it was therefore misleading for the article to report that Mr Collins had referenced RT UK.

6. The complainant said that while it had been given an opportunity to comment prior to publication, the newspaper had not asked for its response to the claim that it broadcast ‘fake news’, nor the comments from Mr Collins, which were reported in the article. In addition, it said that the newspaper had not included its full response in the article.

7. The newspaper said that it was not misleading to report Mr Collins’ reference to ‘fake news’. It noted that the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, had found two RT UK broadcasts to be in breach of the channel’s duty not to mislead and to report with due impartiality under the Broadcasting Code. It said that, given the findings by Ofcom, it was reasonable to refer to these two broadcasts as ‘fake news’.

8. The newspaper said that the decision to withdraw advertising was a commercial decision made by the companies involved. It said that as the article pointed out, these companies may not have previously known that their advertising packages included RT, but that the companies withdrew their advertising on being notified.

9. The newspaper denied that it had misrepresented Mr Collins’ comments. In response to the complaint, it provided a complete copy of the correspondence between Mr Collins and the journalist. In this correspondence, the journalist told Mr Collins that security experts were criticising RT for disseminating ‘Kremlin propaganda’ and ‘Russian disinformation’, and that they had said that British advertisers should not be advertising with the channel. The journalist told Mr Collins that advertisers had pulled their advertising from the channel, and he asked him for anything he would like to say about the channel, or about firms supporting it with advertising. Having been asked only about RT, Mr Collins responded by saying that British companies should not be advertising on channels that disseminate fake news, that he would call on companies to withdraw their advertising, and that his select committee’s inquiry would be looking at “disinformation and propaganda coming from media sources in Russia”. The newspaper said that in these circumstances, and where RT was the only Russian media source with a public profile in Britain, the manner in which the article reported Mr Collins’ comments was not significantly misleading.

10. The newspaper said that, as a gesture of goodwill, it would be willing to publish Mr Collins’ full comment as a clarification.

“In our story on RT television “UK advertisers shun ‘Putin’ TV channel” (News February 5), Damian Collins MP, chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, was reported to have called for “all British companies to boycott the ‘disinformation and propaganda’ channel.” We are happy to clarify that his full comment was: “British companies should not be advertising on channels that disseminate fake news designed to spread fear and confusion. I would call on any such company that has not already done so to withdraw their advertising. Our committee’s inquiry will also be looking at sources of fake news from other countries, including the growing and widespread concern about disinformation and propaganda coming from media sources in Russia.”

The complainant did not accept this offer.

Relevant Code provisions

11. 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.

Findings of the Committee

12. The Committee first considered the article’s claim that companies had withdrawn their advertising from the complainant’s channel, “amid accusations that it is spreading ‘propaganda and fake news’”. It noted the complainant’s position that this was inaccurate, as there was no fair and reasonable basis for making such an accusation. It was not in dispute that the complainant had been accused of broadcasting “disinformation and propaganda”, and the newspaper had taken care to present the claim it broadcasted ‘propaganda and fake news’ as accusations, rather than as established fact. In addition, the newspaper had provided decisions of Ofcom in response to the complaint, which provided a reasonable basis for the claim, and the article also included the complainant’s response that it was an “editorially independent…global news organisation”.  In all the circumstances, the presentation of the claims did not amount to a failure to take care not to publish misleading information, in breach of Clause 1 (i), and did not require a correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). 

13. The newspaper had informed Mr Collins that it was writing an article about the complainant, and had specifically asked him for his comments on the channel. He had therefore provided his comment in that context and in the knowledge that his remark that “British companies should not be advertising on channels that disseminate fake news” would be included in an article which focused on the complainant. In these circumstances, to report that Mr Collins had “called for all British companies to boycott [the complainant]” was a reasonable characterisation of his remarks, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

14. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that some companies had withdrawn their advertisements from the complainant’s channel only after the newspaper had approached them for comment. However, this did not alter the position that they had withdrawn their advertising, and it was not misleading to report that they had done so. This aspect of the article did not breach Clause 1.

Conclusions

15. The complaint was not upheld

Remedial action

16. N/A

Date complaint received: 23/02/2017
Date decision issued: 20/07/2017