Ruling

01996-22 Brown v spectator.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      25th August 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 01996-22 Brown v spectator.co.uk

Summary of Complaint

1. Gordon Brown complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that spectator.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Gordon Brown’s Russian riches”, published on 25 February 2022. The article was updated three times after its initial publication; the second version of the article onwards appeared under the headline: “Gordon Brown’s office took Russian bank’s money”.

2. The first version of the article under complaint, which appeared online and was linked to on the website’s homepage, reported that “Labour has been trying to much [sic] political capital out of Russian-linked donations to the Tory party” and that “Labour might want to check a little closer to home when it comes to checking sums given to its party grandees. For Mr S has discovered that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was paid over £100,000 by a newly sanctioned Russian bank. […]  The ex-Labour leader received £124,494 for a speech he gave to Sberbank and another corporate giant, Troika Diolog in February 2012. Sberbank, which is the largest financial institution in Russia, was yesterday sanctioned by the US Treasury department, as part of its punitive actions towards 13 Russian financial institutions to 'impair' the Kremlin and Russia’s economy in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine”.

3. This version of the article went on to report that “[d]espite the significant fee, Brown’s speech lasted only 4 hours, equating to £500 per minute or £8 a second. Kerching!” It also stated that “[w]ith regards to the fee he received, Brown wrote at the time that he ‘was not receiving any money from the engagement personally’ and that it was ‘being held by the Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown for the employment of staff to support [his] ongoing involvement in public life.’ At that time, Brown was already being paid a salary of £65,738 as the MP for Kirkaldy and Cowdenbeath [sic] and earning thousands extra on the leisure circuit. Unsurprisingly, the former PM did not respond to Steerpike’s request for comment”.

4. The article ended with the following: “First Peter Mandelson’s strategy firm and now Gordon Brown’s Russian roubles. How many more Moscow skeletons will come out of the Labour closet.”

5. The article was updated on 26 February. The second version of the article was amended as follows: The headline was changed from “Gordon Brown’s Russian riches” to “Gordon Brown’s office took Russian bank’s money”; “Still, Labour might want to check a little closer to home when it comes to checking sums given to its party grandees. For Mr S has discovered that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was paid over £100,000 by a newly sanctioned Russian bank. The ex-Labour leader received £124,494 for a speech he gave to Sberbank and another corporate giant, Troika Diolog in February 2012” was changed to read: “An interesting question arises though as to which donations to politicians are legitimate and for what reason. For Mr S has discovered that the office run by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was given more than £100,000 by a newly sanctioned Russian bank. The ex-Labour leader declared receiving £124,494 for a speech he gave to Sberbank and another corporate giant, Troika Diolog in February 2012”; and the sentence “At that time, Brown was already being paid a salary of £65,738 as the MP for the Kirkaldy and Cowdenbeath and earning thousands extra on the circuit lecture. Unsurprisingly, the former PM did not respond to Steerpike’s request for comment” was amended to read “At that time, Brown was already being paid a salary of £65,738 as the MP for the Kirkaldy and Cowdenbeath. The former PM has subsequently spoken out consistently against Putin’s regime over recent years. Brown’s office did not initially respond to a request for comment”.

6. The second version of the article also omitted the following: the word “Kerching!”; and the sentence “First Peter Mandelson’s strategy firm and now Gordon Brown’s Russian roubles. How many more Moscow skeletons will come out of the Labour closet?”.

7. The following sentence was also added to the end of the second version of the article:  "The Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown was established to support Gordon and Sarah in their work and to facilitate their ongoing involvement in public life. This includes their charitable and pro bono work. The costs of the Office are paid from income received by the Office for consulting and paid speaking engagements undertaken by Gordon. Alongside paid speaking engagements Gordon and Sarah give regular pro bono speeches to universities, charities and other organisations.”

8. The article was again updated on 27 February.  The sentence “An interesting question arises though as to which donations to politicians are legitimate and for what reason” was removed from the article; “For Mr S has discovered that the office run by…” was changed to read “But Mr S has discovered…”; and the following footnote was added to the article:

A previous version of this piece referred to ‘Brown’s Russian riches’ and ‘Brown’s Russian rubles’ [sic]. We are happy to make it clear that Gordon Brown never personally benefited from the engagements or speeches referred to in this piece.

9. The complainant said that every version of the article included several inaccuracies and instances of misleading and distorted information in breach of Clause 1. Turning to the first version of the article, he said that the headline – “Gordon Brown’s Russian riches” – and the reference to his “Russian roubles” inaccurately suggested that he had benefitted personally from the speech made in 2012, when he had not. He said this inaccuracy was compounded by the first version of the article including the word “Kerching!” when referring to the fee received. He further said that he had repeatedly made clear over the last decade that money he received from such speeches was held by the Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown – which had, as a result, donated over £4 million to charitable causes – and that he does not receive a salary or any other income from the Office. He then said that the publication would have been aware of this fact had they visited the website of the Office, or had they reviewed previous rulings made by the Press Complaints Commission on the subject, of which there were several. The complainant also said that every version of the article was inaccurate as each referred to the salary he was receiving for being an MP in conjunction with the reference to the fee his office received for the speech – thereby creating the misleading impression that the fee received was intended for his personal use, as was the salary. He also said that it was inaccurate to refer to Sberbank as a “newly sanctioned bank”, as it suggested that the bank had been newly sanctioned at the time the complainant had given the speech rather than in 2022. This information, in conjunction with the phrase “kerching”, he said, gave the inaccurate impression that he had received the money in a personal capacity.

10. The complainant also said that the first version of the article was inaccurate as it did not refer to the fact that he had “spoken out consistently against Mr Putin’s regime over recent years”. He then requested the immediate removal of the article.

11. The complainant also said that all versions of the article were inaccurate as they stated that he had been contacted for comment, with the first version of the article stating that “Unsurprisingly, the former PM did not respond to Steerpike’s request for comment”; he said that referring to the request in these terms gave the impression that he had intentionally avoided responding to a request for comment from the publication because he had no answer to give. He said that, in fact, he had been contacted by a self-described “freelance journalist”, emailing from a University email account, at 11pm the night prior to publication.  The email requested a response within 1 hour, and did not state why a comment was being sought and for what purpose; it also did not include any reference to the fact that a comment was being sought for publication in a newspaper or magazine, rather than for university work. The complainant provided the email, which said as follows:

I wanted to ask if you would be willing to give a statement about [a speech Mr Brown gave in 2012] and answer the following:

Why did Mr Brown speak at Russia's largest bank?

Why did Mr Brown receive £124, 494.99 fee he received for the 4 hour speech?

What was discussed in the speech? Does Mr Brown regret this now?

In the register of interests it states that this fee was “being held by the Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown for the employment of staff to support [his] ongoing involvement in public life.” Could you shed more light on what this means?

This is an incredibly fast turn around piece, and my deadline is within the next hour, so I would really appreciate it if you could get back to me as quickly as possible.

12. The complainant also provided a second, follow-up email from the freelance journalist; the follow-up email was sent two hours after the publication of the first version of the article, and was identical to the earlier email, with the exception of the sentence referring to the deadline for comment, which was altered to read:

This is an incredibly fast turn around piece, so I would really appreciate it if you could get back to me as quickly as possible.

13.  The publication said that it had invited a comment from the complainant’s office prior to publication, and that it had included a statement from 2012 in the article setting out the complainant’s position with regards to the fee received: “Brown wrote at the time that he ‘was not receiving any money from the engagement personally’ and that it was ‘being held by the Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown for the employment of staff to support [his] ongoing involvement in public life.’” It also said that the article was published more than 12 hours after the initial request for comment, which it considered to be ample time for a response to be provided. It also said that the reference to the bank being “newly sanctioned” clearly meant that the sanctions had been recently imposed, not that they were in place at the time of the complainant’s speech.

14.  The publication also disputed that the headline of the first version of the article breached Clause 1; it noted that the headline should be read in conjunction with the article, and that the article made clear that the complainant had said in 2012 that he was not receiving any money from the engagement personally and that it was being held by his office. It also noted that the office in question bore the complainant’s name and that he had significant control over it. Nevertheless, it amended the headline and the article in the manner set out above in paragraphs 5 through 7. It also said that it would be happy to add any comment the complainant may wish to make to the article.

15. The complainant said that he was not content with the amendments which had been made to the article, and considered that further inaccuracies had been introduced to the second version of the article. He flagged particular concerns over the following sentence: “An interesting question arises though as to which donations to politicians are legitimate and for what reason?” He said that this inaccurately implied that the fee received was a “donation”, similar to those given to political parties. He further said that the article’s reference to him “subsequently [speaking] out consistently against Putin’s regime over recent years” was inaccurate, as he had spoken out against the regime prior to 2012. He reiterated that he required the article to be removed, and for an apology to be published.

16. The publication, while not accepting that the article had breached the Code, made further amendments to the article as set out in paragraph 8. It also accepted that the word “unsurprisingly” should not have been used in relation to the publication not receiving a response from the complainant, but noted that the second version of the headline included a claim that was not in dispute: that the complainant’s office had received money from a Russian bank. It then noted that it was under no obligation to refer to comments the complainant had made against the Russian government prior to 2012, where it was not in dispute that – since that year – he had been a vocal critic of the regime, as reported in the article

17. The complainant said that the publication remained in breach even following the amendments, noting that it still referred to him having “received” money from the bank which, he stated, was inaccurate – the fee had been received by his office.

18. The publication said that it was “deeply chilling” that the complainant was seeking the removal of an article which, it said, was accurate and in the public interest. It also said that it was not in dispute that a Russian bank had paid an enormous fee to the complainant’s office, and that he had refused repeated requests to comment. It then noted that it could not be inaccurate to state that the publication had contacted the complainant for comment and that he had refused to give one, where he had been offered repeated chances to comment on the article post publication.

19. The publication then said that it had taken care over the accuracy of the article prior to publication: it had verified the House of Commons Register of Members’ Interests to verify that the complainant’s office had received the fee from the Russian bank; had confirmed that the bank had been sanctioned; had reached out to the complainant for comment; and the article had passed through its own team of fact-checkers after the freelance journalist had approached it with the story. It said that, should IPSO consider that the article required correction, the clarification published at the bottom of the piece two days after publication was a sufficient remedy to any alleged inaccuracy and that no apology to the complainant was required.

20. The complainant reiterated his position that an apology was merited, where the inaccuracies were: serious; had caused significant personal distress; and had caused serious harm to his reputation. To support his position on the latter point, the complainant provided tweets from members of the public, which he said demonstrated that readers had understood the article to mean that he had received money personally from the engagement. One tweet stated that “ACCORDING TO THE SPECTATOR EX LABOUR PRIME MINISTER AND FACE OF SCOTTISH LABOUR UNIONISM GORDON BROWN POCKETED £125,000 FROM A NOW SANCTIONED RUSSIAN STATE BANK (SERBANK) FOR PROMOTING RUSSIAN INTERESTS, BOUGHT AND SOLD FOR RUSSIAN STATE CASH”, while another asked “is this what hes spending his rubles on?”

Relevant Code Provisions

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

21. The Committee understood that the complainant strongly objected to the tone of the article and the language employed, including the reference to “Russian riches” and “Russian roubles”. It was not in dispute that the bank in question had paid a fee for a speech given by the complainant. The question for the Committee was whether the article claimed inaccurately that he had received the sum personally from the bank, rather than the correct position (as the publication accepted) that it was received by “The Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown”, or otherwise contained inaccurate or misleading claims about the exchange.

22. The Committee noted that the article did include references – for instance, the phrase “kerching” and the allusion to “Moscow skeletons” – which could be read as implying that the complainant had received the money in a personal capacity. However, it also noted that each version of the article made clear that the complainant “wrote at the time that he ‘was not receiving any money from the engagement personally’ and that it was ‘being held by the Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown for the employment of staff to support [his] ongoing involvement in public life.’” It was therefore satisfied that, reading each version of the article as a whole, the true position was made clear: that the money paid by the bank for the complainant’s speech had not been received in a personal capacity, and was held by the office of the complainant and his wife. It further noted that, while the complainant had expressed concerns that the headline was inaccurate, the article clarified what was meant by the headline’s reference to “Gordon Brown’s Russian riches”: the money exchanged for a speech delivered by the complainant, which was received by the office bearing his name.  The articles were, therefore, not inaccurate, misleading, or distorted on this point.

23. The complainant had said that the first version of the article was inaccurate as it did not refer to the fact that he had “spoken out consistently against Mr Putin’s regime over recent years”. The article was subsequently amended on this point to note that the complainant had “subsequently [spoken] out consistently against Putin’s regime over recent years”, which the complainant also considered to be inaccurate, where it did not account for the fact that he had spoken out against the regime prior to 2012 as well. The Committee noted that publications have the right to choose which pieces of information they publish, as long as this does not lead to a breach of the Code. It also noted that the phrasing which the complainant found objectionable – that “[t]he former PM has subsequently spoken out consistently against Putin’s regime over recent years” – had been taken directly from correspondence with the complainant’s representative, in which they had stated that he had “spoken out consistently against Mr Putin’s regime over recent years”. In this case, the Committee did not consider that omitting the complainant’s opposition to the regime from the first version of the article, and omitting the complainant’s pre-2012 opposition from subsequent versions of the article, rendered it inaccurate, misleading, or distorted. It considered this to be the case where the omitted information did not materially affect the accuracy of the article, which was that the complainant had delivered a speech to a since sanctioned Russian bank in exchange for payment of a fee to his office.

24. The correct position regarding the recipient of the money had been recorded by the complainant in the register of members’ interests and noted in his previous public statements, and this was repeated in the article; the complainant’s comment was not required to establish this point.  Therefore, while the Committee expressed concern over the nature of the request for comment by the freelance journalist – including its timing, the fact that the complainant was only given an hour to respond, the fact that the request did not make clear that comment was being sought for an article being published by spectator.co.uk, and the fact that the publication had published the article prior to the second approach being made – it noted that there was no stand-alone requirement for the publication to have contacted the complainant prior to publication, or to refer specifically to previous rulings or the complainant’s office’s website, except where this was necessary to fulfil a requirement to take care under Clause 1(i). The Committee had not established any inaccuracies in the article, and there was no failure to take care on this point.

25. Each version of the article referenced the complainant’s salary while he was an MP, which the complainant considered to be in breach of Clause 1 – as he believed that conflating his salary with the money paid by the bank gave the misleading impression that he had received the money in a personal capacity. The Committee reiterated that, read in their entireties, each version of the article made clear that the complainant had not received the money in a personal capacity. In addition, it noted that the accuracy of the reference to the salary itself was not in dispute. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

26. The original article had stated that, “[u]nsurprisingly, the former PM did not respond to Steerpike’s request for comment”, which the complainant considered to be inaccurate in circumstances where the request for comment had not been from the publication or someone who identified themselves as Steerpike. The Committee noted that the complainant had declined to provide a comment for publication, either prior to publication or post-publication – notwithstanding its concerns about the nature of this approach. It also noted that what one considers to be “unsurprising” is necessarily subjective, and that the publication was not making any claim of fact as to why the office had not responded to its requests for comment. Therefore, it did not consider the article to be significantly inaccurate on this point, and there was no breach of Clause 1.

27. The Committee did not consider that referring to Sberbank as a “newly sanctioned bank” was inaccurate, in circumstances where the same paragraph of the article made clear that “Sberbank, which is the largest financial institution in Russia, was yesterday sanctioned by the US Treasury department, as part of its punitive actions towards 13 Russian financial institutions to 'impair' the Kremlin and Russia’s economy in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine”.

28. The Committee did not find that any version of the article included significant inaccuracies or misleading information in need of correction. Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the steps the publication had taken to engage with the complainant’s concerns and provide additional clarity as to the nature of the payment.

Conclusion(s)

29. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

30. N/A


Date complaint received: 10/03/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 12/07/2022

Independent Complaints Reviewer

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.