Ruling

02352-18 Miah v Manchester Evening News

    • Date complaint received

      27th September 2018

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02352-18 Miah v Manchester Evening News   

Summary of complaint

1. Raja Miah complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Manchester Evening News breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, in an article headlined “School that cost millions could shut after 3 years”, published on 7 December 2017; an article headlined “MPs demand inquiry over failed academy”, published on 1 February 2017; and an article headlined “Shocking catalogue of failures at schools is laid bare”, published on 17 March 2018.

2. The first article reported that a free school was facing closure by the government due to a “catalogue of failures”. It reported that the school’s sister school had been closed earlier in 2017 in similar circumstances. The article stated that “an M.E.N. investigation revealed in January how both secondaries were being taken off their founder and chief executive, former charity boss [the complainant], after a string of controversies”. It described how both schools were “set up by former charity boss [the complainant]”, but had subsequently been placed in special measures and under new management; it went on to detail how the school had been given a “damning” Ofsted report. The print version of the article said that the publication had been unable to contact the complainant for comment, and included a picture of the complainant captioned with his name. The online version of the article – which was headlined “Experimental Manchester school which cost taxpayers millions to set up faces being shut down after just three years” – was largely similar. However, it also said that whistleblowers had alleged “questionable financial practices” at the schools “including payments to other firms at which [the complainant] was a director”. The online article said that the complainant “has insisted that the transactions were entirely within academy rules…and no financial wrongdoing has been found”. However, the print article, published two days later, stated that the publication “was unable to contact Mr Miah for comment”.

3. The second article reported that the school referred to in the first article would be closed after “being slammed for ‘far-reaching failures’”. It said that the school had been set up by the complainant in September 2014, and would close at the end of the summer term “due to ‘challenges’ relating to ‘performance, leadership and falling pupil numbers’”. The article described how “two companies at which [the complainant] was on the board…received more than £1m between them from the two schools for facilities management and other services such as ‘extra-curricular activities’”. It said that “while such ‘related party transactions’ are allowed under academy rules, the accounts do not show exactly how that money was spent and Ofsted’s criticisms of MCS included a lack of extra-curricular activities”. The article stated that the complainant, who was pictured and described as the school’s founder, had been contacted for comment. The article appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “Millions squandered, kids failed and now a second school shuts – but the government still won’t answer our questions about this ‘disastrous’ academy chain”.

4. The third article reported on the failings identified at the two schools, which it said were both set up by the complainant. It described a number of these failings in detail, and included accounts from former teachers and pupils. The online version of the article, in which the complainant was pictured, was headlined “Shocking catalogue of failure at the ‘hi-tech’ school that had one phone, no computer network and were £1m in debt before being shut down”. This version included additional accounts of individuals given in relation to the schools’ problems, and stated that the complainant “has been contacted for comment…as founder and former trustee, but has not so far done so”.

5.The complainant considered that, by including his name and photo repeatedly, the articles had unfairly singled him out in association with the schools and their problems, and suggested that he was responsible for their failings, including the claim that millions had been “squandered” on the schools, and a reference to a negative health and safety report. This was misleading because his formal involvement in the schools in an operational capacity had ceased in September 2015, and the work he was leading had ended in May 2016. After this date, he had continued to act as the CEO of the schools’ Multi Academy Trust, but he was not responsible for the management of the schools, each of which had its own governing body and principal; he held no accountable role in the schools. He also felt that the articles were inaccurate to state that he had “set up” the schools, and that he was their “founder”; in fact, he was a single member of the teams that set up the schools, and several of the founders remained as Directors after his involvement had ceased. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate for the first article to state that the schools had been “taken off” him: he had already resigned from the boards of both schools some time prior to this – so the schools had been ‘taken off’ someone else.

6. The complainant said that the second article’s reference to Ofsted criticising the provision of extra-curricular activities at the schools was misleading: the companies on whose boards he served, which had received money from the schools for these activities, were not delivering them at the time of the Ofsted report.

7. The complainant also said that the online version of the first article was inaccurate to state that he had “insisted” that the payments to his companies were permitted; in fact, he had not given any such comment, and the print version of the article had stated that the publication had been unable to contact him for comment. The complainant said that the second article inaccurately stated that he had been contacted for comment; this was a distortion, because he had been contacted via Twitter with a series of complex questions only 4 hours before the article went online.

8. The publication said that the complainant had been the public face of the schools: he had described himself as a founder; had referred to ‘his’ aim to start a free school in previous articles; and he had actively promoted the schools on social media and spoken on their behalf. In addition, he had been the Chief Executive of the schools for much of the time they were open, including after problems had become evident. The publication said that previously-published articles had referred to the complainant as the founder and Director of the schools, without attracting complaint. With respect to the complainant’s assertion that his involvement in the schools ceased in September 2015, the publication said that the government had issued a financial notice to improve to both schools in July 2016, copying in him as the CEO; the complainant had also written to parents in the summer of 2016 setting out the Trust’s response to one of the schools being placed in Special Measures. This indicated that he remained the most senior officer at the schools subsequent to the failures coming to light. The publication also provided minutes of a meeting of the Directors of the schools’ trust in January 2017, which stated that a letter had been sent by the Regional Schools’ Commissioner to the complainant on 20 January setting out the process for transferring the schools to a different Trust; it also stated that the Directors had nominated the complainant and another individual to be its sole representatives in this process. It said that the complainant was the only founder of the school still involved at this point. For these reasons, the publication denied that it was misleading to refer to him having ”set up” the schools, and to state that they had been “taken off” him.

9. The publication said that the second article had not stated that Ofsted had criticised the two companies for the services they delivered to the school. The school had been criticised for a lack of extra-curricular activities, and such activities had been provided by the complainant’s companies during the time the school was open, in 2014-15. Stating these two facts did not meant that the article gave the misleading impression that the companies had been criticised by Ofsted.

10. The publication said that, in respect of the first article’s claim that “Mr Miah has insisted that the transactions were entirely within academy rules”, it had addressed an email for the attention of the complainant and another individual, and had assumed that the response received had come from him, given his position within the schools. It offered to publish the following clarification to the online article to make clear that the complainant had not been involved in this response:

In reference to whistleblowers alleging questionable practices in the chain, a previous version of this article attributed comments to Mr Miah following a response to an email addressed for the attention of himself and another person. The article suggested that Mr Miah insisted that the transactions were entirely within academy rules, which allow services to be provided at cost by related parties. We are happy to make known that Mr Miah has since informed that he had no involvement in this response.

With respect to the second article’s claim that the complainant had been contacted for comment, the publication said that its journalist had sent the complainant a message on Twitter asking for comment, which had been read within minutes. It did not consider, in this context, that a 4-hour window for a response was unreasonable.

11. The complainant denied that the minutes provided by the publication indicated that the schools had been “taken off” him; the minutes showed that the decision to transfer the schools had been agreed by the governing bodies of the school. There was nothing to suggest that he was aware of, or had agreed to undertake, the task the minutes recorded him having been delegated. He said he held no legal position in the schools, so there was no possibility of them being “taken off” him; the minutes clearly indicated that decision-making responsibilities lay with other individuals. In addition, the minutes showed that several of the founders of the schools were still involved as Directors in 2017, contrary to the publication’s claims.

Relevant Code provisions

12. 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

13. The articles had undoubtedly focused on the complainant’s role in the schools. However, publications are entitled to select which pieces of information to include in articles, and which individuals to focus on, provided a misleading impression is not created. The complainant had been involved in the founding of the school and had been a public face of the schools from the outset, regardless of the involvement of other individuals; he had also acted as a representative of the school in various settings. In these circumstances, regardless of the involvement of other individuals, there was no failure to take care over the claim that he had “set up” the schools, in breach of Clause 1(i), and no misleading impression was created that required correction under Clause 1(ii).

14. The publication provided evidence that suggested that the Regional Schools Commissioner had written to the complainant in January 2017 informing him of her intention that the schools be transferred to other Trusts. The Board of Directors of the Trust had then delegated to the complainant the responsibility for negotiating this process. Regardless of the complainant’s formal role in the Trust at this point, it was not misleading to state that the schools were “taken off” him at this juncture, when he was the individual who appeared to have been contacted by the Commissioner with this information. Because it was able to provide minutes to support this claim, the publication had not failed to take care over this information in breach of Clause 1(i), and there was no misleading impression given that required correction under Clause 1(ii).

15. The complainant did not dispute that he had remained Chief Executive of the schools’ Trust after problems at the schools came to light, and after one of the schools was placed in Special Measures; whether or not he was ‘operationally’ involved in the running of the schools was irrelevant when he continued to act on the school’s behalf up until January 2017. As a senior figure in the schools, he was implicated in their failings, and the fact that other individuals were also involved did not mean that he was not implicated. Including his image and linking his name to the schools did not give rise to a misleading impression of his role in their failings such as would require correction under Clause 1(ii). Further, using his image in the articles, and stating that he had “set up” the schools, did not suggest that he was responsible for all and any ongoing problems at the schools – such as the “squandered” money and the health and safety report - and the articles did not make this claim.

16. The second article had stated that companies the complainant was involved in had received money from the school for providing extra-curricular activities; this was not in dispute, and the article made clear that this was not in breach of the rules. The article went on to state that Ofsted had criticised extra-curricular provision in a report of an inspection which took place after the companies ceased providing these activities. The Committee acknowledged that there was a potential ambiguity in the wording of this passage. However, the article did not state that the complainant’s companies – which were not named in the article – were responsible for the criticised provision. There was no failure to take care over this information, in breach of Clause 1(i), and no misleading impression requiring correction under Clause 1(ii).

17. The second article had stated that the complainant had been contacted for comment. The complainant had been in receipt of a series of questions, and had several hours to provide any comments. It was not misleading to state that the complainant had been contacted for comment, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. The first online article had stated that the complainant “has insisted that the transactions were entirely within academy rules”. The publication had obtained this quotation from an unsigned email in response to one sent for the attention of the complainant and another individual. Given that the some of the questions the publication asked had related to the actions of the complainant’s companies, and the response it received had been in defence of the actions of those companies, the publication’s assumption that this response had come from the complainant did not represent a failure to take care. There was no breach of Clause 1(i). Nevertheless, attributing the statement to the complainant represented a significant inaccuracy which required correction to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). The publication had offered such a clarification; this was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii), and should now be published.

Conclusions

19. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

20.  N/A

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.

Date complaint received: 16/03/2018

Date decision issued: 19/07/2018