Ruling

02436-16 Jukes v The Sunday Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      8th September 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02436-16 Jukes v The Sunday Telegraph

Summary of complaint

1. Peter Jukes complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “The truth about Whittingdale, the prostitute and the ‘cover up’”, published on 17 April 2016.

2. The article followed media reports that Culture Secretary John Whittingdale had had a relationship with a sex worker. It made a number of claims about Byline.com, the site that had first reported the story, and the complainant, referred to in the article as the site’s “manager”. The article reported details about the site’s funding, noting that, while the complainant claimed the site was “crowdfunded” by donations from readers, Companies House showed that it was largely funded by three billionaires, and that it had also been funded by a named well known individual. The article also claimed that the site, and the complainant, had links to “controversial campaign group Hacked Off”.

3. The online article was the same as the print version.

4. The complainant expressed concern that the newspaper had not contacted him, or Byline.com, prior to publication. He said that, as a result of this, the article included a number of inaccuracies.

5. The complainant said that the article had misrepresented the way in which Byline.com was funded. He said that any donations from readers were made to individual journalists, to fund specific stories, and not to the site itself. The site generally collected 15% of these donations towards running costs. However, at the time that the well known individual had donated to a journalist, all fees were waived, and so his donation had not contributed to running costs.  The complainant said that he had not claimed that the site was “crowdfunded”, as reported; rather, he had claimed that individual journalists were financed via crowdfunding. The complainant said it was misleading for the article to suggest that the three main funders of the site had been “revealed”; the information was available via Companies House.

6. The complainant said it was inaccurate to describe him as the “manager” of Byline.com. Rather he had previously advised the site on crowdfunding, and now had the role of “co-curator”. He also denied the article’s claim that he had been “paid” by Hacked Off; he had once received an unsolicited donation from the group via a crowdfunding platform, but had never been hired or employed by them.

7. The complainant said that all journalists published by Byline.com were entitled to present their own interpretation of events reported, and the site did not take an editorial line. It was therefore misleading for the article to suggest that Byline.com had changed its position on the Whittingdale story in stating that the site “later admitted” that Mr Whittingdale’s former partner’s alleged connections to the criminal underworld were “as yet unsubstantiated”.  The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report that “Byline worked alongside Hacked Off to promote the story to the BBC and other outlets”. Furthermore, Jae-woong Lee, a South Korean billionaire who funded Byline.com, was not the father of the site’s founder Seung-yoon Lee as reported.

8. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to report that Byline.com shared a number of journalists with “investigative site Exaro”; only one contributor had written for both sites. Nor had Byline.com promoted claims of a “’Westminster child sex abuse ring’ involving prominent establishment figures” as reported.

9. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate to report that one of the founders of Byline.com, “wrote regularly” for another named site; the site had “pirated” the articles from other sources.

10. The newspaper noted that there was no obligation to seek comment from the subjects of news stories prior to publication. The majority of information in the article had come from sources in the public domain. The journalist had been told by a source close to Byline.com that Jae-woong Lee and Seung-yoon Lee were related. He trusted that the source was in a position to know this information, and so had not verified the claim with the site. The newspaper did not accept that this was a significant inaccuracy, given that the relationship was only introduced parenthetically, in the context of an article setting out the main backers of Byline.com. Nonetheless, it had removed the reference to the relationship from the article as a gesture of goodwill and offered to publish the following footnote:

CORRECTION: As first published, this article wrongly stated that Jae-Woong Lee, a funder of byline.com, is the father of the site's founder Seung-yoon Lee. In fact, the two men are unrelated. We are happy to make this clear, and the article has been amended accordingly.

It also offered to publish the following correction in print, in its Corrections and Clarifications column:

An article of 17 April wrongly stated that Jae-Woong Lee, a funder of byline.com, is the father of the site's founder Seung-yoon Lee. In fact, the two men are unrelated. We are happy to make this clear.

11. The newspaper did not accept that the article included any other inaccuracies. The LinkedIn page of the site’s founder referred to the complainant as its manager. Furthermore, the newspaper did not consider any discrepancy between “manager” and “co-curator” to be significant. The newspaper noted that the complainant had confirmed that he had received money from Hacked Off, and that the named well known individual had contributed to Byline.com, in funding one story. The newspaper noted that between the publication of the first article on Byline.com about John Whittingdale and the reporting of the story by the BBC, Byline.com ran four more articles on the matter, and retweeted individuals with links to Hacked Off, asking when the BBC would act. Hacked Off issued a press release referring readers to the Byline.com piece. It was not therefore inaccurate to report that the site had worked alongside Hacked Off to promote the story to the BBC.

12. The newspaper noted that Byline.com had published an article on 1 April, in which it reported that “while [Mr Whittingdale’s former partner] was involved with Whittingdale, [she] was also involved in a relationship with a member of the London underworld”.  A further article appeared on the site on 10 April, which noted that rumours that the woman had connections to the criminal underworld were “as yet unsubstantiated”.

13. The newspaper provided articles published on Byline.com which appeared to defend the investigation into the alleged “Westminster child sex abuse ring”, it noted that at least three Byline.com writers, including the complainant, had contributed to Exaro, and that the complainant had written at least two articles for the site.

14. The newspaper noted that the founder’s articles remained published on the named site, and had not been removed.

Relevant Code provisions

15. Clause 1 (Accuracy)

(i)The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.

(ii)A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.

Findings of the Committee

16. Clause 1 requires that care is taken to avoid the publication of significant inaccuracies; this may include by seeking comment from the subjects of a story. However, provided that the requirements of 1 (i) are otherwise met, the Code does not impose an absolute obligation to do so.

17. The claim that one of the site’s funders was the father of the site’s founder was inaccurate, and the Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer of correction. However, this was a brief reference which was not central to the story, and did not affect the overall thrust of the piece. It was not therefore a significant inaccuracy in breach of Clause 1.

18. The Committee did not accept the rigid distinction that the complainant sought to draw between funding for the site’s infrastructure and funding for the content. It did not therefore consider that it was misleading to characterise funding provided to individual journalists to provide specific content for Byline.com as funding for the site. It was not therefore misleading for the article to report that the notable donor had “funded” the site, nor that the complainant has claimed that the site was “crowdfunded”. The article had not suggested that details of the site’s funders were hidden, rather it sought to criticise the complainant for claiming the source of the funding was “crowdsourcing” where in fact the site also received money from wealthy donors.

19. The Committee did not consider that any discrepancy between the role of “co-curator” and “manager” was significant. There was no breach of the Code on this point. The complainant had acknowledged that he had previously received money from Hacked Off. The article had not claimed that he had been employed by the group, and it was not inaccurate to report that he had “been paid by” them, even though he had also received money from others.

20. The Committee noted the complainant’s position that Byline.com did not take single editorial approaches to any one issue. However, the site had published an article which claimed that Mr Whittingdale’s former partner had links to the criminal underworld and had later published a second article noting that these claims were “as yet unsubstantiated”. The newspaper was entitled to characterise the differing approaches of these articles in the way that it did.

21. The newspaper had provided examples of articles published by Byline.com, supporting the theory that there was a “Westminster sex abuse” ring, and at least three journalists who had written for the site also had profiles at Exaro. It was not therefore misleading for the article to report that the site had “promoted and defended” the sex abuse theory, and that it shared a number of journalists with Exaro.

22. Byline.com had followed up its first story about Mr Whittingdale’s relationship with a number of other articles on the subject. Hacked Off had published a blog post, questioning why the story had not previously been reported by the mainstream media. This post had been promoted on Twitter by representatives of Hacked Off and by Byline.com. The newspaper had not suggested that there was evidence of collaboration between the two, but had noted that they were working in parallel to achieve a shared aim. Given that the objective of both groups was to ensure that the story was published more widely, it was not significantly misleading for the newspaper to characterise Byline.com as “working alongside” Hacked Off “to promote the story to the BBC and other outlets”.

23. In circumstances where the founder’s work appeared regularly on the named site, the newspaper was entitled to report that he “wrote” for the site. In the absence of a direct complaint from the founder, the Committee was unable to establish whether or not he had consented to publication.

Conclusions

24. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 18/04/2016
Date decision issued: 10/08/2016