Ruling

02818-18 Sivier v The Sunday Times

    • Date complaint received

      10th January 2019

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 02818-18 Sivier v The Sunday Times

Summary of Complaint 

1.   Mike Sivier 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 “Labour welcomes back banned activists and Holocaust denier”, published on 4 February 2018. 

2.  The article reported that individuals including a “Holocaust denier” had been readmitted to the Labour Party following suspensions. It said that the complainant had been suspended from the party for comments about Jews and Zionism. The article said that he “said it ‘may be entirely justified’ to say Tony Blair had been ‘unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers’”. It said that “he also said he was ‘not pretending it was a big problem’ if Jews were omitted from a list of Holocaust survivors, and claimed ‘I’m not going to comment’ on whether thousands or millions of Jews died in the Holocaust as ‘I don’t know’”. The article went on to describe how the complainant had been readmitted on the condition that he attended a workshop on anti-Semitism. It included the complainant’s position that he would not be accepting readmission to the party on these terms. 

3.   The complainant said that the article distorted comments he had made on his website to create the misleading impression that they were anti-Semitic. In fact, another commenter on his website had stated that a Labour politician had said that Tony Blair was “unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers”. He said that, without further context, it was impossible to analyse this claim; consequently, he had replied saying “I would point out that (without further information) concerns that Tony Blair was being ‘unduly influenced’ by a ‘cabal of Jewish advisers’ may have been entirely justified”. 

4.    In relation to other claims in the article, the complainant disputed that he was a “Holocaust denier”. He said that a commenter on his website had been listing incidents of anti-Semitism on the Left, and had referred to a leaflet which he said omitted Jews from a list of Holocaust survivors, and put the number of deaths from the Holocaust at thousands, rather than millions. The complainant denied having said that he didn’t know whether thousands or millions of Jews died in the Holocaust. Rather, in response to a comment about the leaflet, he had said “I’m not going to comment on ‘thousands’ instead of ‘millions’ because I don’t know, but the Nazi holocaust involved many other groups as well as Jews, and it seems likely that the SWP was simply being ‘politically correct’”. He said he was referring to not knowing why the leaflet made this claim, rather than to not knowing the number of Jews who died. He had gone on to say “Nobody has said anti-Semitism on the left doesn’t exist…But it isn’t organised and is mostly the work of aberrant individuals”. The commenter had then accused the complainant of “pretending that there isn’t a problem”. The complainant had replied “I’m not pretending there isn’t a problem, I’m just not pretending it’s a big problem”. His comment that he was “not pretending it was a big problem” had been referring to the problem of anti-Semitism on the Left in general, and not to the omission of Jews from the list. 

5.    The publication said that the article had accurately quoted the complainant as saying, on a comment thread on his website, that it “may be entirely justified” to say that Tony Blair was controlled by a “cabal of Jewish activists”; it was not obliged to include the complainant’s explanation of this position. The publication accepted that the complainant’s comment that he was “not pretending it’s a big problem” was referring to the problem of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party generally, and not to the omission of Jews from a list of Holocaust victims. However, this was not a significant inaccuracy when the complainant had sought to defend the leaflet’s omission of Jews by saying it was “likely that the SWP was simply being ‘politically correct’” by omitting Jews from the list. It said that, in response to a criticism of the SWP saying there were ‘thousands’ instead of ‘millions’ of victims of the Holocaust, the complainant had said “I’m not going to comment” as “I don’t know”; therefore, he had not been misquoted, and no relevant context had been removed. While he had since clarified what he meant, this is not what he wrote; he had not questioned the numbers at all, and had sought to portray the SWP leaflet as reasonable, and not anti-Semitic. 

6.    The publication denied that the article’s reference to a “Holocaust denier” had been part of the complainant’s complaint. It said that the article did not explicitly refer to the complainant in this way. In any event, it said it would not have been misleading to describe the complainant in this way, given that he had expressed support for individuals expelled from the Labour Party over antisemitism; had suggested that Tony Blair had been influenced by a “cabal of Jewish advisers”; had defended the omission of Jews from a list of Holocaust victims; had been required – but refused - to attend a workshop on antisemitism; and had written and published a cartoon series which it said appeared to glorify Hitler and the Holocaust. 

7.    As a gesture of goodwill, the publication offered to amend the paragraph in question to state “He also said he was ‘not pretending it [anti-Semitism in the Labour Party] was a big problem’. Referring to a political leaflet which omitted Jews from a list of Holocaust victims, the number of which it put at thousands instead [of] millions, he said ‘I’m not going to comment on “thousands” instead of “millions” because I don’t know, but the Nazi holocaust involved many other groups as well as Jews, and it seems likely that [the leaflet] was simply being “politically correct”’”. It also offered to publish a footnote to the article reading: 

This article was amended on [date] to clarify Mr Sivier’s views on a political leaflet which omitted Jews from a list of Holocaust victims, the number of which it put at thousands instead of millions. 

8.    The complainant said that it was clear that the reference to a “Holocaust denier” had been directed at him, and that his complaint as a whole had centred on the publication’s characterisation of his views on the Holocaust. He disputed the publication’s basis for stating that it would not be misleading to describe him as a “Holocaust denier”; in fact, the cartoon referred to was ridiculing Hitler, and he had condemned a number of individuals within the Labour Party for antisemitism. 

Relevant Code Provisions 

9. 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 

9.    In response to a commenter referring to comments by a Labour politician stating that Tony Blair was “unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers”, the complainant had written “(without further information) concerns that Tony Blair was being ‘unduly influenced’ by ‘a cabal of Jewish advisors’ may have been entirely justified.” The article did not give a misleading impression of the substance of this comment, and the publication was entitled to rely on the words the complainant had used, which it had not presented in a misleading manner. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.  

10. The complainant had not directly said that he was “’not going to comment’ on whether thousands or millions of Jews died in the Holocaust as ‘I don’t know’”. There was no reference in the discussion surrounding the leaflet to “whether thousands or millions of Jews died in the Holocaust”, because the leaflet had explicitly not referred to Jews among the victims of the Holocaust; the discussion had centred on the reasons for the omission of Jews from the list, which the complainant had said may have been for ‘politically correct’ reasons, but there was no discussion of the number of Jews who had died. The publication was entitled to give its own interpretation of what the complainant had meant by his comments. However, the article did not make clear that it was reporting the publication’s interpretation of the complainant’s comments - they were presented as direct comments in relation to specific claims, when in fact separate comments had been juxtaposed. Because the comment thread was publicly available, this represented a failure to take care, in breach of Clause 1(i). The article gave the impression that the complainant had said something which he had not, on a subject liable to cause widespread offence. In these circumstances, a clarification was required to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). The publication had offered to amend its article to include the complainant’s words, and to append a footnote explaining that the article had been amended, but had not offered any correction or clarification identifying and addressing this inaccuracy; Clause 1(ii) had been breached.

11. As set out above, the complainant had suggested that omitting Jews from a list of Holocaust survivors in a leaflet may have been for “’politically correct’” reasons. However, he had not explicitly stated that he was “‘not pretending it was a big problem’ if Jews were omitted from a list of Holocaust survivors”, as the article said. Claiming that the complainant had said this, when his comments were publicly available, represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, in breach of Clause 1(i). Because the article gave the misleading impression that the complainant had made a claim that he had not explicitly made, on a controversial subject, it required clarification to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). The publication had offered to amend its article to include the complainant’s words, and to add a footnote stating that the article had been amended, and the Committee welcomed this offer, which went some way to address the misleading impression given. However, the publication had not offered any correction or clarification identifying and addressing this inaccuracy; Clause 1(ii) had been breached.

12. The Committee considered that the question of whether the complainant was a “Holocaust denier” had formed part of his complaint, as set out in his correspondence with the publication prior to contacting IPSO, where he questioned whether he was the “Holocaust denier” the article had referred to. The fact that the publication did not respond to his question in relation to this point did not mean that he had not raised a concern in relation to it, and it was legitimate for the Committee to consider this matter. It was clear that this characterisation referred to the complainant: the headline had referred to “banned activists and [a] Holocaust denier” being welcomed back into the Labour Party, and it was clear that the other individuals referred to were members of “’proscribed’” groups. The complainant was the only individual named in reference to any claims around the Holocaust. The publication claimed that this characterisation was not misleading based on the complainant’s expressed views and actions. However, the sole basis provided for this characterisation within the article itself was the complainant’s comments on his website. The Committee found, above, that the publication had failed to take care over the presentation of these comments, creating the misleading impression that the complainant had made statements which he had not. The Committee considered that there was a consequent failure to take care over the basis provided for the claim that the complainant was a “Holocaust denier”, in breach of Clause 1(i). The Committee acknowledged the publication’s position that further material, not mentioned in the article, supported the characterisation. However, the Committee did not consider that the publication had provided a sufficient basis for asserting that the complainant was a “Holocaust denier”, either in the article, or in the evidence subsequently submitted for the Committee’s consideration. The Committee was not in a position to determine whether or not the complainant was in fact a “Holocaust denier”; however, it did not consider that the publication had provided a basis for this characterisation, and, in order to avoid any breach of Clause 1(ii), a clarification was required to indicate that the basis provided for the characterisation in the article had been presented in a misleading manner, and to put on record the complainant’s position that he did not deny the Holocaust. No such clarification had been offered, and Clause 1(ii) had been breached.

Conclusions 

13. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i) and Clause 1(ii).

Remedial action required 

14. Having upheld the complaint under Clause 1, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

15.  The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a correction which made clear the complainant’s position, in relation to the two identified breaches of Clause 1, and indicated that these claims had formed the basis for the characterisation of the complainant as a Holocaust denier – a characterisation the complainant denied. An adjudication was not an appropriate remedy in circumstances where the complainant’s comments were open to interpretation: the breach identified by the Committee related to the misleading presentation of the comments, rather than to whether the publication had misinterpreted them.

16. This correction should appear as a footnote to the online article, as a standalone correction on the publication’s online homepage, and in its corrections and clarifications column in its print edition. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

Date complaint received: 04/04/2018

Date decision issued: 29/08/2018