Ruling

02819-18 Sivier v thesun.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      3rd January 2019

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of correction

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02819-18 Sivier v thesun.co.uk

Summary of complaint

1. Mike Sivier complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that thesun.co.uk breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “TOXIC POLITICS Labour welcomes banned radical accused of anti-Semitism and Militant leader back into the party”, published on 4 February 2018, and an article headlined “LABOUR COLLAPSE? Labour MP says party ‘will cease to exist’ unless it tackles its anti-Semitism problem after members re-admitted despite vile slurs” published on 5 February 2018.

2. The first article reported that documents seen by another publication had shown that Labour had “welcomed a Holocaust denier [the complainant] and leading member of a militant group back into the party”. It said that the complainant was being readmitted after he was “suspended for comments about Jews and antisemitism just last year”. The article said that the complainant “said that he was ‘not going to comment’ on whether millions died in the Holocaust as ‘I don’t know’ and that it was ‘not a big problem’ if Jews were taken off a list of Holocaust survivors”. It said that the complainant had “defended the suspended ex-London Mayor Ken Livingstone”, and explained that he had refused to attend a workshop on antisemitism which had been imposed as a condition of his readmission to the party. It also included a screenshot of an article in the other publication, which included the claims above, and also said that the complainant “said it ‘may be entirely justified’ to say Tony Blair had been ‘unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers’”.

3. The second article made identical claims about the complainant, but did not refer to a “Holocaust denier” being readmitted to the party.

4. The complainant said that the articles were inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), because they gave a misleading account of comments he had made on his website. He denied that he was a Holocaust denier and that he was antisemitic.

5. The complainant said that the comments the articles reported had been distorted by being removed from their context, and denied that they were anti-Semitic. A commenter on the 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 whether, or 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.

6. Similarly, in relation to the articles’ claim about the complainant’s views on Tony Blair, the complainant said that 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 considered that, without further context, it was impossible to analyse this claim, so 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”.

7. The publication denied any breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy), and disputed that the complainant’s comments had been taken out of context. It said that the complainant had been presented with a clearly offensive item – a pamphlet from the SWP which omitted Jews from a list of Holocaust victims, the number of which it put at thousands – and instead of condemning it, 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’”. The publication said that this was an appalling response to the SWP pamphlet, which indicated that the complainant did not consider that it was a “big problem” if Jews were omitted from the list; the article did not therefore give rise to any misleading impression of the complainant’s position.

8. Despite this, the publication offered to remove the paragraph referring to SWP pamphlet from the article, and to replace it with a direct quotation of the complainant’s comments. It also offered to publish the following footnote:

A previous version of this article reported that Mr Sivier had said it was ‘not a big problem’ if Jews were taken off a list of Holocaust survivors. While it is not in dispute that he failed to express concern about Jews being taken off the list, he has contacted us to say that he was in fact referring to anti-Semitism in the Labour Party as not being a ‘big problem’. The article also reported that he said he did not know ether thousands or millions of people died in the Holocaust; he assures this comment referred to him not knowing why the SWP had referred to thousands of victims on a pamphlet it had prepared, and that he accepts that around 17 million people died.

9. The publication removed the reference to a “Holocaust denier” from the first article as a gesture of goodwill; however, it did not consider that this was inaccurate. It said that Holocaust denial could take many forms, including disputing details as a means of minimising the events, as the complainant had done in respect of the SWP pamphlet; the complainant had also previously quoted and linked to the work of a Holocaust denier, and had written a book which defended Ken Livingstone, who had himself been accused of ‘softcore’ Holocaust denial.

10. The complainant denied that the article contained a reasonable interpretation of his comments. In reference to the claim regarding the number of Holocaust victims, his original comment had made clear, through the use of quotation marks, that he was referring to the use of the words in the leaflet, rather than to his own beliefs. The complainant disputed that he had engaged in any form of Holocaust denial; nor had he defended individuals who had engaged in antisemitism.

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

11. The article had reported claims about the complainant which had previously been published elsewhere, and had presented them in this light. However, the comments which the article reported on were publicly available, and the publication was responsible for reporting them accurately.

12. 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 complainant said that he had not intended to suggest that this was accurate, but that it might theoretically be accurate. However, his comment was accurately reported by the publication, and it was entitled to rely on the words the complainant had used. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

13. The complainant had not directly “said that he was ‘not going to comment’ on whether millions died in the Holocaust as ‘I don’t know’”. The publication may have inferred this meaning from the complainant’s comments, but it reported this as something he had said. The article did not make clear that it was reporting the publication’s interpretation of the complainant’s comments. 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, so a clarification was required to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

14. As set out above, the complainant had suggested that the omission of Jews from a list of Holocaust survivors in a leaflet may have been for “’politically correct’” reasons. However, he had not explicitly stated that omitting Jews from the list was “not a big problem”, 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). The article gave the misleading impression that the complainant had made a claim that he had not made, and because the publication did not provide any evidence to indicate that he had expressed the same view on this point elsewhere, the misleading impression was significant and required clarification to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

15. The first article had originally referred to the complainant as a “Holocaust denier”. The publication claimed that this characterisation was justified 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 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.

16. The footnote clarification offered addressed the inaccuracies identified in paragraphs 13 and 14, and made clear the complainant’s position with respect to these points. It was therefore sufficient to address these inaccuracies. However, the clarification did not make clear that these inaccurately-presented claims were the basis for the characterisation of the complainant as a “Holocaust denier”, a characterisation which the complainant disputed. The proposed clarification was therefore insufficient, and there was a breach of Clause 1(ii).

Conclusion

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

Remedial action required

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

19. The Committee considered that the appropriate remedy was the publication of a clarification which, in addition to making clear that the complainant’s comments had been inaccurately presented, indicated that these comments were the basis provided for the characterisation of the complainant as a “Holocaust denier”, and that he disputed this characterisation. The offered clarification had addressed the inaccuracies in relation to the comments; an adjudication was not therefore required. However, it had not linked these inaccuracies to the basis given for the characterisation of the complainant, resulting in a breach of Clause 1(ii).

20. The offered clarification also stated that ‘it is not in dispute that he failed to express concern about Jews being taken off the list’. The Committee did not consider that this information was pertinent to the purpose of the clarification: it did not seek to address any inaccuracy within the article. It therefore required that this reference be omitted from the published clarification. In these circumstances, and where the Committee had found a breach of Clause 1(ii) in relation to the offered clarification, the Committee suggested a wording for a clarification which would meet the terms of its ruling.

21. This correction should appear as a footnote to the original article and as a standalone correction on the publication’s homepage. It should state that it has been published following an upheld ruling by the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The full wording should be agreed with IPSO in advance.

Date complaint received: 04/04/2018

Date decision issued: 08/08/2018