Ruling

02820-18 Sivier v express.co.uk

    • Date complaint received

      3rd January 2019

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02820-18 Sivier v express.co.uk

Summary of complaint

1. Mike Sivier complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that express.co.uk breached Clause 1(Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Holocaust denier and hard-leftists READMITTED into Labour Party ranks after NEC takeover”, published on 5 February 2018.

2. The article reported that individuals had been readmitted to the Labour Party following suspensions. The article said that the complainant was one such individual, and that he had “said it ‘may be entirely justified’ to say Tony Blair had been ‘unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers’”. It said that “he said he was ‘not pretending it was a big problem’ if Jews were omitted from a list of Holocaust survivors, claiming ‘I’m not going to comment’ on whether thousands or millions died in the Holocaust as ‘I don’t know’”. The article said that the complainant “also wrote a book defending Ken Livingstone’s claims about Hitler and Zionism”, and 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 the publication’s presentation of his comments. 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 complainant also said that the reference to his book about Ken Livingstone was misleading; it suggested that writing such a book was wrong, when in fact the book made clear why Mr Livingstone’s comments about Hitler and Zionism were accurate. He also said that omitting the reasons for him not attending the workshop on antisemitism – that it would be an admission of guilt – made the article misleading.

6. The publication denied that the article was inaccurate. It said that it had relied on the complainant’s own words in describing his comments on his website. It denied that omitting reference to the complainant’s reasons for refusing to attend the workshop was misleading. Nevertheless, as a gesture of goodwill, the publication offered to publish an extensive explanation from the complainant – in his own words - setting out his position on the points raised in the article. It said that this would be published separately to the original article, with the headline ‘Mike Sivier’s Right of Reply’, and would begin as follows:

“On 4 February 2018 we published an article headlined ‘Holocaust denier and hard-leftists READMITTED into Labour Party ranks after NEC takeover’. Below is Mr Sivier’s right of reply to that article”.

The publication said that the original article would be amended to include a stand first below the headline reading “Mike Sivier has been given a right of reply to this article. To read that reply follow this link”. This would link to the extensive explanation in the complainant’s own words. The publication said that this ‘right of reply’ was significantly longer than the original article, and gave the complainant the opportunity to respond in full, and unabridged, to the allegations made.

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

7. 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 presentation of this comment was not misleading, and the publication was entitled to rely on the words the complainant had used. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

8. The complainant did not dispute that he had written a book defending Ken Livingstone’s comments about Hitler and Zionism. In these circumstances, omitting the complainant’s view that the book was accurate was not misleading. Similarly, it was not misleading to omit the complainant’s reasons for deciding not to participate in the antisemitism workshop. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

9. The complainant had not directly said that he was “’not going to comment’ on whether thousands or millions died in the Holocaust as ‘I don’t know’”. 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 quotations, when this was not the case. 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; a clarification was required to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). The publication had offered to publish an extensive ‘right of reply’ in response to the claims made in the article. A right of reply, rather than a correction, may not always be sufficient to meet the terms of 1(ii). However, in this instance, the inaccuracy had resulted from a misinterpretation of the complainant’s comments; in these circumstances, giving the complainant a fulsome opportunity to defend his comments and explain their full meaning was appropriate. The publication had offered to publish this ‘right to reply’ in a standalone format, as well as linked to the original article. This remedy was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii), and there was no further breach of the Code on this point.

10. Similarly, the complainant 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’s offered ‘right of reply’ gave the complainant’s views on this subject in such a way that addressed the misleading impression created, and it had offered to publish this in a standalone format, as well as linked to the original article. This was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii), and there was no further breach of the Code on this point.

Conclusion

11. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial action required

12. The publication had offered to publish an extensive ‘right of reply’ in which the complainant set out his position on all aspects of the complaint. This was considerably longer than the original article, and provided a detailed commentary on the complainant’s views. This had been offered with sufficient prominence, and was adequate to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii). However, the complainant did not wish for his words to be published in this way, and, given the nature of the remedial action offered, it would be inappropriate for the Committee to insist on its publication. In response to these concerns, the publication offered to publish the following clarification:

Mr Sivier has contacted us to point out that his statement “I’m not going to comment” had been made in reference to not knowing whether the SWP had referred to “thousands” rather than “millions” of Holocaust victims on a flyer, and was not a reference to his own beliefs about the number of victims of the Holocaust. He also says that his reference to there not being a “big problem” was made in relation to the general issue of anti-Semitism on the left and not in reference to the specific issue of omitting Jews from the list of Holocaust survivors, as the SWP was alleged to have done on the flyer. Mr Sivier denies making any comments that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic and we are happy to make this position clear.

13. The footnote clarification offered addressed the inaccurate presentation of the complainant’s comments which the Committee had identified in the article, and made clear the complainant’s position with respect to these two points. It was therefore sufficient to address the inaccuracy, and had been offered with sufficient prominence. It should now be published.

Date complaint received: 04/04/2018

Date decision issued: 29/08/2018