Ruling

02821-18 Sivier v Mail Online

    • Date complaint received

      26th July 2018

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 02821-18 Sivier v Mail Online

Summary of complaint

1. Mike Sivier complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Mail Online breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Journalist accused of anti-Semitism and ex Militant member among the far-left activists who have been let back into Labour after Corbynistas tightened their grip on the party”, published on 4 February 2018.

2. The article reported on “secret documents” seen by a different publication, which showed that the Labour Party had allowed “far left activists” back into the party. It said that the complainant was being given back his membership after being “expelled…over claims he had posted anti-Semitic abuse online”. The article said that the complainant “reportedly said it ‘may be entirely justified’ to say Tony Blair had been ‘unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers’”, and that he also “said he was ‘not pretending it was a big problem’ if Jews were omitted from a list of Holocaust survivors”. It went on to say that, according to the other publication, the complainant “claimed ‘I’m not going to comment’ on whether thousands or millions of Jews died in the Holocaust as ‘I don’t know’”.

3. The complainant said that he had not been “expelled” from the Labour Party: he had been suspended while an investigation was carried out into allegations that he had posted material which might be interpreted as anti-Semitic - not for posting “abuse”. He 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 said that, without further context, it was impossible to analyse this claim; 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. The complainant said that the other comments 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 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 denied that the use of the word “expelled” was significantly misleading; the article did not suggest that the complainant had been permanently removed from the party, as its entire premise was that he and others had been readmitted. It nevertheless removed this word from the article and substituted the word “suspended” in its place. It also denied that the term “abuse” was misleading since the allegations related to the posting of content which might be interpreted as anti-Semitic. In addition, the publication said that it had accurately reported the complainant’s comments in relation to the “cabal of Jewish advisers”.

6. The publication said that the article was entirely accurate in reporting the complainant’s other comments; the interpretation that had been made of the comments was reasonable. It acknowledged that the complainant may have a different interpretation of the comments, and offered to publish a footnote clarification as follows:

Since first publication Mr Sivier has contacted us and asked us to point out that his refusal to comment on the issue of why the SWP flyer referred to “thousands” rather than “millions” was a reference to the choice of wording by the SWP on their flyer and not a reference to the number of victims of the Holocaust. He also says that the reference to there not being a “big problem” was directed to the general issue of anti-Semitism on the left and not the specific issue of omitting Jews from the list of Holocaust survivors. Mr Sivier denies making any comments that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic and we are happy to make his position clear.

It also offered to publish a standalone clarification on its website as follows:

An article on 4 February entitled “Journalist accused of anti-Semitism and an ex Militant member among the far-left activists who have been let back into Labour after Corbynistas tightened their grip on the party” reported on allegedly anti-Semitic comments made by mike Sivier. We now understand that Mr Sivier denies that these comments could be interpreted as anti-Semitic and we are happy make his position clear.

7. 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 commenter had said that the complainant was “defending the indefensible, and pretending that there isn’t a problem” with anti-Semitism on the Left, and it was in response to this that he had said “I’m not pretending there isn’t a problem, though. I’m simply not pretending it’s a big problem”.

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

8. The Committee noted that 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.

9. The article had originally stated that the complainant had been “expelled” by the party. The Committee acknowledged that, read alone, this might suggest that he had been permanently barred. However, the sub-headline indicated that he had been ‘suspended’, and the article made clear that he was eligible to be readmitted; indeed, this was the premise of the article. In these circumstances, stating that he had been “expelled” was not significantly misleading, and there was no failure to take care over this claim. Similarly, it was not misleading for the article to say that the complainant had been expelled “over claims” of “abuse”: the suspension had related to allegations of anti-Semitic comments made online, which the publication was entitled to characterise as “abuse” when the basis for this was made clear. In addition, the newspaper had not stated as fact that he had in fact engaged in “abuse”, but had stated that he was suspended “over claims” of such behaviour. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

10. 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.” This 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.

11. 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 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; they were presented as direct quotations. 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).

12. 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 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, this 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 made, it required clarification to avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii).

13. The footnote clarification addressed the two inaccuracies 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 avoid a breach of Clause 1(ii). The Committee welcomed the offer of a standalone clarification; however, the footnote correction was sufficient to address the inaccuracies in the article, and the Committee did not require a standalone correction in this instance.

Conclusions

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

Remedial action required

15. The publication had offered a footnote clarification which set out the complainant’s position in relation to his comments. This clarification addressed the inaccuracies within the article, and was sufficient to meet the terms of Clause 1(ii). It should now be published.

Date complaint received: 04/04/2018

Date decision issued: 29/06/2018