Ruling

04036-15 Solash v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      12th January 2016

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: publication of adjudication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

·       Decision of the Complaints Committee 04036-15 Solash v The Times

Summary of complaint 

1. Richard Solash, Director of Communications of the Parliamentary Assembly for the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE PA) acting on behalf of OSCE PA Secretary General Spencer Oliver complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Opportunity for reply) in an article headlined “Fifa isn’t the only fiefdom to cast its shadow”, published on 1 June 2015. 

2. The article was an opinion piece in which the columnist expressed the view that the Fifa scandal was one example of the tendency of international bureaucracies to become the “personal fiefdoms of their presidents or directors-general, and sink into lethargy or corruption, followed by brazen defiance when challenged”; the sub-headline referred to “leaders who believe they are above the law”. The columnist alleged that a number of organisations fitted this pattern, including UNESCO, the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, the World Health Organisation, and the OSCE PA, described as a “smaller example” of the phenomenon. 

3. The article included a number of claims about Mr Oliver’s term as Secretary General. Noting that he had served continuously for all the organisation’s 22 years, it alleged that he had “fended off challenges and tried to frustrate attempts to reform the constitution”. It said at the age of 77, Mr Oliver had “reluctantly conceded that he might like to think about letting somebody else play with the limos and tax-free, Danish-diplomatic status that go with the job”, but claimed that he “seems intent on influencing the choice of his successor”. 

4. The complainant denied that the OSCE PA was a “personal fiefdom”, and said that that the newspaper’s justification for this description was based entirely on inaccurate allegations about Mr Oliver’s conduct as Secretary General. He said that the OSCE PA does not have a constitution; it has rules of procedure. Mr Oliver had not tried to “frustrate attempts to reform” the OSCE PA’s rules of procedure. He had not made any attempts to “influence the choice of his successor”, nor did he have access to “limos”. He said that OSCE PA in fact maintains an ordinary van, a mini-van and a hatchback for the use of its staff, and there are no drivers. He said that Mr Oliver paid full US taxes, but had Danish diplomatic status, as did all expatriate employees of the OSCE PA. The complainant said that by referring to Mr Oliver among a group of proven wrongdoers at other organisations, it had suggested that he was guilty by association. 

5. The newspaper said that the article was based on material provided by a credible and well placed confidential source, and denied that there was any breach of the Code. It said that the complainant had not demonstrated any inaccuracies, beyond minor points relating to the amenities provided to Mr Oliver. The newspaper said that, prior to publication, the journalist had seen emails from an individual who Mr Oliver had attempted to dissuade from standing in the contest to succeed him. The source told the journalist that Mr Oliver had frustrated attempts to reform the constitution of the OSCE PA and had showed him emailed evidence from other well-placed individuals in support of this position. The newspaper said it was unable to provide further details because of the need to protect its confidential sources. 

6. The newspaper denied that the article contained any significant inaccuracies. It noted that in 2010, a Latvian politician had contested the election for Secretary General of the OSCE PA, and lost to Mr Oliver. The newspaper said that it had it “on good authority” that Mr Oliver opposed any limitation of the Secretary General’s term of office. Following the eventual adoption of a rule in 2013 limiting the term of office, the newspaper said it was confident that Mr Oliver had stated that the new rule did not apply to him because he was in office before it came into force. It also said that a reference in the rule to there being “exceptional circumstances” in which a further renewal of the term of office may be considered was included after pressure from Mr Oliver’s “allies” on the Rules Committee. 

7. The complainant accepted that Mr Oliver had defeated another candidate in the 2010 election but denied that Mr Oliver opposed a rule change limiting the Secretary General’s term of office, or that the reference to “exceptional circumstances” was included after pressure from Mr Oliver’s “allies”. It noted that the newspaper had failed to provide evidence to substantiate these assertions. 

8. The complainant said that Mr Oliver did not believe he had stated that the new rule on the Secretary General’s term of office did not apply to him, and that the newspaper had failed to substantiate its assertion that Mr Oliver had made such a statement. He said that there was however a general understanding that Mr Oliver could seek further re-election on the basis of his contract, and the rules of procedure in force at the time he was elected and re-elected. The complainant said that Mr Oliver had supported every rule change proposed by the Rules Committee of the Assembly except for one proposed change at the meeting of the Standing Committee of the OSCE PA in February 2015. The rule change related to the manner in which amendments would be considered by the assembly in annual sessions, which Mr Oliver believed would be impractical and unworkable; the proposal was withdrawn in view of Mr Oliver’s opposition. The complainant said that Mr Oliver only attempted to dissuade one potential candidate from standing in the contest to succeed him. 

9. During direct correspondence with the newspaper, the complainant and Mr Oliver had requested a retraction and an apology for the alleged inaccuracies. The newspaper responded by offering to publish a clarification, pending Mr Oliver’s confirmation on whether he has use of official cars and on whether he had tax-free Danish-diplomatic status. The complainant responded on 16 June, providing the requested clarification, and reiterated his request that the newspaper publish a formal retraction and apology. The newspaper offered to publish the following clarification in its “Corrections and clarifications” column to address the complainant’s concerns: 

In an opinion column about the unaccountability of international quangos ("Fifa isn’t the only fiefdom to cast its shadow", Jun 1) Matt Ridley mentioned the 22-year tenure of Spencer Oliver as secretary general of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation. This was not intended to imply any wrongdoing on Mr Oliver’s part. Mr Oliver states that he pays full US taxes on his OSCE PA salary and that the vehicles to which he had access while in office comprised a 13-year-old van, a six-year-old minivan and a two-year-old hatchback, rather than the “limos” to which our article referred. We are happy to make this clear. 

The newspaper also offered to publish a clarification which included the words: “[Mr Oliver] is happy with the outcome of the process for choosing the lead candidate for his successor.” Nevertheless, the newspaper did not accept that it was significantly misleading to refer to Mr Oliver’s access to “limos”, and his “tax-free status”. The complainant rejected this offer on the basis was not a retraction or apology, and did not deal with all of the alleged inaccuracies. 

Relevant Code Provisions

10. 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 once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published. In cases involving the Regulator, prominence should be agreed with the Regulator in advance. 

iii) The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) 

A fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called for. 

Clause 14 (Confidential Sources) 

Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information. 

Findings of the Committee

11. The article had included the OSCE PA and its Secretary General among a group of organisations which it claimed were “personal fiefdoms”, whose leaders “believe they are above the law” and are subject to “lethargy or corruption, followed by brazen defiance when challenged”. As support for this characterisation, it had referred to the length of Mr Oliver’s tenure in office and claimed that Mr Oliver had “fended off challenges and tried to frustrate attempts to reform the constitution”, and more recently “seems intent on influencing the choice of his successor”. It had also referred to the alleged amenities of his role – “limos and tax-free, Danish-diplomatic status” in a manner that tended to support the description of the OSCE PA as a “fiefdom”. By its account, these claims – and by extension the allegation that the OSCE PA fit the pattern described in the column – were based on information provided by a confidential source, which it was obliged to protect under the terms of Clause 14.                               

12. The newspaper had been unable to demonstrate to the Complaints Committee the accuracy of its claim of fact that the complainant had “tried to frustrate attempts to reform the OSCE PA’s constitution”. It relied on information provided by a confidential source, which it said included emails from other well-placed individuals, in support of this claim and explained that the statement referred to Mr Oliver’s opposition to a possible limitation of the Secretary General’s term of office. However, this was disputed by Mr Oliver. 

13. The newspaper was entitled to make use of information provided by a confidential source. However, it had relied on this source without taking additional steps to investigate or corroborate the information on which the article’s characterisation was based, which might include obtaining additional on-the-record information or contacting the complainant to obtain his comment before publication. As the newspaper considered itself prevented by Clause 14 from disclosing the information provided by its source, it was unable to demonstrate that it had taken care not to publish inaccurate information. 

14. It was inaccurate to report that Mr Oliver enjoyed access to limos in his role, and the reference to his tax-free status misleadingly suggested he paid no tax, when in fact, he paid full taxes in the USA. Taken in isolation, these were potentially trivial points, but taken together, they significantly contributed to the broader implication that Mr Oliver enjoyed a “personal fiefdom”, and that he enjoyed various lifestyle benefits as a consequence. They were significantly misleading in this broader context. 

15. It was not in dispute that Mr Oliver had successfully defeated another candidate in his re-election to the role of Secretary General in 2010, and that he had not been successfully challenged for the role during his 22 years as Secretary General. It was therefore not misleading to claim that Mr Oliver had “fended off challenges”, during his time as Secretary General. Neither was it misleading for newspaper to claim that Mr Oliver seemed “intent on influencing the choice of his successor”, where the complainant accepted that he had attempted to dissuade a candidate from running in the election to succeed him. 

16. However, the length of Mr Oliver’s tenure, and his ability to “fend off challenges”, were not sufficient alone to justify the very serious allegation that the OSCE PA, under Mr Oliver’s leadership, had become a “personal fiefdom” that had “sunk” into “lethargy or corruption”. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (i). 

17. The Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to clarify the taxes Mr Oliver paid, and his access to “limos”. However, the clarification offered was insufficient: it did not address the most serious unsubstantiated claim that Mr Oliver had “tried to frustrate attempts to reform the OSCE PA’s constitution”. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1 (ii). 

18. Clause 2 requires that a fair opportunity for reply to inaccuracies must be given when reasonably called; it does not require that newspapers seek to obtain comments prior to publication, nor does it require the publication of retractions or apologies. The complainant was in direct correspondence with the newspaper, but did not request an opportunity to reply to the inaccuracies. The newspaper had not denied the complainant a fair opportunity to reply, and there was no breach of Clause 2. 

Conclusions

19. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1. 

Remedial Action Required

20. The established inaccuracies supported the significant claim that Mr Oliver enjoyed a “personal fiefdom”. In circumstances where the newspaper had failed to take care not to publish inaccurate information, and not offered to correct these significant inaccuracies, the Committee concluded that the appropriate remedy was an adjudication. The article was published on page 21 of the newspaper, and the Committee required the publication of an adjudication upholding the complaint on this page, or further forward in the newspaper.  The headline must make clear that IPSO has upheld the complaint, and refer to its subject matter; it must be agreed in advance. It should also be published on the newspaper’s website, with a link to the full adjudication appearing on the homepage for 24 hours; it should then be archived online in the usual way. Should the newspaper intend to continue to publish the article online, without amendment, in light of this decision it should publish the adjudication in full, beneath the headline. 

21. The terms of the adjudication to be published are as follows: 

Richard Solash, acting on behalf of OSCE PA Secretary General Spencer Oliver, complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Opportunity for reply) in an article headlined “Fifa isn’t the only fiefdom to cast its shadow”, published on 1 June 2015. IPSO upheld the complaint as a breach of the Editors’ Code and required The Times to publish this decision by its Complaints Committee as a remedy to the breach.  

The article had included the OSCE PA and its Secretary General among a group of organisations which it claimed were “personal fiefdoms”, whose leaders “believe they are above the law” and are subject to “lethargy or corruption, followed by brazen defiance when challenged”. As support for this characterisation, it had referred to the length of Mr Oliver’s tenure in office and claimed that Mr Oliver had “fended off challenges and tried to frustrate attempts to reform the constitution”, and more recently “seems intent on influencing the choice of his successor”. It had also referred to the alleged amenities of his role – “limos and tax-free, Danish-diplomatic status” in a manner that tended to support the description of the OSCE PA as a “fiefdom”. By the newspaper’s account, these claims – and by extension the allegation that the OSCE PA fit the pattern described in the column – were based on information provided by a confidential source, which it was obliged to protect under the terms of Clause 14. 

The newspaper had been unable to demonstrate to the Complaints Committee the accuracy of its claim of fact that the complainant had “tried to frustrate attempts to reform the OSCE PA’s constitution”. It was entitled to make use of information provided by a confidential source. However, it had relied on this source without taking additional steps to investigate or corroborate the information on which  the article’s characterisation was based, which might include obtaining additional on-the-record information or contacting the complainant to obtain his comment before publication. As the newspaper considered itself prevented by Clause 14 from disclosing the information provided by its source, it was unable to demonstrate that it had taken care not to publish inaccurate information. 

It was inaccurate to report that Mr Oliver enjoyed access to limos in his role and the reference to his tax-free status misleadingly suggested he paid no tax, when in fact, he paid full taxes in the USA. Taken together, these points significantly contributed to the broader implication that Mr Oliver enjoyed a “personal fiefdom”, and that he enjoyed various lifestyle benefits as a consequence. They were significantly misleading in this broader context. 

It was not misleading to claim that Mr Oliver had “fended off challenges”, during his time as Secretary General. Neither was it misleading for newspaper to claim that Mr Oliver seemed “intent on influencing the choice of his successor”, where the complainant accepted that he had attempted to dissuade a candidate from running in the election to succeed him. However, the length of Mr Oliver’s tenure, and his ability to “fend off challenges”, were not sufficient alone to justify the very serious allegation that the OSCE PA, under Mr Oliver’s leadership, had become a “personal fiefdom” that had “sunk” into “lethargy or corruption”. The complaint was upheld as a breach of Clause 1 (i). 

The clarification offered by the newspaper was insufficient: it did not address the most serious unsubstantiated claim that Mr Oliver had “tried to frustrate attempts to reform the OSCE PA’s constitution”. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1 (ii). 

Date complaint received: 15/07/15

Date decision issued: 30/11/15