Ruling

04088-15 Pell & Bales v The Sun

    • Date complaint received

      24th September 2015

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 10 Clandestine devices and subterfuge

·  Decision of the Complaints Committee 04088-15 Pell & Bales v The Sun

Summary of complaint

1. Pell & Bales complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sun had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Will gotten gains”, published on 6 June 2015. 

2. The article reported the findings of an undercover investigation carried out by the newspaper into the work of Pell & Bales, a telemarketing agency that conducts charity fundraising campaigns. The article reported that the investigation had found that call centres are “bombarding vulnerable older women… with appeals for more money”. It gave details of the training the undercover reporter had received at the call centre, included examples of the conversations she had with people on the telephone and quoted the scripted responses Pell & Bales’ staff were required to follow when dealing with the calls. The investigation followed the suicide of charity campaigner Olive Cooke, which had been widely reported as being connected to the volume of charity fundraising requests she had received. 

3. The complainant said the investigation and resulting article represented a breach of Clause 10 of the Code. It said the newspaper could not justify its decision to engage in subterfuge as it had no grounds to believe that this would expose unlawful conduct, crime or serious impropriety. Furthermore, the newspaper’s investigation had not uncovered information which could justify it in the public interest: the article stated that there was “no suggestion Pell & Bales did anything illegal”, and the company was “scrupulous in instructing its employees to stick to acceptable practices”. 

4. The complainant was also concerned that the article was misleading in breach of Clause 1. It said that statements in the article and accompanying comment piece – including the headline – gave a distorted account of the newspaper’s findings, in that they suggested that Pell & Bales had acted improperly. This was compounded by reference to Mrs Cooke, which incorrectly suggested that Pell & Bales were being investigated in connection with her death. 

5. The complainant said the newspaper had inaccurately described the calls as “cold calls”; the calls were to existing donors. The newspaper had also inaccurately reported fundraisers’ pay structure: the figures were incorrect, and fundraisers’ pay would be increased only if they first met specific quality standards, such as compliance with the charity’s script, branding and values. 

6. The complainant considered that the references to older women being “targeted” were misleading. Charities supply the contact details for individuals on their supporter databases; Pell & Bales does not further “select” the subjects of calls. The fact that, on the day the reporter had worked at the call centre, fundraisers had been told that they would mainly be calling women aged between 60 and 70 merely reflected the makeup of the charity’s supporters. The complainant also said that the reporter had given a misleading account of the calls she had made. The vast majority had not been as she had described in the article. 

7. The complainant said the newspaper had not made a genuine attempt to verify the information with Pell & Bales before publication. 

8. The newspaper said the article was commissioned by the Head of Features as a direct result of Mrs Cooke’s death, which it believed demonstrated that cold calling vulnerable people, such as the elderly, was becoming “dangerous”. This was a matter of considerable public interest. 

9. The purpose of the investigation was to find out how the agency trained and managed its staff, and to ascertain whether high-pressure sales techniques were used on elderly and vulnerable people. The newspaper said it was seeking to establish how people were selected for a call, what questions were asked, what answers provoked further questions, how long callers were expected to stay on the line, and whether a single donation was enough to keep a donor on a call list indefinitely. 

10. The newspaper said that the reporter assigned to the project was asked to research charities that were known to have approached Mrs Cooke for donations. The reporter then applied for a job at a call centre through a recruitment company which advertised that it represented a number of those charities. During a telephone interview, the reporter was told that the call centre she would be working for was Pell & Bales. The reporter then checked Pell & Bales’ client list online and confirmed that it had worked for three charities that had contacted Mrs Cooke before her death. 

11. On 28 May, the reporter emailed the Features Executive setting out her plans for the feature, explaining the proposed arrangements for a telephone interview and follow-up assessment with the recruitment company, after which she would be offered a job and a day’s training at the call centre, on 31 May. The newspaper noted that within an hour of signing up online, the reporter had reached the second stage of the recruitment process; no experience or qualifications were required. Later that day, the reporter’s email was sent to the newspaper’s legal department asking if there was any objection to the reporter proceeding with the training. The legal department raised no objections. 

12. On 29 May, the Head of Features discussed the idea with the Head of Content, the Managing Editor and the Head of the Legal Department; the Editor was also consulted. Those present considered whether the required information could be obtained by means other than subterfuge. They concluded that sales techniques would be constantly under review and upgraded, so any existing research on this issue would be out of date. The option to question former call centre staff was rejected because finding people would be “too difficult”, and their testimony might also have been out of date. They considered advertising for case studies from elderly people, but rejected that approach on the basis that the evidence would have been subjective and limited to comment on the phone calls. Another option was to speak directly to the call centre management and ask to spend time working for them; this option was rejected because a “sanitised” version of the operation might have been presented. It was decided that the only way to establish how the agency operated in its normal environment was to send a reporter to work undercover in its call centre. 

13. The day before the article was published, there was a further meeting of senior editorial staff to consider whether the level of subterfuge employed was proportionate to the public interest in the material obtained. The team considered that the level of subterfuge was relatively limited, in that the reporter attended a training day at a business. The level of personal information to be published was also minimal. 

14. The findings of the investigation were also discussed. These included that older women were being targeted; staff turnover was high, suggesting that the work was upsetting; the script that callers used suggested that an “overriding financial purpose” had driven the cold calling; callers were trained to read “harrowing”, “hard luck” tales and use “hard sell” techniques to persuade people to donate; the legacy campaign encouraged people to leave money in their wills; and job and housing data was used ”cynically” to establish the financial status of potential donors. The newspaper was also concerned by the general attitude of the teaching staff, including one person who said it was easier to ask for a bequest in a will than it was for a monthly donation. The newspaper concluded that a minimal level of subterfuge was balanced against a considerable public interest, and the Editor decided to publish the article. 

15. With regards to the complainant’s concerns under Clause 1, the newspaper said the investigation was launched as a direct result of the death of Mrs Cooke; the article had not directed blame at Pell & Bales for her death. The newspaper said the headline was a play on the phrase “ill-gotten gains”. It was not misleading: it referred to money acquired from wills and the “legacy campaign”. The newspaper appreciated that Pell & Bales had adhered to the rules; the issue was whether or not the behaviour allowed within the rules was acceptable. It considered that its use of the words “tainted” and “hounded” had been justified. 

16. The newspaper maintained that the reference to “cold calls” was accurate, noting that “existing donor” meant that the individual had made a donation once. It was concerned that if someone made a charitable donation, it appeared to make them “fair game” to cold callers. It did not consider that the reporter’s account of the calls she had made was misleading; the report had focused on the calls she had found upsetting. 

17. The newspaper said that staff were told on numerous occasions that workers were rewarded for meeting targets, with the top fundraisers earning an extra £2 an hour and the next best earning an extra £1. They were told that in a financial campaign, part of your target was how much an individual fundraised; another target was the number of calls made in which a “decision-making contact” was spoken to. 

18. The newspaper said it had contacted several charities to tell them about its investigation; three of them had given statements for publication. Pell & Bales were given the same opportunity to reply, over the same period of time. It first contacted Pell & Bales at 3pm, and then made three further calls requesting a statement. The reporter left messages, but was told the press team was in a meeting and received no response. 

Relevant Code Provisions

19. 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 10 (Clandestine devices and subterfuge) 

i) The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents or photographs; or by accessing digitally-held private information without consent. 

ii) Engaging in misrepresentation or subterfuge, including by agents or intermediaries, can generally be justified only in the public interest and then only when the material cannot be obtained by other means. 

The public interest 

1. The public interest includes, but is not confined to:

i) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety.

ii) Protecting public health and safety.

iii) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation. 

3. Whenever the public interest is invoked, the Regulator will require editors to demonstrate fully that they reasonably believed that publication, or journalistic activity undertaken with a view to publication, would be in the public interest and how, and with whom, that was established at the time. 

Findings of the Committee

Note by the Committee 

20. In assessing the newspaper’s position that its activity was justified in the public interest, the Committee had regard for the broader debate that was taking place at the time the article was published about fundraising practices by charities. That debate was triggered by the death of Olive Cooke. However, the Committee emphasised that, in considering this complaint, it did not intend to reach or imply any conclusions as to the causes or circumstances of Mrs Cooke’s death. Neither did it consider material that had been made public regarding Mrs Cooke’s death since the article was published, which would have had no bearing on the newspaper’s decision-making at the time of publication. 

21. The newspaper’s investigation had taken place in the context of a widespread public debate about the fundraising techniques employed by charities and their possible effects on vulnerable people, and it had focussed on a call centre that had a specific and publicly-identified link to the charities that had reportedly been involved in Mrs Cooke’s case. The level of subterfuge employed was minimal, given the relative ease with which the reporter had been able to obtain a place on the training day, and the fact that the investigation had focused on sales techniques rather than confidential or personal information relating to identifiable individuals. 

22. While alternative means for investigating practices in the sector generally were available to the newspaper, the Committee was satisfied that it could not have obtained, and verified, the information it sought by open means. In particular, it was unlikely to have been able to access the fundraising script and provide such detailed, up-to-date information on the methods used by call centre staff to prolong phone calls with potential donors. There was a public interest in reporting on these details; they contained specific, new information about the nature of the practices in common use by one of the firms in the sector. The reporter had uncovered no evidence that Pell & Bales was acting contrary to any relevant law or regulation, but this did not eliminate the public interest in the story: it was relevant to the issue of whether the current laws and regulations were adequate. 

23. The Committee concluded that in the context of such significant public concern regarding charity fundraising practices, the low-level subterfuge employed was proportionate to the public interest identified. The resulting article reported general information about the firm’s working practices and did not include any gratuitously intrusive material obtained through subterfuge. The newspaper had justified its methods and its story. The complaint under Clause 10 was not upheld. 

24. The Committee then considered the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code in that the coverage had given the significantly misleading impression that the newspaper’s investigation had uncovered improper practices on the part of Pell & Bales. 

25. The coverage had, unquestionably, been highly pejorative in tone. However, in the view of the Committee, the newspaper had been entitled to take a position regarding the propriety of the practices described in the article, so long as the basis of its view was clear. The text of the article had stated expressly that there was “no suggestion that Pell & Bales did anything illegal”, and reported that the company was “scrupulous in instructing its employees to stick to acceptable practices”. The newspaper was entitled to its opinion that the practices described in the article, which were permitted within those rules, were unacceptable. 

26. The complainant had objected to the newspaper’s reference to “cold calls” and denied that the elderly were “hounded” or “targeted” by its campaigns. The article had made clear, however, that the calls were to existing donors. It was not in dispute that on the day the reporter had worked at the call centre, predominantly older women were called because they made up the majority of that charity’s supporter base. In this context, the reference to “targeting” was not significantly misleading. It was entitled to refer to unscheduled telephone calls received by individuals who may not have expected them as “cold calls”. Furthermore, the newspaper had been entitled to its opinion that calling donors for a repeat donation and the use of techniques intended to prolong conversations with potential donors who were not responding positively represented “hounding”. 

27. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had only reported details of a select number of calls made by the reporter. However, the selection of material for publication is a matter of editorial discretion. The article had made clear that the reporter had made 25 calls in total. It was entitled to only focus on the calls that the reporter had found concerning. 

28. Nor was the reference to fundraisers’ pay significantly misleading: there were financial incentives for achieving performance targets. 

29. The newspaper had tried to contact the company for comment before the article’s publication. It had not failed to take care over the accuracy of the article, and the Committee did not identify any significant inaccuracies or misleading statements that required correction under the Code. The complaint under Clause 1 was not upheld. 

Conclusions

10. The complaint was not upheld 

Remedial Action Required

N/A 

Date complaint received: 12/06/2015

Date decision issued: 24/09/2015