Ruling

04555-16 Gordon v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      24th November 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee - 04555-16 Gordon v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. David Gordon complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Mildred Gordon” published in print and online on 5 May 2016.

2. The article was an obituary of Mildred Gordon, a former Labour MP and the complainant’s mother. The article discussed Mildred Gordon’s political career and family life, including her first husband’s relationship with Leon Trotsky and the political life of her husband, Sam Gordon.

3. The complainant said that the article contained a number of inaccuracies, including errors of fact and spelling errors. Further the complainant considered that in places, the obituary was dismissive and demonstrated ignorance towards his mother.

4. The article appeared online in the same form.

5. The complainant said that it was inaccurate for the newspaper to report that his stepfather, Nils Kaare Dahl, had been Trotsky’s bodyguard and driver. It was the complainant’s position that while his stepfather had been asked if he would be willing to act as a bodyguard for Trotsky while in Norway, the opportunity did not arise before Trotsky was expelled by the Norwegian government.

6. The complainant said that it was inaccurate for the newspaper to report that after Nils Dahl’s death in 1996, Mildred Gordon cleared out his belongings from their house in north London and “was astonished to find a light machinegun, 12 rifles and boxes of ammunition, all carefully hidden”. The complainant said that he and his wife had helped Mildred Gordon to clear out Nils Dahl’s possessions from their home in Cricklewood following his death. He confirmed that no guns, ammunition or weapons of any kind were found, with the exception of a small penknife. The complainant accepted that Nils Dahl had hidden weapons for use during the Norwegian resistance in World War Two. He also said that sports equipment, including rifles and ammunition were stored at a house rented by Dahl in Norway, in accordance with Norwegian law. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate for the newspaper to report that Nils Dahl “became blind and deaf”; although Mr Dahl became hard of hearing and wore a hearing aid, he never fully lost his sight. The complainant did however confirm that a stroke rendered him with a degree of spatial inattention.

7. The complainant said that it was inaccurate for the newspaper to report that 81 Labour MPs had voted for Mildred Gordon to “indicate their displeasure” at party rules which required every Labour MP to vote for at least four women. He said there were a number of reasons why many Labour MPs voted for Mildred Gordon; many of the MPs who voted for her had working class and long Trade Union backgrounds as did Mildred Gordon. Therefore they trusted her over many of the younger female MPs with middle-class backgrounds and an Oxbridge education who were also standing for the Shadow Cabinet elections.  Further, many who voted for Mildred Gordon were concerned with the rise of the far right and voted for her as they wanted her to help lead a national anti-racist campaign and raise these issues in the Shadow Cabinet.

8. The complainant said that the newspaper inaccurately reported that his grandfather, Judah Fellerman, lost his market stall during the depression. Judah Fellerman had lost the lease on the shop he ran during the depression and subsequently became unemployed; he only received a market stall licence after the depression. The complainant was also concerned that the newspaper spelt his grandfather’s first name incorrectly.

9. The complainant was also concerned about the article’s claim that Sam Gordon, the complainant’s father, “had worked his way to Britain as an engine greaser on a merchant ship” in order to bring messages and money to the British wing of the Fourth International, the Communist international organisation. He said that this was inaccurate; his father had worked on the ship in order to bring food and fuel to the people of the UK as part of his life-long fight against fascism. Further the complainant said that as well as working as an engine greaser, his father was also in charge of a four-inch gun detail. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate for the newspaper to report that Sam Gordon, a proof reader, remained on The Times’ payroll “long after he was unable to work”. He said that his father was allowed to temporarily move from the night to the day shift while he was recovering from his cancer treatment in 1963, and that at no point did any line manager or co-worker suggest that Sam Gordon was unable to do his job.

10. The complainant said that the newspaper inaccurately reported that Sam and Mildred Gordon “stayed in Britain to benefit from the free healthcare they passionately believed in”. He said that they decided to stay in the UK for a number of reasons including the fact that they had purchased a house and that Sam Gordon enjoyed his job at The Times.

11. The newspaper accepted that Nils Dahl was invited to be Trotsky’s bodyguard and driver but that Trotsky had left Norway before he could assume that role.  The newspaper said that its references to Nils Dahl’s deafness and failing sight, and the cache of weapons found at his house, came from an obituary of Nils Dahl written in 1996 by Ted Crawford; a friend and political colleague of Mildred Gordon and Nils Dahl. The newspaper accepted that they had misread the obituary and understood that the weapons were found in Nils Dahl’s North London home. On reflection it appeared that the weapons were found in a house in Norway. The newspaper published two corrections, the first on 28 July during direct correspondence with the complainant:

Our obituary of Mildred Gordon (May 5) stated that her second husband, Nils Dahl, was “Trotsky’s former bodyguard”. We have been asked to clarify that while Dahl was invited to perform that role, Trotsky left Norway before he could take it up.

The second correction was published on 9 August following further correspondence with IPSO’s Executive: 

We said in our obituary of Mildred Gordon MP (May 5) that after the death of her husband Nils Kaare Dahl in 1996 she found a cache of weapons among his belongings in their north London home. In fact it was at a house the Dahls owned in Norway that the weapons were found. We apologise for the mistake.

12. The complainant disputed this correction; he said that the Dahl family had never owned a house in Norway. The house was rented. While he accepted that Nils Dahl did own a number of guns, this was not unusual in Norway where privately owned gun ownership is common. Further, he said that the guns were sporting rifles and were stored securely and legally. The complainant was concerned that the newspaper had attempted to sensationalise a story of little substance.

13. It was the newspaper’s position that it is a well-established fact that some Labour MPs voted for Mildred Gordon for the Shadow Cabinet in 1993 as a protest vote. The newspaper said that it was widely reported in the broadsheets at the time and they provided cuttings to support this. 

14. The newspaper acknowledged that its reference to the timing of the loss of Judah Fellerman’s market stall was incorrect. It did not however accept that the discrepancy between being a market-stall holder and the leaseholder of a shop was significant in circumstances where the relevant point was the loss of livelihood.  Nevertheless it amended the online version of the obituary to correct this, along with the misspelling of his name

15. The newspaper explained that its references to Sam Gordon were all taken from a tribute written by Mildred Gordon to him in Revolutionary History. The basis for reporting that “the print unions ensured that Sam Gordon remained on The Times payroll long after he was unable to work” was Mildred Gordon’s comment in the tribute that “the [father of the chapel] on The Times once phoned me and said: ‘We know Sam is ill. We’re no strangers to trouble; don’t worry, whatever happens we’ll see him through until he reaches retirement age. And so they did’. It was the newspaper’s view that the implication of this remark was that The Times had to help or cover for Mr Gordon when his illness affected his ability to work. Further, she wrote: “We were now trapped by Sam’s illness. We could never have afforded in America the medical care he needed”. The newspaper did not therefore consider that the references to Sam Gordon’s employment and illness were significantly inaccurate. Finally, Ms Gordon wrote that in the early 1940s he made “perilous journeys in US merchant navy convoys bringing supplies to Britain. He told me later that when he arrived on one of those visits, bringing messages and money to British Trotskyists, he was met by the leaders of the Workers International League”. It did not therefore accept that the reference to Sam Gordon’s political life was significantly inaccurate.

Relevant Code Provisions

16.  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.

Findings of the Committee

17. The Committee expressed its sympathy to the complainant for his loss and acknowledged that he had found the obituary distressing and insensitive towards his mother. It noted that obituaries provide an over-view of the deceased, a sense of their personality and public contributions, and do not set out a definitive factual account. The Committee considered the complaint in that context.

18. The Committee acknowledged that whilst Nils Dahl was not Trotsky’s bodyguard, it was not in dispute that he had been offered the position. The article’s reference to this point was to demonstrate the connection between the Dahl and Trotsky family; in the context of an article about the complainant’s mother the reference did not represent a significant inaccuracy. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in breach of Clause 1 although the Committee welcomed the steps the newspaper had taken to correct the error.

19. The obituary written by Ted Crawford said that Mildred Gordon had found a light machine gun, a dozen rifles and boxes of ammunition in Nils Dahl’s house. It was the complainant’s position that the weapons found were only sporting rifles. The Committee was unable to reconcile the two accounts of the weapons found; however the newspaper was entitled to rely on the account contained in Ted Crawford’s obituary where the reference was presented as a brief, humorous anecdote as a reflection on Mr Dahl’s political ideals and to support an editorial claim that he had “not given up hope of an insurrection”. In doing so, it had not failed to care over the accuracy of the material published. In circumstances where it was not in dispute that weapons were found, the reference did not represent a significant inaccuracy. Further, the discrepancies between whether the weapons were found in Norway or London, and whether the house in Norway was rented or owned was not significant in the context of the article as a whole. There was no breach of Clause 1. The Committee welcomed the newspaper’s willingness to correct the error but was concerned by the newspaper’s decision to unilaterally publish a correction when there were still several areas of contention and disagreement with the complainant.

20. The misspelling of Judah Fellerman’s name was not a significant inaccuracy in the context of the article as a whole, and the Committee noted that it had been amended in the online version of the article. The discrepancy between a shop and a market stall was not significant in circumstances where this reference was made in the context of Judah Fellerman’s loss of livelihood. The Committee welcomed the steps the newspaper had taken to correct the error. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

21. The Committee acknowledged the complainant’s position that Labour MPs had voted for Mildred Gordon in the 1993 Shadow Cabinet elections for a number of reasons, including her campaigning work but noted that the article reported that Mildred Gordon received “an impressive 81 votes”. The newspaper had provided evidence to support its position that some Labour MPs opposed to positive discrimination, had voted for Mildred Gordon to “indicate their displeasure”.  In these circumstances, the reference was not significantly misleading.

22. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern about the article’s claim that Sam Gordon, the complainant’s father had worked as an “engine greaser” on a merchant ship in order to bring messages and money to the British wing of the Fourth International. In the Committee’s view, the article did not give the misleading impression that there were not other reasons for Sam Gordon’s enlistment in the US Merchant Marine.

23. In publishing the claim about the complainant’s father’s health, the newspaper had relied on an account written by the complainant’s mother, which said that the union had “see[n] him through until he reaches retirement age” on learning of the complainant’s father’s illness. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of this claim and, in the context of an obituary which sought to highlight Mrs Gordon’s relationship with the unions, the Committee did not consider that any inaccuracy had been significant such as to breach Clause 1. Neither did the Committee consider that the article was significantly inaccurate in its references to Sam Gordon’s political life, or the role healthcare played in the reasons why the complainant’s parents had stayed in the UK.  There was no breach of Clause 1.

Conclusions

24. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 05/05/2016
Date complaint concluded: 18/10/2016