Ruling

04725-18 Groman v The Jewish Chronicle

    • Date complaint received

      21st February 2019

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04725-18 Groman v The Jewish Chronicle

Summary of complaint

1. Jonathan Groman complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Jewish Chronicle breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Privacy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Anger at the events organiser who ruined families’ simchah plans”, published on 16 March 2018.

2. The article reported that the “director” of an events company – named as the complainant – who had been hired to organise celebrations in the Jewish community had “gone into hiding owing thousands of pounds to customers”. It said that the complainant had pulled out of one barmitzvah three days prior to the event, and had failed to issue a refund, and stated that at least two customers had reported him to the police, claiming he defrauded them. The article stated that the complainant’s business was liquidated by his ex-wife in October 2017, but that he had “apparently continued to trade illegally after this date”; it quoted the administrator of a Facebook group as stating that they had blocked him from the group because he was “’still taking deposits’” while the company was being liquidated.

3. The article quoted one commenter on the Facebook group who claimed that the complainant had ruined a barmitzvah in 2006, and included the account of a named individual who said that the complainant had failed to honour a booking to erect a marquee. It said that the £4000 this individual had paid to the complainant had not been refunded, and that employees of the complainant had subsequently visited this individual’s house and informed him that they had not received payslips over a period of five years.

4. The article also included the account of another customer who claimed that the complainant had admitted that he would be unable to organise the bar for a 50th birthday party, for which the complainant had paid £1700. This customer said that he had told the complainant that he was owed nearly £3,000, but had heard nothing from him, and had contacted the courts. Another customer was quoted as claiming that the complainant had taken a £1750 deposit from her, but that she had “’heard nothing’” as to whether her party would take place, and had reported the complainant for fraud.

5. The article stated that the police had confirmed that an allegation of fraud was being assessed against the complainant. It stated that the complainant had failed to respond to repeated requests for comment. The article also included a photograph of the complainant, showing his likeness.

6. The article appeared online in substantially the same format, under the same headline.

7. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy) on a number of points. He said that it was inaccurate to state that he was the “director” of the events company: he was in fact a paid employee, and his ex-wife was the director; he had received daily instructions from her regarding the work to be done, and she had total control over all financial aspects of the company. He said that it was therefore inaccurate for the article to link the failure to provide payslips, the cancellation of events or the failure to repay deposits to him specifically: the bookings had been made with his ex-wife’s company, and the deposits had been taken by the company, and not by him personally; he had also not been responsible for the administration of the company’s payroll. In addition, the complainant said the reference to an outstanding payment of £3000 was inaccurate: this individual had been repaid an agreed sum of £1700. He provided evidence submitted to the Small Claims Court, and a County Court judgement referencing himself and the individual this sum related to, as evidence that the sums reported in the article had since been disputed.

8. The complainant said that it was inaccurate to state that he had ruined a barmitzvah in 2006, and to state that he was “uncontactable”. He also disputed the publication’s claim that he did not respond to repeated requests for comment: he was out of the country and not active on social media at the time, and only became aware of the article on the day it went to print. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to state that he had continued to trade under the company name following its liquidation; in fact, he had operated as a sole trader following the liquidation. He also denied that any allegations of fraud were currently being investigated by the police; one allegation had been made for which no further action was taken.

9. The complainant also said that the article breached Clause 2 (Privacy) because it included a photograph which had been obtained, without his consent, from his ex-wife.

10. The publication denied any breach of Clause 1 (Accuracy). It said that, while the complainant was not technically the “director” of the company, he was the only individual with whom customers had interacted and made arrangements for their events. It provided emails from customers naming the complainant in relation to allegations reported in the article. The publication said that the reason the complainant could not legally act as the director was that his previous companies had been dissolved, and that the complainant had managed and operated all the company’s business, including its bank accounts; it said that there were therefore reasonable grounds to suspect he was a ‘shadow director’ of the company, under the terms of the Companies Act. Nevertheless, it offered to publish the following clarification in print (in its standard clarifications and corrections column) and online (as a footnote to the online article):

A March 15 article headlined “Anger at the events organiser who ruined families’ simchah plans” originally stated that [the complainant] was the “Director” of [the company]. In fact, he was not listed as the Director of the company. He was, however, in day-to-day charge of the running of the company and was responsible for its activities.

11. The publication denied that it was inaccurate to state that the complainant had continued to trade under the company name following liquidation: he had entered into a contract on behalf of the company following the liquidation date, and had received payments and made sales pursuant to contracts with the company following this date. It also denied that it was inaccurate to say that the complainant had been “reported to the police”: it said that two sources had confirmed to it that they had reported the complainant to the police. The publication provided a crime number for one of these individuals, but said that the other had wished to remain anonymous.

12. The publication denied that it had failed to provide the complainant with an adequate opportunity to respond to the claims made in the article. It said its reporter had called him and messaged him on social media with no response; in addition, another member of staff had contacted him on social media, and the reporter emailed him twice two days prior to publication setting out the full allegations. The publication said that these messages must have been received by the complainant, because it was contacted by his rabbi in relation to them.

13. The publication also denied any breach of Clause 2 (Privacy); it said that it had obtained the photograph of the complainant from his ex-wife, and that it was in the public interest to publish it so as to identify the complainant.

14. During the course of the investigation into the complaint, documents relating to the liquidation of the complainant’s company became available on Companies House. The liquidator’s report stated that in her opinion the complainant had acted as the shadow director of the company, and had dealt with the day-to-day management of the business.

Relevant Code Provisions

14. 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.

15. Clause 2 (Privacy)

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Findings of the Committee

16. The publication had stated that the complainant was the director of the company responsible for the events it reported on. This was not the case; however, it was clear from the contacts received by the individuals making allegations to the publication – and the messages the complainant himself provided –that they considered him responsible for the running of the events. Further, the complainant had provided evidence that he, rather than any other individual, had been pursued in the Small Claims and County Courts as a result of one of the allegations referenced in the article. In addition, the liquidator of the complainant’s company had stated that, in her view, the complainant was acting as a shadow director of the company, and was in charge of the day-to-day running of the company. Furthermore, the publication had contacted the complainant two days prior to the article’s publication, directing the allegations about the company at him personally; the complainant had not taken this opportunity to dispute that he was responsible for the company’s failings. In all these circumstances, there was no failure to take care over the description of the complainant as the “director” of the company, and this did not give rise to any misleading impression of his role that required correction under Clause 1(ii). The Committee nevertheless welcomed the publication’s offer to clarify this point.

17. The publication had presented the allegations made against the company as claims made by individuals; these had not been adopted as fact, and in several cases were direct quotations from the individuals themselves. Again, these allegations had been put to the complainant prior to the publication of the article, and he had not taken the opportunity to dispute them. The complainant disputed some of the amounts of money owed to some of the individuals quoted in the article; however, where it was not in dispute that monies were owed, these discrepancies did not give rise to any significantly misleading impression of the complainant’s actions – particularly where the amounts were clearly presented as having been provided by the individuals referred to. The complainant disputed that he was responsible for the content of the allegations made by the individuals quoted, as he was not the official director of the company. However, it was apparent that the individuals quoted had dealt with the complainant specifically. In these circumstances, it was not misleading to associate him with their accounts. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

18. The publication said that two sources had confirmed to it that they had reported the complainant to the police. It provided a crime number for one of these individuals; the other had wished to remain anonymous. Publications are entitled to preserve the anonymity of sources of information, under the terms of Clause 14 (Confidential sources). The complainant’s claim that he was not under investigation by the police did not invalidate the article’s claim that he had been “reported” to the police, and he accepted that he had been subject to one investigation which had been concluded with no action taken. It was not misleading for the article to report that he had been reported to the police, in these circumstances, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

19. The publication was able to provide support for the claim that the complainant had entered into a contract on behalf of the company following its liquidation. In these circumstances, it was not misleading for the article to state that he had he had “apparently continued to trade illegally”, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

20. The photograph of the complainant included in the article showed only his likeness; it did not reveal anything of a private nature about him, or show him engaging in any private activity - nor was there any suggestion that the photograph had been taken without the complainant’s consent. While he had not consented to it being shared with the publication, given that it had apparently been taken with the complainant’s consent and revealed no private information about him, there was no breach of Clause 2 (Privacy) with respect to the publication of this photo.

Conclusions

21. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

22. N/A

Date complaint received: 27/07/2018

Date decision issued: 30/01/2019