Ruling

04727-15 Hanks v Ayrshire Post

    • Date complaint received

      9th December 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 2 Privacy

·     Decision of the Complaints Committee 04727-15 Hanks v Ayrshire Post

Summary of complaint

1. David Hanks complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Ayrshire Post breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Tied up in a Thai racket”, published on 15 May 2015.

2. The article reported that the complainant, along with co-defendant Alexander Matusov, was due to stand trial in Thailand on charges of racketeering. It stated that the complainant was currently in custody. It also reported that two years ago, a court had heard that the complainant had been a “henchman” for Drew Noyes, who had been accused of running a “protection racket” and had subsequently been jailed, and was said to have organised a meeting between “Noyes and a businessman he tried to blackmail”. The article noted that, in previous proceedings, victim Mark Goulet told the court “he was left terrified after Hanks visited his health clinic”. The article further noted that the complainant “was also named in another attempted fraud”; that he and an associate “are said to have targeted American billionaire TV tycoon Bill Monson”, “allegedly” telling him that they could help him to access the frozen fortune of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and that the complainant’s associate “wanted a fee of £7 million”.

3. The complainant said that the article included a number of inaccuracies. He said that he had never been held in custody. He also noted that his co-defendant was Alexander Komandorskiy, rather than Alexander Matusov as reported, and said that this inaccuracy erroneously implied that he had a connection to the mafia. He also said that there had been no reference in the Noyes case to any mafia. Furthermore, the complainant denied that he had been involved in an attempt to defraud Bill Monson; he said that no request for £7 million had been made by his associate.

4. The complainant said that he had not been contacted for comment prior to publication; he considered this to be a breach of Clause 2.

5. While the complaint was on-going, the complainant was cleared of all charges.

6. The newspaper said that, at the time of publication, it believed the article to be accurate. It did not consider that the erroneous reference to the complainant’s being held in custody and the inaccuracy regarding the name of his co-defendant represented significant inaccuracies in circumstances where the complainant had been charged with a serious crime. Nonetheless, it offered to publish a follow up story, on page 2 of a future edition, noting that the complainant had not been remanded in custody, and that all charges against him had subsequently been dismissed. This would also correct the name of his co-defendant. A reference to the article would be published on the front page of the relevant edition, directing readers to the page of the article. The newspaper provided the complainant and the Committee with a draft wording for this article.

7. The newspaper provided copies of emails sent to a representative of Mr Monson, copied to the complainant, offering advice on how to claim assets from a company formerly owned by Dr Thaksin. It said that this representative had told the newspaper’s reporter that the request for a fee of £7 million had been set out in a meeting between him, the complainant, and the complainant’s associate.

Relevant Code Provisions

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.

Clause 2 (Opportunity to reply)

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

Findings of the Committee

9. The newspaper had not been able to demonstrate that it had taken care over the accuracy of its report with regard to the reference to his being in custody and name of the complainant’s co-defendant. These elements were central claims about the nature and status of the proceedings, and the newspaper could have verified these details. In the absence of any explanation for the publication of the inaccurate information, the Committee established a breach of 1(i). The inaccuracies were significant ones, which should be corrected to avoid a breach of 1(ii).

10. The article had not made any further alleged link between the complainant and the mafia; there was therefore nothing for the Committee to consider on this point.

11. The Committee noted the complainant’s denial that he had been involved in an attempt to defraud Bill Monson. The article had clearly presented this as an allegation, and had made clear that no finding of fact, or legal ruling, had been made on the matter. The complainant was not in a position to deny that a representative of Mr Monson had claimed that he had been involved in a fraud attempt, and that his associate had requested a fee of £7 million. Given the way in which the material had been presented, there was no breach of Clause 1.

12. Clause 2 does not include a requirement to seek comment prior to publication; rather, it provides an opportunity to respond to published inaccuracies. The complainant had not requested an opportunity to respond, but had requested that inaccuracies in the article be corrected. There was no breach of Clause 2.

13. Given that the complainant had later been cleared of all charges, it was appropriate for the newspaper to publish an update on his case. The Committee welcomed the newspaper’s offer to do so, to comply with its obligations to accurately report on such matters.

Conclusions

14. The complaint was upheld.

Remedial Action Required

15. Having upheld a breach of Clause 1 (i), the Committee considered what remedial action should be required. The Committee had reviewed the newspaper’s draft wording for a follow-up article, which identified the inaccuracies which the Committee had identified in the article, and reported the correct position. This follow-up story, which was due to appear on page 2, with a reference on page 1, where the original article had appeared, was an appropriate remedy to the breach of Clause 1. This should now be published.

Date complaint received: 24/07/2015
Date decision issued: 09/12/2015