Ruling

04928-16 The League Against Cruel Sports v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      17th November 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 04928-16The League Against Cruel Sports v The Times

Summary of complaint 

1. The League Against Cruel Sports complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in articles headlined “Animal rights charity exposed over squandered fortune” and “Dogmatic industrialist who left charity £3.5m”, published on 29 March 2016, and an article headlined “Look where the money goes”, published on 30 March 2016.

2. The front-page article, published on 29 March 2016, reported that the League Against Cruel Sports had been “saved from financial calamity” by a £3.5million legacy donation, which it had “squandered” on “a failed prosecution, foreign travel, hotel bills and pay rises”. It said that the charity had spent £25,000 bringing a private prosecution against six members of the Lamerton Hunt for illegal hunting, but the case had collapsed when it emerged that a prosecution witness had close links to the charity. It also reported that the charity had sacked two whistle-blowers who had raised concerns about the charity to the regulator. The second 29 March 2016 article focused on the millionaire who had left his money to the charity. It repeated the claim that on receipt of the bequest, the charity had embarked on an “extravagant spending spree”, while the leader article, published the following day, said that the Charity Commission had failed in its duty to investigate the charity following information provided by a whistle-blower, and instead had stated that the issues that had been raised were matters for the charity’s trustees.  The piece noted that “it matters when a charity fails its donors”.

3. The articles were also published online.

4. The complainant said that the newspaper had published several articles about the charity, which had given an unjustified negative view of its practices. It said that many of the allegations had been put to the charity before the story was published, and the charity had made clear that they were without foundation; however, its responses had been ignored, or given “very short shrift” in the coverage.  

5. The complainant said that the assertion that the charity had “squandered” a legacy donation in the 29 March, front-page headline was misleading and was unsupported by the text of the article. It also denied the claim, which had appeared in the subsequent leader article, that on receipt of the bequest, the charity had “appeared to lose all sense of proportion and direction”. It said that the £3.5million bequest had been delivered to the charity in instalments. Since the delivery of the first instalment, the charity had spent money that it had raised through its fundraising activities; it had not spent any of the legacy at the time of publication. It noted that the “failed prosecution, foreign travel, hotel bills and pay rises” had cost just 5% of the amount left to the charity in the legacy. There was no evidence to support the leader article’s assertion that the charity had “failed its donors”.

6. The complainant considered that the newspaper’s assertion that the bequest had “saved” the charity had been unfounded. The last instalment of the money had arrived in January 2016, and the increase in the charity’s bank balance since the donation had been greater than the total bequest. The charity had cash in the bank and “free reserves exceeded the amount required under [its] reserves policy”.

7. The complainant offered to provide evidence from the time of the alleged “squandering” which it said showed that it had been unnecessary for it to draw on the legacy to cover expenditure. It supplied a letter from its accountants, which said “at the end of each month from July 2014 when the first instalment of the legacy was received until March 2016 the cash at bank exceeded the amount received from the Hales legacy”. The letter also said that there was no question that wages could not be paid; the 2014 and 2015 accounts had given no indication of “financial difficulties”. 

8. The complainant also expressed concern that the newspaper had described the prosecution the charity had brought against the Lamerton Hunt as a “waste”. The case had been dropped, but not because of the quality of the evidence. It also considered that the judge had not found that the charity had acted improperly by not disclosing its relationship with one of the prosecution witnesses; the omission of this fact in the coverage had given an unfavourable impression of the charity, which was misleading.

9. The complainant said that the suggestion that two individuals had been dismissed for whistle-blowing was inaccurate. The concerns raised by two members of staff had been properly addressed by the charity’s trustees.

10. While the complainant noted that the 29 March, front-page article had included its rebuttal of the allegations, given the headline and the length of the piece, the article overall was misleading. It noted that no such denial had been included in the leader article, giving the impression that the information regarding whistle-blowers in the previous day’s article was fact.

11. The newspaper said that it had been alerted to concerns about the charity in December 2015, and its Investigations Editor had interviewed a confidential source and reviewed a large amount of documentation in January 2016. The facts were then checked with several confidential sources and public records before publication. As it was to rely on confidential sources, which it had a duty to protect, it said it had taken care to put the allegations to the charity before publication. It had also contacted each of the charity’s trustees who had been involved with the organisation during the period covered by the allegations.

12. The newspaper said that the articles had accurately raised serious questions about the way in which the charity had spent money since it had become entitled to a substantial legacy. The Director of Marketing and Fundraising had formally told the charity that the legacy was “at risk of being wasted”, and the articles had given several examples of significant spending by the charity, which appeared to have been prompted by the bequest.

13. The newspaper considered that it had accurately characterised the expenditure as a “spending spree”. It noted that if the money spent had represented 5% of the total bequest, as claimed by the charity, it had amounted to £175,000. It said that internal papers had shown that money from the bequest had also been used to cover spending deficits.

14. The newspaper considered that the articles had clearly set out why the private prosecution of the Lamerton Hunt, which had cost the charity £25,000, had failed; and the coverage had included the charity’s position that two senior barristers had assessed the evidence and had concluded that there had been a “realistic prospect of conviction”.

15. It said the references to foreign travel had concerned the charity’s trips to campaign against the shooting of wild birds in Malta. Two senior members of staff had visited Malta three times in 13 months, and the Vice President had visited twice; the campaign had failed. It said that on the Charity Commission website, the charity had stated that it “only operates in the UK”. It noted that its front-page article had stated that the charity had justified its trips to Malta because the birds it had wished to protect had been flying towards Britain.

16. The newspaper considered that the 10% pay rise, which had been given to staff in May 2015, had been many times in excess of inflation. In addition, it said that one trustee had stayed at a hotel at a cost of £200 a night, when the charity’s written policy had stated that trustees should stay in “budget rooms”. The same trustee had also been allowed to claim expenses for taxis, when the charity’s policy said that trustees should use public transport.

17. The newspaper also considered that a “serious example of money being squandered by the charity” had been the payment of £12,000 to its Chief Executive for his criminal defence costs after he was arrested and charged for his involvement in a pub brawl. This was expenditure that the charity had not declared to the regulator. 

18. The newspaper said that it had seen a transcript of a grievance hearing between a whistle-blower and management, which had made clear that the charity had been aware that the whistle-blower had brought concerns about the organisation’s governance to the attention of the regulator. The charity had terminated the whistle-blower’s employment, as well as that of a second member of staff who had “protected status as a whistle-blower”. In addition, when the charity’s President had written to trustees about “internal problems” that were causing him “grave concern”, the board had removed him from his post. The newspaper noted that the articles had included the charity’s position that the President’s tenure had been at an end, and its denial that any member of staff had faced detrimental treatment for whistle-blowing.

19. With regards to the complainant’s denial that the bequest had “saved” the charity, the newspaper said that internal communications had shown that the charity needed to receive more of the legacy to prevent its cash balance falling “very low”. During his exit interview, the Director of Campaigns had expressed his concern that the charity was being led “down a path of ineffectiveness, irrelevance and potential bankruptcy”. It said that internal memos had also shown that the charity had been in need of money; it referenced an email, which had also been quoted in the coverage, in which the charity’s former Chief Executive had said “F**k have we got enough money to pay the wages next month”. An accountant had responded by saying that cash “looked tightish September onwards but will of course be topped up by the interim payment on the legacy”. The newspaper said that the charity’s reliance on the legacy to keep it in “the black” had also been reflected in a spreadsheet detailing the charity’s income and expenditure. In late 2014, an official had also written “Assuming there is a further distribution from the Hales legacy in February then cash balances should not cause concern…Should however no further distribution from Hales be received in the first 6 months then cash balances would be very low”. 

20. With regards to the letter provided by the charity’s accountants, the newspaper said that their position that “cash at bank always exceeded the amount received from the Hales legacy” did not prove that the charity had been in good financial health. It said that a line drawn in the accounts had shown that deficits were turned into surpluses by adding the legacy money to the calculation. It noted that the accounts had been prepared in the knowledge of the legacy, so there was no reason for them to indicate that the charity had been facing “financial difficulties”. It said that it had seen an internal document which showed that the cash in bank before the legacy was £1,100,000, and that the charity had been projecting annual spending deficits of around £800,000 and £900,000.

21. The newspaper said it would be willing to consider publishing a letter from the charity setting out its position that the expenditure was justified and not prompted by the bequest.

Relevant Code provisions

22. 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.

Findings of the Committee

23. It was accepted that before the legacy had been received, the charity’s former Chief Executive had emailed its accountants and had asked whether the organisation would be able to pay staff wages the following month. In addition, it was accepted that the Director of Campaigns had expressed concern that the organisation was facing potential bankruptcy, and that an official had said that cash would be “very low” if the next instalment of the legacy was not received. In these circumstances, it was not significantly misleading for the newspaper to assert that the legacy had “saved” the charity from financial ruin. It had taken care to ask the charity how reliant it was on the legacy before publication, and it had reported its position that “we have not yet spent any of Mr Hales’ generous bequest”. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

24. It was not in dispute that following the news that it was to receive the bequest, the charity had launched a private prosecution against members of the Lamerton Hunt, which had failed; it had given staff an above-inflation pay rise; it had paid for trips to Malta for its campaign to protect wild birds; and it had paid £200 for hotel accommodation for one of its trustees, when its policy required trustees to stay in budget hotels. The newspaper had been entitled to its position that this expenditure had represented “squandering” and an “extravagant spending spree”. The reference to “squandering” in the front-page headline had not given the misleading impression that all the money had been spent. The newspaper’s characterisation of the spending was also supported by the charity’s former Director of Marketing who had stated that the legacy had been “at high risk of being wasted”. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

25. The Committee noted the charity’s position that it was not the legacy that had been spent, but separate money that had been raised through fundraising. However, the newspaper had been entitled to draw a connection between the fact of the bequest and the charity’s spending activities. It had relied on the charity’s internal documents, which it said had indicated that the legacy was being used to plug spending deficits. Due to its obligation to protect its confidential sources, the newspaper had been unable to provide these documents, but it had asked the charity how much of the legacy had been spent before publication, and it had reported its position that it remained untouched. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article on this point.

26. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had failed to report that the judge presiding over the case against the Lamerton Hunt had not found that the charity had acted improperly. However, the newspaper had accurately reported that the prosecution had collapsed because the charity’s relationship with one of the witnesses had not been disclosed. It was not obliged to additionally report that there was no wrongdoing on behalf of the charity; the omission of this information was not significantly misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

27. The newspaper had been entitled to report that two members of staff and the President of the charity, who had raised concerns about the organisation to the regulator, had their employment terminated, and the Committee noted that the charity did not deny that all three whistle-blowers had since left the organisation. The newspaper had taken care to put the allegation that this related to whistle-blowing to the charity before publication, and it had reported its position that it “denied that any individual had been dismissed or faced detrimental treatment for whistle-blowing” and that the President had been “removed after he exceeded an expected three-year tenure”. The leader article had made clear that the claims about the charity, which had been made by the whistle-blower, were allegations and not statements of fact. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

28. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the leader article had asserted that the charity had “failed its donors”. However, this was not a reference made specifically in relation to the League Against Cruel Sports; rather it was a general statement of opinion about the need for the Charity Commission to properly investigate charities when concerns are raised about their practices because “it matters when a charity fails its donors”. Nevertheless, the article had made clear that the criticism of the charity was based on it bringing a failed prosecution at a cost of £25,000, and engaging in trips abroad when the regulator’s website stated that it only operated within the UK. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

29. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

N/A

Date complaint received: 15/07/2016
Date decision issued: 31/10/2016