Ruling

05003-15 Al Fayed v The Sunday Times

    • Date complaint received

      29th September 2015

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

·   Decision of the Complaints Committee 05003-15 Al Fayed v The Sunday Times

Summary of complaint 

1. Mohamed Al Fayed complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Royals hunt source of Nazi salute film / ‘She was 7, she didn’t know any better’”, published on 19 July 2015. 

2. The article was published the day after stills of footage showing HM The Queen as a child appeared on the front of another newspaper. The article under complaint reported that the Palace had launched an investigation to try to determine how the footage had been released, and speculated on its possible provenance. It said that if the camera had belonged to Edward VIII then it was possible that the film had been stored at his villa in Paris, the contents of which had been purchased and later sold at auction by the complainant. 

3. The complainant said that the reel of film was not at the Paris villa when he took ownership of its contents, and the relevant consignment records of the material that was auctioned would have shown that they did not include the footage. While the article had suggested various possibilities as to how the footage had been acquired, the newspaper had given particular prominence (in an enlarged “pull quote” next to the article) to a phrase which speculated on the complainant’s involvement. The complainant also expressed concern that the article had given the impression that he had auctioned the lots as a reaction to the death of his son in a car crash in Paris; in fact, the auction had been scheduled to take place a few days after the crash, but was postponed in the circumstances. The complainant said that the newspaper had not made legitimate attempts to contact him in advance of publication; if he had been given the opportunity he would have strongly denied the suggestion that he may have once been in possession of the footage. 

4. The newspaper noted that the articles had reported that both the Palace and the newspaper which had published the image believed that the person who had filmed it was probably George VI, not Edward VIII, and that in that case the footage should have been held at either Windsor Castle or the British Film Institute (BFI). The articles did not state that the complainant had leaked the footage; they had simply speculated that the auction, containing thousands of lots, may be one possible explanation as to how the other newspaper obtained the video. It said that considerable efforts had been made to contact the complainant prior to publication. It acknowledged that the auction was authorised by the complainant before his son’s death, not after; it did not believe that this represented a significant inaccuracy. Nonetheless, the newspaper published the following clarification on the Letters page of the next edition: 

“Mohamed al-Fayed has asked us to point out that he authorised the 1998 auction of the contents of the former Duchess of Windsor’s villa (“’She was 7, she didn’t know any better’”, News, last week) before the crash in which his son and Diana, Princess of Wales were killed. He also says that footage of the royal family giving a Nazi salute was not listed for sale at the auction. We are happy to make this clear.” 

5. The complainant expressed concern that the clarification had been published without him being informed in advance; he said that discussions about the nature, extent and the prominence of the clarification were ongoing at the time of publication. He said that the published clarification did not encompass all of the required points, and its prominence was insufficient when compared with the front-page claims it sought to clarify. 

Relevant Code Provisions

6. 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. 

iii) The press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. 

Findings of the Committee

7. It was accepted that the complainant had authorised the auction of the contents of the Parisian villa prior to his son’s death. As the correct position was already in the public domain, publication of this claim represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article. In this context, the inaccurate claim appeared to provide support for the newspaper’s speculation as to the complainant’s possible involvement in the leaking of the video reel, in the sense that it could be taken by readers to provide a “motive” for a leak; it represented a significant inaccuracy which required correction under the terms of Clause 1 (ii). 

8. In considering the complainant’s other concerns, the Committee noted that the articles were clearly speculation. They suggested a number of ways in which the footage of the Queen may have been released. The possibility that the video had once been in the possession of the complainant was not presented as established fact, either in the article or in the pull quote. The newspaper had been entitled to speculate as to how the video had been leaked, so long as readers would not be misled as to the status of the claims. The Committee was satisfied that the articles, taken as a whole, had clearly distinguished between conjecture and fact; there was no breach of Clause 1 (iii). In these circumstances, the complaint about the newspaper’s attempts to contact the complainant prior to publication of the article did not raise a breach of the Code. 

9. The Committee took the opportunity, however, to express concern that the newspaper had not informed the complainant that it would be publishing a clarification in response to his concerns, and had also published it while negotiations as to an appropriate resolution to his complaint were ongoing. 

Conclusions

10. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1 (Accuracy). 

Remedial Action Required

11. The newspaper had already published a correction which made clear that the auction had been authorised before the death of the complainant’s son. The Committee was satisfied that this correction was an appropriate remedy to the established breach of Clause 1, notwithstanding the concern the Committee had already expressed regarding the manner in which publication of the correction had been handled. No further action was required. 

Date complaint received: 14/08/2015

Date decision issued: 29/09/2015