Ruling

05298-18 For Britain Movement v Sunday Life

    • Date complaint received

      21st February 2019

    • Outcome

      Breach - sanction: action as offered by publication

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination

Decision of the Complaints Committee 05298-18 For Britain Movement v Sunday Life

Summary of Complaint

1. For Britain Movement complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that Sunday Life breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Nazi Mark rejects call from For Britain activists”, published on 3 June 2018.

2. The article reported that Northern Ireland’s “most notorious Nazi” had rejected an offer to lead a For Britain Movement “cell”, after he had been approached by For Britain Movement activists. It reported that this individual had recently taken part in White Pride marches, and that he had been questioned by police in connection with a series of UDA shootings in 2016. The article also described the For Britain Movement (which is a UK political party) as a “far-right” group and named its leader, referring to her as a “Dublin-born lesbian”.

3. The complainant expressed general concern that the article was motivated by political bias and written with the intention to draw an unfounded association between the For Britain Movement (FBM) and an individual who it said was known for their “racist, Nazi-sympathetic views”; it said that this was not in line with the tolerant ethos of the FBM.

4. The complainant denied that the FBM was a “far-right” group. It said that the newspaper had reported this as a fact and had failed to justify the use of this term within the article. The complainant said that the term “far-right” was generally understood to mean the promotion of authoritarian governmental power and the erosion of individual liberty, democratic institutions and the rule of law. It said that these values were inconsistent with the FBM’s policy objectives. The complainant said that while its political opponents frequently refer to it as a “far-right” group, this is not an accurate description of its political stance.

5. The complainant denied that a group of For Britain Movement activists, or any official representative of the party, had offered the individual described in the article as a “notorious Nazi” any role within the party, or that it had made any contact with this individual. It said that only the party leader can offer any roles within the party, and that in any event, the Northern Ireland branch of the party did not exist at the time of publication. The complainant said that there was a failure to distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact on this point. Furthermore, the complainant said that the use of the term “cell” was misleading because it suggested that the FBM was an illicit organisation rather than a legitimate political party.

6. The complainant said that the newspaper did not contact it prior to publication, nor did it provide a fair opportunity to reply to the alleged inaccuracies. It said that it had contacted the newspaper five days after publication; however, it did not receive an acknowledgement or a response. The complainant said that it had also emailed the newspaper on two further occasions in July and August, and that it did not receive a substantive response until August.

7. The complainant said that the article’s reference to its leader as a “lesbian” was not genuinely relevant to the story, and therefore its inclusion was in breach of Clause 12.

8. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that it had taken care to ensure the accuracy of the article. The newspaper said that its reporter had been informed by reliable sources that the individual described in the article as a “notorious Nazi”, had told people that he had rejected approaches from FBM activists, regarding becoming a “cell” leader. It said that this individual had also made this claim directly to one of its sources. The newspaper said that once it became aware of this information, its reporter attempted to contact the complainant for comment. It said that its reporter was not able to locate a telephone number on the complainant’s website, and that he had sent an email to the incorrect email address in error.

9. The newspaper said that the FBM was widely regarded as a “far-right” group, and described as such in various media reports and political commentary; this was a reflection of the complainant’s position on the spectrum of UK politics. The newspaper said that the complainant’s leader’s views had repeatedly been described as “extreme”, “far-right” and “anti-Islam”, and that she had been known to publicly make Islamophobic comments. It said that therefore, it described the party as “far-right” in the context of its leader’s public statements, which it considered to be extreme, rather than as a reflection of any official policy statements published by the complainant; this included her having described Islam as ‘evil’ and a ‘killing machine’, and having referred to the UK becoming an ‘Islamic state’ in her lifetime. In addition, the newspaper said that some members of the For Britain Movement were known to have links to other ‘Nazi’ organisations, and that FBM members had left UKIP to form the group after being branded “Nazis and racists” by its leadership. The publication provided various news reports taken from other media outlets which it said demonstrated its position. The newspaper said that in this context, the use of the word “cell” was a reference to a small group of a controversial political movement, which was not misleading.

10. The newspaper said that the FBM’s leader’s sexuality had been extensively reported on in other publicly-available media coverage, regardless of the subject matter of these articles, and that therefore it was a relevant detail. It said that the party’s leader had openly described herself as an active LGBT rights campaigner; that she was a keynote speaker at “Gays Against Sharia” rallies and other similar events; and that she had previously referred to the sexuality of her political opponents. The newspaper said that as such, the complainant could not reasonably object to the media referring to its leader’s sexual orientation. The newspaper said that the inclusion of this information did not represent a breach of Clause 12.

11. Nevertheless, the newspaper offered to interview a representative of the For Britain Movement’s new Northern Ireland branch with a view to publication, and also to publish the following clarification on page 10 of the newspaper:

“On 3 June 2018, we published an article headlined “Nazi Mark rejects call from For Britain activists”, which stated that Mark Brown had been approached by activists representing For Britain to set up a ‘cell’ in Coleraine and Portrush. This claim was based on information provided by sources close to Mr Brown, but was not corroborated by the party itself. We have since been contacted by For Britain, who say that Mr Brown was not approached by anyone with the authority to make such an offer. The party says that it is not a ‘far right group’ operating ‘cells’ as the article claimed, and wishes to dissociate itself from the views expressed by Mr Brown. We are happy to make its position clear.”

The complainant did not accept this offer.

Relevant Code Provisions

12. 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.

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

13. The article had stated as fact that the FBM had offered “Northern Ireland’s most notorious Nazi” the opportunity to “lead a cell”. This claim had not been put to the complainant prior to the publication of the article, because the reporter had failed to use the correct contact details. There was clearly dispute over whether it was accurate to state that individuals identifying themselves with For Britain had been in contact with this individual; the Committee’s role was to determine whether sufficient care had been taken over this claim. The Committee noted that only one source was said to have heard this information directly from the individual concerned, and the publication did not appear to have taken any steps to verify the affiliation to the FBM of the individuals alleged to have approached this person. This information had nevertheless been presented as a statement of fact rather than a claim or allegation, and the publication had not obtained any record of the complainant’s position. Presenting this information as fact, in these circumstances, represented a failure to take care over the accuracy of the article, in breach of Clause 1(i). A clarification was required to make clear the status of this information, and indicate that it was disputed by the FBM. The publication had offered to publish a clarification to this effect, and had done so promptly, once the matter had been raised with it by IPSO. This clarification had been offered on page 10, the same page as the article originally appeared, which was sufficiently prominent where this was the page on which the article had originally appeared. There was no further breach of Clause 1(ii).

14. Characterisations of political groups on a spectrum is in part a matter of editorial discretion, but the Code requires that care be taken over the accuracy of such characterisations. In this instance, the characterisation of the FBM as a “far right group” had been based in large part on similar descriptions of the party in other media, but also on reports of the temporary presence within the party of individuals affiliated with extremist groups associated with the political right, and on the party’s public stance on Islam. It was clear that the party had attracted individuals associated with groups at the “far right” end of the political spectrum, and the publication had provided its rationale for describing the group in this way based on its own editorial viewpoint. Consequently, there was no failure to take care over this characterisation, and the label “far right” did not give rise to a significantly misleading impression that required correction under Clause 1. Similarly, the Committee considered that the term “cell” could be understood in the context of the article to refer to a small group within a large organisation, which was not an inaccurate description of the alleged proposal, and in these circumstances its use did not give rise to a significantly misleading impression. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point. Nevertheless, the Committee welcomed the publication’s offer to clarify the complainant’s position in relation to this.

15. The reference to the FBM’s leader’s sexuality had been included as a relevant biographical detail in the context of the description of her as “a former LGBT rights campaigner who began her career within the British Labour Party”. It was not in dispute that the leader had been open about her sexuality as a public figure, and that this was widely known, or that she had attended rallies with the group ‘Gays Against Sharia’. The inclusion of the reference to the leader’s sexual orientation, in these circumstances, was not prejudicial or pejorative. There was no breach of Clause 12. 

Conclusions

16. The complaint was upheld under Clause 1(i).

Remedial Action Required

17. Having upheld the complaint, the Committee considered what remedial action should be required.

18. The publication had offered a clarification which had addressed the inaccurate impression the article had given of the status of the claims made, and had done so promptly once the matter was raised with it by IPSO. It had offered to publish this clarification on page 10 – the same page as the article appeared – and this was sufficiently prominent. The relevant sections of this clarification should now be published, in the same font size as is standard for that page, and with an appropriate headline in the same font size as the original article’s sub-headline (“Hitler-loving racist now looking for a quiet life”).

Date complaint received: 08/08/2018
Date decision issued: 24/01/2018