Ruling

06401-21 League Against Cruel Sports v The Sunday Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      2nd December 2021

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 06401-21 League Against Cruel Sports v The Sunday Telegraph

Summary of Complaint

1. The League Against Cruel Sports complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Sunday Telegraph breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Anti-hunting charity ‘bullied’ site used to raise funds for hounds”, published on 23 May 2021.

2. The article reported that the complainant, “an anti-hunting charity”, had “been accused of ‘bullying’ in a ‘campaign of harassment’ against auction websites used to raise money for hunts and hounds.” The article went on to report that the complainant had “been reported to the Charity Commission for ‘demanding with menaces’ that a fundraising platform cut all ties with legally registered hunts” and that the Commission was, according to a spokesperson, “’assessing’ the complaint”.

3. The article also reported that “activists waged a social media campaign and within hours the [fundraising] company deleted its Twitter account”. It further said that the complainant had “also targeted the [auction] website’s customers and a number of small businesses, claiming any links will damage their reputation” and that it “boasts on its website that the five other auction sites have already capitulated to its demands.”

4. The article also included quotes from the head of the Countryside Alliance, who had written to the Charity Commission’s chief executive, “asking her to take immediate action”. The article reported that the head of the Countryside Alliance had “warned that the [complainant] had been ‘openly running a campaign of harassment targeting businesses connected to registered hunts which operate perfectly legitimately and properly’” and that “league supporters had been ‘demanding with menaces that it stop providing a service for hunt businesses’”.

5. The article went on to report that the complainant had “used this tactic” in 2011, when it “contact[ed] the corporate sponsors of the West Vale Hunt” and that “[a]t the time, the Charity Commission said it had ‘raised the issue with the charity’”. This was followed by a further quote from the head of the Countryside Alliance, who the article reported had said that “the [complainant had] already been reprimanded in the past for falling short of the strict guidelines which governs how a charity must conduct itself”. The article further reported that after a “previous campaign against hunt sponsors, the commission ‘reminded’ the league of its responsibilities as a charity.”

6. Finally, the article included a quote from the complainant’s chief executive, and a spokesperson for the Charity Commission. The former was quoted as saying that it was the complainant’s “duty to urge them to remove these questionable organisations from a platform that otherwise helps worthy causes raise vital funds”. He added: “It is completely in line with our charitable objectives to alert the public to companies that profit from the suffering of animals in the name of ‘sport’ and perhaps the best example of this is our campaign to stop airlines advertising flights for UK tourists to watch bullfighting in Spain.”

7. The quote included in the article from the Charity Commission spokesperson said: “We can confirm concerns have been raised with us about the League Against Cruel Sports. We are assessing those concerns to determine what, if any, role there is for us as a regulator.”

8. The article also appeared online in substantially the same form, under the headline “Exclusive: Charity conducting ‘campaign of harassment’ against sites that raise money for hunts”. It was published on 22 May 2021. The online version of the article also included a sub-heading, which said: “Regulator called upon to take action against League Against Cruel Sports over bullying tactics used against fundraising websites”.

9. The complainant said that the article included several instances of inaccurate, misleading, and distorted information, in breach of Clause 1. It first said that the print headline was inaccurate, as the auction website was not solely used to raise funds for “hounds”, as suggested in the headline. Instead, it said that its investigations showed that it funded hunts in their entirety, which included both staffing and running costs as well as funding hunting’s governing body. It said that omitting the fact that it funded hunts – and not merely hounds – from the headline inaccurately implied that the money raised was intended solely to benefit animals. The complainant also said that the online headline was inaccurate – while acknowledging that, unlike the print headline, it referred to hunts as well as hounds – where it “disagree[d] in the strongest terms” with the use of the word “harassment”, which it noted was an offence in both criminal and civil law.

10. The complainant also said that it was inaccurate for the article to report that the auction website company had “deleted its Twitter account”: it had in fact deactivated, not deleted, the account, and the complainant had made the publication aware of this via its email sent to the journalist prior to the article’s publication. It further said that it was inaccurate to state that it said on its website that “five other auction sites had already capitulated to its demands”, as the phrase “capitulated” implied that the sites were under attack, which it said was not the case and rendered the article distorted in breach of Clause 1 (i).

11. Turning next to the article’s claim that the complainant had “targeted […] a number of small businesses”, it said this was inaccurate: it had contacted charities and other fundraising organisations as part of its campaign, but hadn’t contacted any small businesses. It further noted that the contact had taken the form on “one polite email only”.

12. The complainant also raised concerns about what it considered to be inaccuracies in breach of Clause 1 included in the quotations from the head of the Countryside Alliance. It first said, that contrary to his assertion that the complainant had “target[ed] businesses connected to registered hunts which operate perfectly legitimately and properly”, some hunts which used the auction site to fundraise had “either been convicted of offences related to hunting, are facing court action, or have been the subject of reports into the League’s Animal Crimewatch Service for activity related to illegal hunting”. It also said that it was inaccurate for the head of the Countryside Alliance to say that it had been “demanding with menaces”, that it had engaged in “harassment”, or that it had “threatened businesses”. The complainant said that it had not threatened the auction site, or any of its users, with any action detrimental to its business. Instead, the complainant’s supporters were asked to contact the company and request it withdraw support for hunts. The complainant said that, as the head of the Countryside Alliance’s specific allegations were not put to it prior to publication, it had not been given the opportunity to dispute his allegations.

13. The complainant then said that the article was inaccurate in its portrayal of the circumstances surrounding a previous complaint made to the Charity Commission about its activities in relation to the West Vale Hunt. The complainant said that it had contacted the sponsors of the hunt to make it aware of the criminal behaviour of one of the huntsmen involved in the hunt, which was directed towards a member of the League. It said that this approach had been followed by a “vexatious complaint” to the Charity Commission, but that no sanctions or reprimands of any sort were given to the charity in connection with the complaint or incident. It said that it clarified this with the journalist prior to publication, and that the article was in breach of Clause 1 by stating that the complainant had “contact[ed] the corporate sponsors of the West Vale Hunt” and that “[a]t the time, the Charity Commission said it had ‘raised the issue with the charity’”. It also said that this rendered a further quote from the Head of the Countryside Alliance, in which he referred to the complainant as having been “reprimanded in the past for falling short of the strict guidelines which governs how a charity must conduct itself”, inaccurate as no such reprimand had been received; indeed, the Charity Commission confirmed it had no such sanction as a “reprimand”.

14. The complainant also said that a breach of the Code arose from the publication truncating the full quote from its CEO. It said that it understood that it was sometimes necessary for publications to truncate a quotation, but in doing so in this instance the publication had inaccurately quoted the CEO in breach of Clause 1. It said that the portion of the quote which had been removed included a reference to an allegation of the auction site promoting criminal activity. The complainant said that, by omitting this from its CEO’s quote, the publication omitted crucial context to the complainant’s activities, which demonstrated that it was acting within its charitable aims as well as in the public interest and, therefore, distorted the true position.

15. The complainant further said that Clause 1 had been breached, as its response to the bullying allegations was not included in the introduction of the article. It considered that this rendered the article unbalanced and misleading in breach of Clause 1.

16. Finally, the complainant said that it considered the article had breached the Code by omitting to mention that the mere fact of a complaint being filed with the Charity Commission does not mean that there is a case to answer on the part of the complainant. It noted that the Commission had made clear in its quite that it had not yet established whether this fell within its remit as a regulator.

17. Prior to making a complaint to IPSO, the complainant contacted the publication directly, 6 days after the first publication of the article, to make it aware that it considered Clause 1 of the Editors’ Code of Practice had been breached. It requested that the publication amend the online version of the article; remove links within the article itself to previous coverage of the complainant; provide an assurance that in any future coverage the complainant would be given the opportunity to fully respond to any claims made about its work; and that it would be “represented faithfully” in any subsequent coverage.

18. The publication said it did not accept that the article breached the Editors’ Code. It first noted that the article was intended to be read as a whole, and that breaking it down into parts distorted its meaning.

19. The publication explained that care that had been taken over the accuracy of the claims. It said that the journalist contacted the complainant via email two days prior to the article’s first publication. It had referred to the “the League's campaign against [the auction website], which on the league's own account has seen more than 2,600 emails sent to a small business, the company forced off Twitter, and their clients targeted.” The email then put three questions to the complainant: ”Does the League see the targeting of small businesses as an appropriate tactic for a charity? Have you been contacted by the Charity Commission about the campaign? Before [the auction website] was targeted, was consideration given to earlier advice from the Charity Commission when the League ran a similar campaign against the corporate sponsors of the West Vale Hunt?”

20. A spokesperson for the complainant replied to the journalist’s emailed questions. In their response, they included background information as well as an on-the-record statement from the complainant’s chief executive. As background information, the complainant said that: the auction website “has not been forced off Twitter, but it did deactivate its account for a time”, noting that its Facebook page had remained active; that it was unaware of any Charity Commission complaint; and that after the 2011 West Vale and Somerset hunt incident, a complaint “was lodged and the Commission issued us with its standard letter of acknowledgement and guidance in response. No action or sanctions against the League were taken as a result, as we had acted within our objects.”

21. The comment provided by the complainant’s chief executive was very similar to the one which was published as part of the article, except that it also included a claim that the auction website was hosting allegedly illegal hunts.

22. The publication defended the accuracy of the headline of the print version of the article. It said that the first paragraph of the article stated that the auction website was being used to raise money for “hunts and hounds”. Given that the website did indeed raise money for hounds, and where the first paragraph made immediately clear that money was being raised for hunts as well as hounds, the publication did not accept that the print headline was inaccurate.

23. The publication then said that, while it understood that the auction website had deactivated its Twitter account, it did not consider that there was a material difference between deleting the Twitter account, as reported by the article, and deactivating the account.

24. Turning next to the complainant’s allegation that the article breached the Code by claiming that it had “targeted […] a number of small businesses”, it said that this allegation was included in the complaint to the Charity Commission, and that a journalist working for the newspaper had had sight of an email which had been sent to such a business, though it declined to provide the email to IPSO, as it has been provided by a source who wished to remain anonymous. It also said that in an email sent to its supporters, the complainant had said that it had “been in contact with past and present users of [the auction website], some have stated that they will move their business elsewhere.”

25. It also said that the complainant’s blog included the following statements: “The League contacted several companies and businesses that donated prizes to auctions associated with hunting asking them to remove their lots" and “Past and present users of [the auction website] have informed us they will move their business elsewhere unless [the auction website] commits to stop funding hunts." It also noted that in its email to the complainant, prior to publication, it had asked the complainant whether it saw the targeting of small businesses as an appropriate action for a charity to take, and the complainant did not dispute this or ask for further clarification on what was meant by the allegation. It also said that it had sight of correspondence sent by the organisation, which it said could – in its view – be accurately characterised as “threatening”. It quoted the correspondence, though it did not provide a copy to IPSO: "By donating to this auction, you are associating your business with a cruel blood ‘sport’ and, in view of the ongoing Police investigation [into hunting office smokescreen comments], you could be viewed as complicit in supporting the illegal hunting and brutal killing of wildlife.... Removing your support will protect your business’s reputation, protect wildlife and the environment allowing the public to enjoy the countryside unimpeded by hunts which is ever more important in these times." With all these factors in mind, the publication considered that no breach of the Code arose from the article’s reference to the complainant “target[ing…] a number of small businesses”.

26. The publication then addressed the alleged breach of Clause 1 arising from the article’s statement that “five other auction sites had already capitulated to [the complainant’s] demands”. It did not consider that this was an inaccurate summary of what the complainant had said on its own blog, which stated that “[f]ive other auction sites, […] have now gone on the record to state that they would not host an auction for a fox hunt. [One auction website] has gone so far to state on its website that fox hunts are not welcome." The publication said it was therefore a “matter of fact” that websites had been pressured into removing auction listings, and it was therefore not inaccurate to state that they had “capitulated”.

27. The publication also said that the quoted statements from the head of the Countryside Alliance did not raise a breach of Clause 1. It first said that they were clearly attributed to him and presented as his views on the matter. It was therefore not inaccurate to quote him as saying that the complainant had “target[ed] businesses connected to registered hunts which operate perfectly legitimately and properly”. It also noted that the fact that some hunting activities are illegal did not negate the fact that other registered hunts are legal. It then said that it did not consider that the claim that the complainant had engaged in “demanding with menaces” was inaccurate, where it was taken from a letter sent to the Charity Commission. It said that whether or not the emails from the complainant were polite, some may have felt harassed by the emails. It further noted that the complainant had described the emails as a “campaign” on its website, that the complainant and its supporters had sent over 2700 emails in the course of the “campaign”, and that the complainant had tweeted asking its supporters to “[p]lease keep the pressure up”.

28. Turning next to the complainant’s concerns regarding the article’s references to the West Vale hunt and subsequent Charity Commission complaint, it said that the reference was factually accurate and noted that the complainant had admitted that it had contacted the sponsors of the Hunt, as reported by the article. It said that whether the complainant considered the Charity Commission complaint to be vexatious was arguably irrelevant to the matter, where the article included a statement from the Charity Commission in relation to the West Vale Hunt complaint, which said that it had “raised the issue with the charity and reminded them that any activity carried out in their name must be in accordance with the charity’s aims. We have also referred the charity trustees to the commission’s guidance on trustees’ roles and responsibilities”. It said that this statement supported the quotation given by the head of the Countryside Alliance, in which he made reference to the complainant having been “reprimanded” by the Charity Commission.

29. Regarding the article’s truncation of the full quote from the complainant’s CEO, the publication said that it was satisfied that the comment was fairly and adequately reflected in the article. It said that the full quotation included a serious and unsubstantiated allegation of criminal activity, and that removing the portion of the quote which referred to the allegation did not misrepresent the complainant’s position.

30. Finally, addressing the complainant’s concern that the article did not make clear whether the Charity Commission considered that there was a case to answer with regards to the recent complaint, it said that the Commission’s position was made clear by way of a quote from the Commission. In the quote included in the article, the Commission said that it was “assessing those concerns to determine what, if any, role there is for us as regulator”, which the publication said made the factual position clear.

31. The complainant said that, since the article’s publication, “the Charity Commission has investigated the complaints made and concluded that the League has acted within its objects […] and rejected the complaints in their entirety”. It also said that at the time the reporter had contacted it, it had not been informed that any complaint had been lodged against it. Therefore, it said, it was inaccurate to publish a story which the complainant considered suggested it was facing sanctions.

32. The complainant finally said that the reference to “small businesses” in the request for its comments prior to publication was ambiguous, and it had understood that the journalist had been referring to the auction website, which was a small business.

Relevant Code Provisions

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.

Findings of the Committee

33. The complainant clearly disputed the accuracy of the manner in which its actions had been reported in the article; for instance, by reporting claims that they had engaged in “harassment”, that they had “demand[ed] with menaces”, and that it had “threatened businesses”. In assessing whether these concerns raised a breach of Clause 1, the Committee considered carefully both the basis for the allegations and the manner in which they had been presented. The Committee noted also that Clause 1 (iv) of the Editors’ Code makes clear that publications are allowed to editorialise, and the Code itself does not state that publications cannot demonstrate bias – provided there is no breach of the Code.

34. Regarding the article’s use of the term “harassment”, the Committee first noted that it appeared in the online headline with single quotation marks, as ‘campaign of harassment’. This, the Committee considered, distinguished the “campaign of harassment” as an allegation, rather than established fact. The basis for this allegation was set out in the article, with the first line of the article making clear that the complainant had “been accused of bullying in a ‘campaign of harassment’”. Later in the article, this was expanded on further, with a quotation from the head of the Countryside Alliance, in which he referred to the complainant “openly running a campaign of harassment”. The Committee was therefore satisfied that the references to “harassment” in the article and the online headline were distinguished as allegations rather than established fact, where in each instance they appeared either in quotation marks or were directly attributed to the individual who had made the allegation.

35. The Committee noted that the complainant’s website included references to it contacting businesses and asking them to remove listings from auction websites as part of it campaign work: “The League contacted several companies and businesses that donated prizes to auctions associated with hunting asking them to remove their lots". With this in mind, the Committee was satisfied that the publication had taken care over the accuracy of the claim that the complainant had “targeted […] a number of small businesses”. The Committee also considered that the claim was not significantly inaccurate, misleading, or distorted, where it did not appear to be in dispute that the complainant had contacted several auction sites, charities, and users of the auction website, and the Committee considered that these could be reasonably characterised as “small businesses”.

36. The Committee then noted that, while the publication had not put the specific term “harassment” to the complainant prior to publication, it had sought its comment on whether it had “target[ed] small businesses”, “forced” a website off Twitter, and had played a role in ensuring over 2,600 emails were sent to various businesses. Therefore, while the term “harassment” was not directly put to the complainant prior to publication, the specific behaviour alleged by the complaint to the Charity Commission was.  The head of the Countryside Alliance had also, in his quotations, said that the complainant had been “demanding with menaces”, that it had engaged in “harassment”, and that it had “threatened businesses”. While the specific wording of the head of Countryside Alliance’s quote had not been put to the complainant, the basis for his allegations – its approaches to users of the auction sites, the emails, and the deletion of the Twitter account – had been put to the complainant, and a quotation rebutting the allegations was included in the article. As such, the Committee considered that there was no breach of Clause 1 arising from the article’s characterisations of the complainant’s actions, where care was taken over the accuracy of the basis of the characterisations and they were, where appropriate, distinguished as comment.

37. The Committee then considered the remaining points of the complaint. It was not in dispute that the auction website listings were intended to raise funds for hounds, and the first paragraph of the article made clear that hunts were also funded by the listings. The Committee also noted that headlines are intended to be read in conjunction with articles, and it is not possible for them to include all relevant information. Therefore, while an article cannot correct an inaccurate, misleading, or distorted headline, it is permissible for articles to clarify ambiguous headlines which are not inaccurate. As such, the Committee did not consider that the headline was inaccurate, misleading, or distorted, where it was not inaccurate to state that that listing was being “used to raise funds for hounds” and the opening paragraph offered further context which clarified the headline. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

38. The Committee did not consider that there was a significant difference in stating that the auction website had “deleted” its account, rather than deactivating it, where the account would have been inaccessible to readers regardless, and it was not in dispute that the decision to deactivate had arisen as a result of the complainant’s actions.  The Committee also did not consider that it was inaccurate, misleading, or distorted to state that the other auction websites had “capitulated”, where the complainant did not dispute that auction websites had agreed to move listings after a campaign on the part of the complainant directed at such websites. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

39. The complainant had also disputed the accuracy of quotes from the head of the Countryside Alliance, which was included in the article. The Committee first noted that publications are entitled to publish the personal views and perspectives of an individual, provided fact is distinguished from comment and conjecture and care is taken over the accuracy of any claims of fact. The quotes were clearly distinguished as comment, being consistently attributed to the head of the Countryside Alliance and appearing in quotation marks. The Committee was also satisfied that it was sufficiently clear from the article that the Countryside Alliance was highly critical of the complainant, and his comments did not therefore reflect impartial reporting of the situation. The Committee was satisfied that the publication had clearly presented the comments of the Countryside Alliance representative as reflecting the organisation’s own views on the situation, and were therefore distinguished from fact. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

40. Turning to the specific alleged inaccuracies which the complainant said were included in the quotations, the Committee considered that it was not inaccurate to state that the complainant had “target[ed] businesses connected to registered hunts which operate perfectly legitimately and properly”: the complainant’s campaign had involved sending emails to auction websites which fundraised for hunts which the complainant did not dispute were legal – with the exception of a listing for ‘legal hare-coursing’, the legality of which was questioned by the complainants. The Committee accepted individuals had been convicted in the past for illegal hunt-activities, and prosecutions continued across the country; however, such convictions or pending court cases relating to individuals did not render the hunts themselves illegal. Furthermore, “legitimate” and “proper” were to some extent subjective terms that individuals might interpret differently depending on personal views. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

41. A previous complaint made to the Charity Commission about the complainant was also referenced in a quote from the head of the Countryside Alliance. In it, he referred to the complainant having “been reprimanded in the past for falling short of the strict guidelines which governs how a charity must conduct itself”. This was correctly distinguished as comment from the individual quoted. Nonetheless, read in isolation, it was potentially misleading: the complainant had received no reprimand from the Charity Commission. However, the article made the true position clear by the inclusion of two quotes from the Charity Commission, one stating that “[a]t the time […] said it had ‘raised the issue with the charity’” and another making clear that after “previous campaign against hunt sponsors, the commission ‘reminded’ the league of its responsibilities as a charity.” In the article, these comments appeared prior to the head of the Countryside Alliance’s quotation that the Charity had been “reprimanded”. Therefore, placing the quote from the head of the Countryside Alliance in the context of two quotes from the Charity Commission, it was clear that the phrase “reprimand” was his characterisation of the action previously undertaken by the Commission, and that this characterisation was influenced by the critical stance he took toward the complainant. Read in context, the phrase “reprimand” was not misleading, and it was clear that this was the quoted individual’s interpretation of the previous actions of the Charity Commission. The Committee also noted that the Charity Commission had told the complainant that it did not have a regulatory action known as a “reprimand”. Therefore, there was no possibility of the man’s characterisation being confused with an actual regulatory function of the Commission, where no such function existed. In addition, while the Committee understood that the complainant considered the West Vale Hunt complaint to have been made vexatiously, this did not mean that the newspaper could not report on it, or that doing so rendered the article inaccurate, distorted, or misleading. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

42. The Committee noted that the complainant considered that the truncation of its quote rendered it misleading, as in doing so the publication omitted what the complainant considered to be the nexus of the quote. However, the Committee noted that the portion of the quote which was removed included an allegation of the auction site promoting criminal activity; this was a serious allegation which was not independently verified. It also noted that the truncated quote made clear that the complainant robustly rebutted any allegation that it was not acting within its charitable aims, and therefore accurately reflected the statement made by the complainant’s CEO. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

43. Where the complainant had been given the opportunity to reply to the substance of the allegations made against it, and where its reply was included in the article, the Committee did not consider that any breach of Clause 1 arose from not including the complainant’s rebuttal in the introduction of the article. Reading the article as a whole, the complainant’s position regarding the allegations against it was clear, and there was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

44. The complainant had also said that the article was inaccurate as it did not make clear that, while a complaint had been made against it, it did not necessarily follow that there was a case to answer. The Committee noted that the article made clear that the Charity Commission had, at the time of publication, yet to make a finding on the substance of the complaint, and included a quote to this effect: “We can confirm concerns have been raised with us about the League Against Cruel Sports. We are assessing those concerns to determine what, if any, role there is for us as a regulator.” There was therefore no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusions

45. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

46. N/A


 

Date complaint received: 17/06/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 16/11/2021