Ruling

06672-15 McKee v Coventry Telegraph

    • Date complaint received

      17th December 2015

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 4 Intrusion into grief or shock

Decision of the Complaints Committee 06672-15 McKee v Coventry Telegraph

Summary of complaint

1. Dr Vincent McKee complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that the Coventry Telegraph had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) and Clause 4 (Harassment) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an online article headlined “Shamed would-be Coventry MP to be investigated over role at new company”, published on 27 March 2015.

2. The article reported that Geoffrey Robinson MP had “acted on residents’ concerns” and reported the complainant to the police and Trading Standards for allegedly acting as a company director for Lagan Writing Services, an essay-writing company, despite a High Court ruling that banned him from doing so for 14 years. The article stated that the complainant, who had stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats, had previously been sentenced to two and a half years in prison for fraud offences.

3. The complainant said that the article had been based on information circulated by an aide to Mr Robinson. He said the newspaper had contacted him for comment before the article was published, and he had made clear that he believed that Mr Robinson’s complaint had lacked all merit, had been based on a misunderstanding of the facts, and was motivated by a political vendetta. He said there were two businesses with the same name: his organisation, Lagan Writing Services, was a partnership between himself and his daughter; it was not an incorporated commercial organisation; and although he used the managerial title “director”, this was not a corporate role. The registered company of the same name was an entirely separate business, run by his fiancée, in which he played no part. His fiancée had also provided the newspaper with a statement making clear that she was the Managing Director of the incorporated company, that it was economically inactive, and that the complainant was not acting as a company director.

4. The complainant said that police were not investigating any complaints as alleged in the article, and he had not been contacted by any legal authority. He provided a letter addressed to him from West Midlands Police, dated 3 August 2015, which said “West Midlands Police have not received any allegations of criminal offences in connection with yourself at Lagan Writing Services from victims of crime”.

5. The complainant disputed the article’s claim that his firms had owed creditors and shareholders £156,605, and that they were judged to have taken £61,197 of unauthorised payments from students. He said the figures accepted in Crown Court, and upon which his sentence had been based, had been far lower. The figures quoted in the article had been claimed by the Insolvency Service in the High Court, and he provided a letter, which he had submitted to the High Court, in which he disputed the figures, but noted that he could not challenge them in court because of the costs involved.

6. The complainant expressed concern that the article stated that his organisation charged up to £1,000 for redrafting student essays. He said the company’s website made clear that an essay costs approximately £150, while a doctoral thesis of around 100,000 words costs £1,000. He considered that the inaccuracy had implied “unreasonable profiteering” on his part. He also complained that the article had stated that his fiancée was from Thailand, rather than the Philippines, which was significant because his connections and charity work in the Philippines were well known, and he believed that Thailand had “seedy” connotations.

7. The newspaper said it believed that the article was balanced, and noted that it had included several paragraphs of rebuttal from the complainant. It said Trading Standards and the police had confirmed that they were looking into Mr Robinson’s complaint, and that the matter had been referred to the Insolvency Service who would not confirm or deny that the investigation was ongoing. It noted that the complainant had provided an email from Trading Standards, dated 19 March 2015, which stated that it had received a complaint that the complainant was acting as a director of Lagan Writing Services, and that the matter was being referred to the Insolvency Service.

8. The newspaper said the £61,197 figure related to the High Court hearing brought by the Insolvency Service. The article made clear that it was referring to this hearing, rather than the criminal case. It also provided a press release issued by the Insolvency Service, which stated that the complainant’s firms had owed £156,605 to creditors and shareholders.

9. With regards to the report that the complainant’s company charges £1,000 to re-write an essay, the newspaper offered to publish the following clarification:

In a report about Dr Vincent McKee on March 27, we said that Lagan Writing Services charges up to £1,000 to re-write essays for students. We are happy to clarify that the £1,000 fee relates to re-writing PhD theses.

10. The newspaper said it had mistakenly reported that the complainant’s fiancée was based in Thailand. This was corrected online as soon as it was made aware of the error.

11. The complainant rejected the newspaper’s offer of a correction, and asked that it publish his letter rebutting the allegations.

Relevant Code Provisions

12. 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 4 (Harassment)

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on their property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources

Findings of the Committee

13. It was not in dispute that the complainant had been reported to the police and Trading Standards for allegedly acting as a company director in breach of a High Court ban. The email from Trading Standards of 19 March 2015 confirmed that it had received such a complaint, and that the matter was being referred to the Insolvency Service for further consideration. The newspaper had been entitled to report the allegations despite the complainant’s contention that they were groundless.

14. The newspaper had contacted the complainant for comment before the article was published, and had published his denial, including his position that Mr Robinson had provided “distorted” information to the authorities. In addition, the article quoted from his fiancée’s statement, which said that the complainant had not acted as a director of the registered company. The newspaper had taken care over the accuracy of this information in accordance with its obligations under Clause 1 (i).

15. The Committee noted the complainant’s concern that the newspaper had reported the sums his companies had owed that had been given in the High Court, rather than the lower figures that were accepted during the criminal proceedings against him. However, the article clearly referred to the case brought against the complainant by the Insolvency Service in the High Court. The complainant had not formally contested the sums in court. As such, the newspaper had been entitled to report the figures, and it had done so accurately. There was no failure to take care over the accuracy of the article in this regard.

16. A PhD thesis is an extended piece of writing. It was therefore not significantly inaccurate to report that the complainant’s business charged up to £1,000 to re-write essays. Although a correction was not required under the terms of the Code, the Committee welcomed that the newspaper had offered a clarification on this point during its correspondence with the complainant.

17. The newspaper had acknowledged that it had mistakenly reported that the complainant’s fiancée lived in Thailand. The Committee welcomed the prompt correction of the online article, but the brief reference in this context did not represent a significant inaccuracy that warranted correction under the terms of Clause 1.

18. Clause 4 generally relates to the conduct of journalists during the newsgathering process. There was no suggestion that the newspaper had persisted to question the complainant once asked to desist. There was no breach of Clause 4.

Conclusions

19. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 20/10/2015
Date decision issued: 17/12/2015