Ruling

07368-18 Lord Barker of Battle v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      21st March 2019

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 07368-18 Lord Barker of Battle v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. Lord Barker of Battle complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in the following articles:

  • “Tory peers told to come clean about Russian links” published on 24 October 2018.
  • “Calls grow for foreign powers law to limit Russian influence” published on 25 October 2018.

2. The first article formed part of the newspaper’s coverage of parliamentary concerns regarding the links between a number of peers and Russian companies. It reported on recent correspondence between the security minister and the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. It stated that a letter from the security minister to the Committee disclosed that the minister had been contacted by two Conservative peers, including the complainant, “requesting government assistance for Russian associates”. It stated that the minister had declined the offer to meet with the complainant, the chairman of a Russian energy company, to discuss sanctions. It said that these disclosures came “amid concerns… that members of the Lords are seeking to lobby on behalf of Russian companies.” It also included a statement from the complainant, stating, “’I have never lobbied the UK government or requested assistance from any member of either of the Houses of Parliament.’”

3. The first article was also published online with the same headline as the print article. It included a photograph of the complainant, but was otherwise substantially the same as the print article.

4. The second article reported that there were cross-party calls for a “foreign powers act”, due to the financial interests a number of senior peers had in Russia. It referred to the previous article, and repeated the claim that the complainant and another named peer with business links to Moscow had “requested government assistance for Russian associates”. It also included the complainant’s rebuttal of these allegations, stating that he “denied that he has requested assistance from the government on behalf of a Russian associate.”

5. This article was also published online with the same headline as the print article. It was substantially the same as the article that appeared in print.

6. The complainant said that he had not requested government assistance for Russian associates, and provided a copy of the letter he had sent to the security minister, which had also been provided to the newspaper prior to publication. The letter said that the complainant was “actively pursuing a number of radical changes” in response to the U.S. sanctions that had been imposed on the energy company he was involved with, and would like to share this with the minister. It stated that the complainant had “no ask of [the minister] or any Parliamentary colleagues”, which the complainant said made clear he was not seeking to lobby the government for support on this matter. He also said that publishing his photograph in the online version of the first article was misleading, as it suggested he had to “come clean” about his Russian links, suggesting wrongdoing.

7. The complainant also said that the articles had misrepresented the correspondence between the security minister and the Foreign Affairs Committee. The complainant provided this correspondence, in which the minister was asked if he had “had any contact from Members of either House of Parliament requesting government assistance from Russian associates…” The minister responded stating, “You asked if I have had any contact from Members of either House of Parliament requesting Government assistance for Russian associates… I had a meeting with [named peer] at his request who wished to discuss his experiences working for [a named company]. I was also asked by Lord Barker of Battle to meet to discuss sanctions. I did not take up his offer.” The complainant said that the minister had not described his letter as a request for assistance, but stated he had asked to meet to discuss sanctions. Therefore he believed the newspaper’s basis for alleging he had requested government assistance in this matter, was inaccurate.

8. The newspaper did not accept that it had breached the Code. It said that the articles had not reported as fact that the complainant had sought to lobby the government, but had clearly presented this as minister’s characterisation of the complainant’s action, which it was entitled to report. It said it had not misrepresented the exchange of correspondence between the minister and the committee, and that where the minister had adopted the phrase “requested government assistance for Russian associates” in his response, and had gone on to refer to the complainant’s offer of a meeting in this context, the articles were accurate. Further, it said that the articles included the complainant’s denial, and did not accept that the photograph in the online version of the first article was misleading in the way the complainant had suggested.

Relevant Code Provisions

9. 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.

Findings of the Committee

10. The articles reported on the exchange of correspondence between the security minister and the Foreign Affairs Committee. The correspondence showed that the minister had been asked to give details of any parliamentarian who had contacted him “requesting Government assistance for Russian associates” during his time in office. Responding to this question, the minister specifically referred to the complainant, and the meeting he had requested. The first article made clear that this exchange of correspondence was what it was relying on, and it was quoted directly in the body of the article. The first article also included the complainant’s denial, making clear that he disputed the suggestion that his actions could be characterised as an attempt to lobby the government. In these circumstances, the newspaper had taken care over the presentation of these claims in the first article, and there was no failure to take care in breach of Clause 1(i). Also, where the basis for the claims was made clear, and the complainant’s denial included, the article was not inaccurate in breach of Clause 1 (ii).

11. The headline of the first article encompassed a number of separate concerns that had been raised in relation to the links between a number of peers and Russian companies, and the potential conflicts this may create. The article contained details of a number of different allegations that had been made against various parliamentarians, some of which included allegations that some peers had not fully declared their links to Russian companies. However, the article made explicitly clear the nature of the allegation made against the complainant, namely, that he had allegedly attempted to lobby a government minister. In this context, the inclusion of his photograph beneath this headline did not give a misleading impression of the extent of the claims made against him. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

12. The second article made clear that the allegation against the complainant was that he had “requested government assistance for Russian associates” from the security minister. This reflected the language used by both the Commons Committee and the minister in his response. The article also included the complainant’s denial that he had requested assistance from the government on this matter. Where the allegations were accurately reported, as was the complainant’s denial, there was no failure to take care, and no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusions

13. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

14. N/A.

Date complaint received: 13/11/2018

Date decision issued: 14/02/2019

Review

The complainant complained to the Independent Complaints Reviewer about the process followed by IPSO in handling this complaint. The Independent Complaints Reviewer decided that the process was not flawed and did not uphold the request for review.