Ruling

07681-18 League Against Cruel Sports v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      4th April 2019

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 07681-18 League Against Cruel Sports v The Times

Summary of complaint

1. The League Against Cruel Sports complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Anti-hunt charity ‘wanted to hack rival’”, published on 5 October 2018, and an article headlined “Hackers tried to access pro-hunt group’s emails”, published on 9 October 2018.

2. The first article reported that the complainant – an “anti-hunting group” – was being investigated by the Charity Commission over claims made by its former leader that it had sought to hack into the computer of the leader of a pro-hunting group. It said that the Commission had confirmed that it was “studying ‘serious concerns’” about the complainant, and quoted the Commission’s statement that it was “assessing information provided and engaging with the charity to determine our next steps”. The article described how the former leader had sent the Commission a copy of a record of the conversation between an employee of the complainant and a “computer expert”, in which the employee had raised the possibility of hacking into the email account of the leader of the rival group. It said that the former leader had written to the Commission regarding this matter, and quoted from his letter to this effect. The article said that the complainant had not commented on the alleged hacking request “but it is thought that it strongly denies any such conduct”.

3. This article appeared online in substantially the same format, under the headline “The League Against Cruel Sports ‘wanted to hack rival’”.

4. The second article reported that the pro-hunting group referred to in the first article had reported to the Charity Commission “an attempt to hack into its computer system after The Times disclosed that a rival campaign organisation [the complainant] had sought to breach its security”. It reported that “allegations had been made to the regulator that [the complainant] asked an IT expert to hack the email account” of the pro-hunting group’s CEO, stating that the complainant’s former leader had reported this alleged attempt to the Commission. It said that the Commission was “examining” the concerns raised by the former leader and “looking into any governance issues raised”. The article included a response from the complainant saying that the allegations were “’completely false’” and “’nonsense’”. The article said that the pro-hunting group said that the hackers had attacked on 23 May, and that “there was nothing to suggest that [the complainant] was involved”.

5. This article appeared online in substantially the same format under the headline “Hackers tried to access Countryside Alliance’s emails”.

6. The complainant said that the first article gave the misleading impression that the “serious concerns” the Charity Commission was looking into were the allegations of hacking, when this was not the case. It provided an email from the Commission dated 6 October stating that it did not investigate allegations of criminality, such as the claim of hacking. The complainant said that the individuals who had contacted the Commission had raised a number of issues, but that the alleged hacking issue was not among them. It said that the article had therefore reported an unfounded allegation without providing any evidence to support it.

7. The complainant said that the second article was also inaccurate because it repeated as fact the claim made in the first article that the Commission was investigating the allegation of hacking, when this was not the case.

8. The publication denied that it was inaccurate for the first article to state that the Commission was investigating the complainant over the hacking claims. It said that it had seen a copy of the complaint made by the charity’s former leader, which – as the article stated – had included a claim that the complainant had “’sought to entice’ an individual ‘to hack into the email account of the CEO of a rival organisation’”, and expressed concerns about this attempt “to engage in serious criminal activity”. It said it had also seen the contemporaneous record of the hacking allegation provided by the IT professional, as detailed in the article.

9. The publication said that, whilst it was obvious that investigating criminality would be a matter for the police, it was accurate to state that an allegation had been made to the Commission, and such allegations might raise serious concerns about a charity’s governance, which were within the remit of the Commission. It said that it had contacted the Commission prior to the publication of the article, and in doing so had highlighted the hacking allegation as particularly concerning; in response, the Commission had stated that it was “assessing the information provided”, and had not outlined particular allegations which it was investigating or not; the Commission’s statement was included in full in the article. It also provided the Commission’s final response to the allegations, which stated that it had issued the complainant with “formal regulatory advice”.

10. The publication said that the second article had accurately reported both the existence of a hacking allegation made to the Commission about the complainant, and that the pro-hunting group had made a separate report of hacking to the Commission. It said that the article made clear that that there was no suggestion that the complainant was involved in the hacking incident reported by the pro-hunting group, and included a statement from the complainant to that effect. The publication said that this second article did not state that the Commission was investigating the specific allegation of hacking; rather, it made clear that the regulator was “examining concerns” raised by the former leader, and “looking into any governance issues raised”. It said that the article also included the Commission’s position that it did not investigate allegations of criminality.

Relevant Code provisions

11. 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

12. The publication had contacted the Commission prior to publication, in relation to the concerns raised by the complainant’s former leader, and said that it had explicitly referred to the hacking claim; the Commission had responded that it was “assessing the information provided”, and this response was quoted in the article. The publication had also put the hacking allegation to the complainant prior to publication, and it had declined to respond on that point. There was no failure to take care over the report that the Commission was “investigating” the hacking allegation, and no breach of Clause 1(i).

13. The publication said that it had seen the allegations that had been presented to the Commission, and that it had quoted from them in the first article; the complainant was not in a position to demonstrate that the allegations had not been made or that they had not been accurately reported. There was therefore no breach of Clause 1(i) with respect to the claim that the allegations presented to the Committee included the hacking allegation.

14. At the time the first article went to print, the Commission had confirmed that it was considering the “serious concerns” raised, and the complainant was not in a position to dispute that these allegations had included the hacking claim. It was not therefore misleading for the publication to state that a hacking allegation had been made, or to characterise the Commission's consideration of the matter as an "investigation”. The article’s reference to the complainant being investigated in relation to the hacking claim did not give rise to any misleading impression of the action being taken by the Commission that would require correction under the terms of Clause 1(ii).

15. The Commission had later clarified its position, indicating that it did not investigate allegations of criminality, and this was accurately reported in the second article, which did not claim that the hacking allegation was still being investigated by the Commission. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

Conclusion

16. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial action required

17. N/A

Date complaint received: 06/12/2018

Date decision issued: 26/02/2019