Ruling

07811-22 Centre for Media Monitoring v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      20th October 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 07811-22 Centre for Media Monitoring v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. The Centre for Media Monitoring complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Iran is brazenly playing the West for suckers”, published on 15 March 2022.

2. The article, which appeared in print on page 30, was a comment piece about the West’s relationship with Iran. The columnist argued that Iran had “played the West for suckers” and that in recent months, Tehran had been “ramping up its attacks on American and allied interests”. It said: “Charmed by urbane Iranians, the West has ignored the fact that the regime is dominated by the Shia “Twelver” sect which believes that bringing about an apocalypse will cause the Shia messiah, the “Twelfth Imam,” to descend to Earth. With a messianic agenda of the end of days, the fanatics in Tehran don’t care if a very large number of Iranians are killed in battle or die of privation.”

3. The article also appeared online in substantially the same format under the same headline.

4. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 1 because it believed that the article’s claim that the Shia ‘Twelver’ sect [of Islam] believe that “bringing about an apocalypse will cause the Shia messiah, the ‘Twelfth Imam,’ to descend to Earth” was inaccurate. It said that Shia Twelvers do not believe they need to bring about an apocalypse to cause the Shia Messiah to descend, but rather, like most faiths, Shia Twelvers believe in a Messiah at the end of time, and that there is nothing to suggest bringing about an apocalypse. It suggested that Shia Twelver scholars would support its position.

5. The publication said it did not accept a breach of the Code; it said that the point under complaint was a brief passage in an opinion column, published in the Comment section, and that the writer was a regular columnist well known for her strong and often controversial opinions. The publication highlighted that the column argued that the West had failed to tackle the threat to its interests posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, and that the columnist was entitled to make a summary reference to this contested belief as part of a broader argument.

6. The publication argued that, by their nature, religious doctrines were not like facts; for example, arising from agreed objective data. Religious history was, even amongst those faiths that might be thought to have a clearer doctrinal legacy, invariably a history of controversy and disputes between devout co-believers over what exactly they believed. It said that that was how most of the world’s sects, denominations and churches came to exist and it was therefore the case that co-religionists shared beliefs while also understanding them in different, sometimes contradictory ways.

7. The publication said that it would not dispute what Twelver scholars and relevant authorities said they believed, but recognised that there were others such as “the fanatics in Tehran” whom it said the columnist was referring to in her opinion column - who appeared, at the very least, to draw different lessons from the same beliefs, and to live those same beliefs in a different way. The publication said that it was commonplace in contemporary political scholarship and debate that “the apocalyptic doctrines of Twelver Shi’ism have acquired a place in the violent history of the modern Middle East”.

8. The publication said it had taken care over the accuracy of the article and provided excerpts from books and scholarly articles on the subject area, which it stated were from reputable and credible sources. One of those articles explained that Twelver beliefs focused on the figure of the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi (“the Mahdi”), who was claimed in tradition to have disappeared in 873 CE. The article explained that: “Both the Sunni and Shiite traditions contain a substantial amount of material about the Mahdi […], and both traditions elaborate in great detail upon the timeline and future events that will herald his appearance. This timeline includes the various portents of the end of the world - a series of events of profound political, economic, religious, or cosmological significance that will make humankind aware that the world’s end is near and compel them to prepare for the Mahdi’s return. Naturally, these messianic traditions have become grist for the mill of radical preachers, who use messianic language to interpret current events in an apocalyptic fashion and thereby compel their followers to take radical action in preparation for the end of days.” A historian of Afghanistan and Iran wrote: “Shia militias and figures within the Islamic Republic of Iran frame the crises in Iraq and Syria in their own eschatological terms; the chaos before the return of the Hidden Imam.” Another book stated “The Twelvers believe Imam Mahdi will require to lead the forces of righteousness against the forces of evil in a final, apocalyptic world battle.” The publication said that these passages supported the columnist’s position.

9. In response, the complainant commented that proving that a sub-section of Shia Twelvers held such beliefs was irrelevant. He said that the columnist had stated that the Shia "Twelver" sect believed this, rather than certain sections of the sect believed it. The complainant said that just because a small subset of a group believed something, it did not give the columnist the right to say that the entire group believed it. The complainant considered the passage in the article to be racist, a generalisation and an inaccurate statement.

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

10. The newspaper produced several examples of texts written by scholars of relevant subject areas which discussed Twelvers’ beliefs, and the extent to which they involved apocalyptic scenarios leading up to the return of the Mahdi and how, in some circumstances, those beliefs had been used by extremists seeking to motivate “radical action”. While the Committee acknowledged that there would be a range of views and interpretations in any given sect of a religion, where the publication was able to provide a number of examples from sources which explained the association between Twelver beliefs and the apocalypse and how that had been used by some as a basis for more extremist views, the Committee was satisfied that the publication had taken care not to publish inaccurate information. For this reason, there was no breach of Clause 1(i).

11. The Committee was mindful that the Code should not inhibit freedom of expression, particularly in areas where there is debate. The complainant appeared to accept that there were some Shia Twelvers who did hold the beliefs referenced in the article but said that the article did not make clear these views were held by a section of the faith rather than all Shia Twelvers. However, the Committee was conscious of the challenges of summarising religious doctrine - particularly where, as here, there would often be disagreement between adherents as to the tenets of any particular faith or sect. The Committee had regard to the context in which the claim appeared: the reference to the Shia Twelver’s beliefs was a brief summary which appeared in a comment piece about Western governments’ stance toward Iran. The main claim in the article, which was explained in the following paragraph, was about how “urbane Iranians” had influenced Western governments’ perceptions of the sect’s beliefs, as was emphasised in the following sentence, which connected these alleged beliefs with the country’s foreign policy: “With a messianic agenda of the end of days, the fanatics in Tehran don’t care if a very large number of Iranians are killed in battle or die of privation.” The Committee considered the passage made sufficiently clear that, in her earlier reference to the beliefs of Twelvers, the columnist was focusing on the perspective of the “fanatics in Tehran” who held those beliefs, while also clearly incorporating the writer’s interpretation of the views held by the Iranian leadership. Given this, and where the publication had been able to provide a basis for the description of those beliefs, the Committee did not find a significant inaccuracy which required correction. There was no breach of Clause 1 (ii).

Conclusion(s)

12. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

13. N/A


Date complaint received: 22/04/2022

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 06/10/2022


Independent Complaints Reviewer

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.