Ruling

09282-15 Berelowitz v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      2nd February 2016

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy

Decision of the Complaints Committee 09282-15 Berelowitz v The Times

Summary of complaint

1. Sue Berelowitz complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Children’s chief: my fear of Kids Co boss”, published on 18 November 2015.

2. The article reported on the complainant’s appearance in front of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) in relation to its inquiry into Whitehall’s relationship with Kids Company. The article stated that the complainant, the former Deputy Children’s Commissioner, had admitted that she had “failed to speak out about problems at Kids Company because she was intimidated by the powerful friends of the charity’s founder”. It had stated that she had visited the charity three times, but that she had not informed the PACAC of the dates of her visits. In addition, it said that “MPs had also criticised three auditors…for overlooking key problems at the charity”. The article noted that the newspaper had previously revealed that when her contract as Deputy Children’s Commissioner was terminated, the complainant had received a severance payment of £134,000, but had been rehired the following day as a consultant on almost £1,000 a day.

3. The complainant said that the newspaper had distorted the facts in a number of ways in a deliberate attempt to damage her reputation.

4. She said that at no time during her evidence had she said or indicated that she had been “in fear” of Camila Batmanghelidjh, the Chief Executive of Kids Company. She noted the following extract from the transcript of her evidence in which she explained her reasons for not raising her concerns about the charity with the government:

Sue Berelowitz: Well, it did not occur to me at the time. It has occurred to me subsequently and I have thought about why it did not occur to me at the time, and I go back to the issue that was raised about, in a sense, the powerful alliances that the chief executive of Kids Company had. I am a fairly robust and resilient person and I was in a quite substantial position and I acknowledge that even for me it would have been very challenging to have gone to No. 10 and said, “I am concerned” because to take a stand against somebody who was constantly telling you about celebrities or relationships with people in the very highest places is quite intimidating.

Chair: So you felt intimidated?

Sue Berelowitz: Not in her presence. As I say, I am fairly robust, but in terms of thinking, “What do I do with this?” yes it gave me great pause for thought. Yes.

Mr David Jones: So you considered it, but decided against it or you didn’t even consider it because of the experience you had had?

Sue Berelowitz: I have no recollection now, in hindsight, that I thought at the time, “I need to tell Government this”. My concern was that the money was not being well spent, but I was acutely aware that she occupied a very powerful position and it would be difficult to make those kinds of representations. Quite frankly, I do not think my voice would have been a good counterweight.

5. The complainant expressed concern that the phrase “MPs had also criticised three auditors” had given the significantly misleading impression that she had been criticised by the PACAC. She said that while it had been critical of the three previous witnesses, she had not been criticised; the PACAC had been very appreciative of her evidence.

 

6. In addition, the complainant considered that the mention of the fact that she had not specified the dates of her visits to Kids Company had been a further example of deliberate distortion. She said that her written evidence to the PACAC had included a date for her third visit to the charity and explained that she had not had the dates for the previous visits because she had not had access to her archived diary. She considered that the newspaper had raised an issue that had not been commented upon by the PACAC in a deliberate attempt to imply a lack of reliability in her evidence.

7. While the complainant accepted that the newspaper had accurately reported details of her severance package, it had failed to mention that the proposal and decision regarding her settlement had been the government‘s responsibility.

8. The newspaper denied that the headline had been inaccurate or misrepresented the complainant’s evidence to the PACAC. It said it was clear from her evidence that she had felt intimidated by Ms Batmanghelidjh. The transcript had clearly stated that despite the complainant’s “robust character”, it had been “quite intimidating” to challenge Ms Batmanghelidjh. It noted that the complainant had said “In my view, there is no doubt that the Chief Executive used her forceful personality and her friends in very high places to intimidate people and make sure that she held sway really, right up to Prime Ministers, celebrities, people in the Lords, people in the media." The newspaper considered that somebody who felt intimidated was, by definition, fearful. It said that the word “fear” had not been used in quotation marks so it had been clear that it was not a direct quotation.

9. The newspaper said that the reference to the MPs’ criticism of three auditors had referred to the fact that earlier in the hearing, MPs had heard evidence from other witnesses. It considered that a reader would understand from the article that the complainant had not been criticised by MPs.

10. The newspaper said it was a statement of fact that the complainant had not given PACAC the dates of her visits to Kids Company. It said it had made reference to this in the article because the missing information may have prevented readers from understanding how the complainant’s evidence had fitted into the Kids Company timeline. It said this reference had not been presented as a criticism of the complainant, nor had it imputed a lack of reliability or trustworthiness on her part.

11. The newspaper said it had not commented on who had proposed or agreed to the complainant’s severance package. It did not agree that the reference to the settlement had been misleading.

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.

iii. The Press, whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Findings of the Committee

13. In her evidence to the PACAC, the complainant had not said that she had “feared” the Chief Executive of Kids Company. However, she had stated that, on reflection, raising her concerns “would have been very challenging… because to take a stand against somebody who was constantly telling you about celebrities or relationships with people in the very highest places is quite intimidating”. The Committee did not consider that it was significantly misleading for the newspaper to characterise this position as “fear”. Furthermore, the reference to “fear” had appeared in the article’s headline. The first line of the article had made clear that she had been “intimidated by the powerful friends of the charity’s founder”. There was no breach of the Code on this point.

14. The phrase “MPs had also criticised three auditors” was ambiguous. While the Committee understood the complainant’s position that it had implied that she, too, had been criticised during her evidence, it took the view that this was merely a reference to what had taken place earlier in the hearing. The article had contained no other possible suggestion that the complainant had been criticised by MPs during her appearance. In the full context of the article, the statement that MPs had “also” criticised three auditors was not significantly misleading in breach of Clause 1.

15. It was not in dispute that the complainant had not specified the dates of her visits to Kids Company during her evidence. The article’s reference to the omission of this information to the PACAC was not significantly misleading.

16. It was also accepted that the newspaper had reported details of the complainant’s severance package accurately. It was not obliged to additionally report that the package had been the proposal of the government which had been accepted by the complainant. The complaint under Clause 1 was not upheld.

Conclusions

17. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

N/A

Date complaint received: 25/11/2015
Date decision issued: 02/02/2016