Ruling

09546-21 Damji v The Times

    • Date complaint received

      24th February 2022

    • Outcome

      No breach - after investigation

    • Code provisions

      1 Accuracy, 12 Discrimination, 2 Privacy, 3 Harassment

Decision of the Complaints Committee – 09546-21 Damji v The Times

Summary of Complaint

1. Farah Damji complained to the Independent Press Standards Organisation that The Times breached Clause 1 (Accuracy), Clause 2 (Privacy), Clause 3 (Harassment) and Clause 12 (Discrimination) of the Editors’ Code of Practice in an article headlined “Fraudster’s link to campaign causes anger”, published on 26 August 2021.

2. The complainant was the subject of the article, and described as a “convicted fraudster”.

3. The article reported on the links between the complainant and a magazine which had created a photographic exhibition as part of a campaign for female offenders. It stated that prominent lawyers and campaigners, some of whom it named, were “angry that they were persuaded to back [the magazine which created the campaign]” and that it was “understood” that some of the subjects who were part of the campaign were not aware of the complainant’s connection to the magazine when they were photographed for the exhibition. It said that several of these participants were concerned to learn of the link, with one participant reported as saying they were “very troubled” by it. A further party, who had researched the connections between the complainant and the magazine, was quoted within the article as saying that contributors to the campaign’s crowdfunding campaign and those who gave their names to support the campaign were “unlikely to be aware of the full extent of this association”.

4. The article described the complainant as having “convictions for fraud and theft dating from the 1990s” and that she had criminal convictions for fraud and dishonesty in both the US and Britain. It said she had been “accused of conning senior Conservative politicians into backing a ‘heroes centre’ for former services personnel who ended up in prison. The Sunday Times reported that the centre did not exist and that she used a different name when she registered her company”. It also described the complainant’s relationship to the magazine that organised the campaign for female offenders: it said she had claimed, in an online article, to have helped set up the magazine, and had described herself as a managing editor in a YouTube video.

5. The article also said that Companies House had confirmed that “Anna Margret Vignisdottir” had been registered as a director of the magazine “last year” and had subsequently been removed. The article said that “Anna Margret Vignisdottir” was an alias used by the complainant when she was arrested in Ireland the previous year. It reported that the complainant had fled to Ireland after breaching a restraining order, and that “in December her appeal against the conviction was rejected although her sentence was reduced to 18 months. It is understood that [the complainant] is awaiting extradition proceedings to the UK from Ireland”.  The article also reported that the complainant was “the daughter of a millionaire property tycoon”. The article reported that in response to a request for comment, the complainant had said: “Do not contact me again, or I will report you to the police for harassment.” It also included a response from the magazine, which stated that “unfounded and harmful allegations” had been made about the company.

6. The article also appeared online under the headline “Fraudster Farah Damji linked to justice campaign” in substantially the same format.

7. The complainant said that the article was inaccurate in breach of Clause 1. She said, firstly, the article gave the impression that she had deliberately conned people into being involved with the campaign and had attempted to hide her link to the campaign. She said that this was inaccurate as she had never tried to hide her involvement: she was listed on the magazine’s website and masthead and featured in the exhibition that formed part of the campaign. The complainant provided material from the campaign which stated: “The exhibition inspires us to put ourselves in others’ shoes, to try and understand the experiences of ex-prisoners including Farah Damji ...” and included her photograph. The complainant said this was incongruent with the points raised later in the article which stated she had previously made clear her connection – such as in the YouTube video, where she described herself as managing editor. She said it was therefore inaccurate to report that it was “understood that some of the subjects were not aware” of her connection to the magazine, and that writing the allegation in third person and as a fact gave the statement false credibility. She also said the campaign participants would not have spoken to the press, and that if the allegation were true the newspaper would have printed the participant’s names. The complainant said it was inaccurate to describe anyone as having been “persuaded” to join or donate to the campaign, and that she had not personally asked for money from any of the women who were photographed or the photographers as the crowdfunding page was publicly available. She said that the participants had been asked if they would like to be involved in the campaign and had agreed to take part.

8. The complainant also said it was inaccurate to report that she had been accused of conning senior Conservative politicians into backing a “heroes centre”, and that the "Sunday Times reported that the centre did not exist and that she used a different name when she registered her company". The complainant said that the Sunday Times article had been a “hit piece” by the newspaper, and that she had never been charged in relation to the matter. She also said that simply because she had not made a complaint at the time of publication did not mean that the allegations were accurate. She said that no one of significance had accused her of conning the politicians, and the Sunday Times had been the only newspaper to report on the matter at the time.

9. The complainant said it was misleading to report that she had “convictions for fraud and theft dating from the 1990s”, as this gave the inaccurate impression that she was still committing fraud, when in fact her last fraud conviction was in 2010 with the crime committed in 2008. She said as these convictions had been spent there was no need to publish them again, and further that it was inaccurate by omission to not explicitly report that they were spent convictions.

10. The complainant said it was inaccurate to report that she had used the alias “Anna Margret Vignisdottir” when arrested, and that she had not been charged or convicted of using an alias. The complainant said that whilst both the publication under complaint and other newspapers had published that she had used this alias, this did not make it true, nor should the publication have relied on the earlier reports. The complainant also said that Companies House had denied telling anyone that Anna Margret Vignisdottir had been registered as director of the magazine; however, she was unable to provide evidence of this correspondence. The complainant also said that the information was not visible on the magazine’s Companies House data and that she was making inquiries with Companies House.

11. The complainant accepted that she was “awaiting extradition proceedings to the UK from Ireland". However, she said that the Irish High Court refused to surrender her and that the proceedings were being rigorously defended, and that it was misleading to omit this aspect of the situation.

12. The complainant said she had not been given the opportunity to respond to the alleged inaccuracies in the article, and that her request for the newspaper to give her more time to deal with the matter responsibly and sensibly was ignored. She also said that her request for a right to reply had been refused, as the newspaper had only asked her to provide a statement it may consider publishing, which she did not consider fulfilled its obligations under Clause 1(iii). The complainant provided the correspondence she had with the newspaper prior to the publication of the article. The newspaper had described the basis of the article and asked the complainant what her connection was to the magazine; whether a previous reference she had made to being paid by “a magazine” related to the magazine running the campaign; what her status was relating to the criminal proceedings in the UK and Ireland; whether she had attempted to register as a director of the magazine using the alias “Anna Margret Vignisdottir”, which it said she had used when arrested in Ireland; whether she used any other aliases; and for her response to the concerns that the crowdfunding campaign was an elaborate fraud. The email had been sent at 11.18am on 25 August and requested a response by 4pm the same day. The complainant sent her response of the same day at 12.05pm in which she stated: “do not contact me again, or I will report you to the police for harassment”, as reported in the article. At 3.01pm another party emailed the publication saying they were a solicitor acting on behalf of the complainant and would be in touch shortly. On 26 August the complainant sent further emails containing expletives asking for the article and an image of her which accompanied it to be removed from social media. A further email from the publication, provided by the complainant, said that the person “purporting to be the complainant’s lawyer” had never sent a response to their questions. The complainant also provided an email from the publication to the managing director of the magazine, which repeated the questions that were asked to the complainant and included further questions.

13. The complainant said that she had told the journalist not to speak to her but to her solicitor. She said that both contact with her, and reference to her deceased father, was an unnecessary intrusion into her privacy, in breach of Clause 2.

14. The complainant said that the publication had also repeatedly harassed her in breach of Clause 3 by contacting her and her friends and colleagues. She also said it was harassment to report that she had convictions for fraud and theft “dating from the 1990s” whilst omitting the last date she had offended and that the convictions were spent. She said that the historical Sunday Times article referred to in the article, along with the current article, also amounted to harassment.

15. The complainant also said that the article and actions of the journalist discriminated against her in breach of Clause 12. She said that she had been targeted and discriminated against because she was not white, had past offences and did not “kow tow” to the establishment.

16. The publication did not accept a breach of Clause 1. The publication said it had spoken to a number of high-profile lawyers, judges and campaigners who had been photographed for the exhibition, plus artists and others who said that they were not aware that the complainant was behind the project and exhibition. The publication said that the participants it had spoken to had all said that they had agreed to take part in the project because of its aims, but had expressed concern when they were told of the links to the complainant and the issues around the project’s transparency, the identity of those involved and Companies House irregularities, amongst other matters. It also provided quotes from named parties who had said that they had withdrawn from the campaign. The publication said it was not inaccurate to report that the contributors had been persuaded to back the campaign. It said the individuals contacted by the newspaper had been persuaded by various contacts that the exhibition was well-intended. It also noted that an email from the magazine had said it was crowdfunding a “substantial amount”.

17. The publication said that claims about the heroes centre and that the complainant had used a different name when she registered her company were accurate. It provided an article by The Sunday Times from 2011, which remained online and unchanged. This article reported that the complainant “admitted the centre was not actually based at the school and that it had not yet been set up” and that the complainant had said “for the avoidance of doubt, Kazuri Heroes is most likely to be the first element of the group’s prospective businesses to start trading”. This article also reported that the complainant had “changed her name by deed poll for religious reasons”.

18. The publication said that it was accurate to report that the complainant had convictions for fraud and theft dating from the 1990s, and her criminal history was relevant to the matters discussed in the article. It noted that the article did not report that the complainant was continuing to commit fraudulent offences, but said that as of September 2020 she was under investigation for alleged offences under the Theft and Fraud Act. It also said that the complainant had a multitude of offences she had spoken about to publications previously

19. The publication said that the complainant had used the alias “Anna Margret Vignisdottir” referred to in the article, and that this had been published by multiple newspapers. It said that the use of the alias had been accepted by a judge of the Irish High Court at a hearing connected to the complainant’s extradition proceedings in September 2020, following her arrest. It provided three contemporaneous court reports, one by the publication itself, and two from other publications, which stated this. The publication also said that it had a phone conversation with Companies House in which it confirmed that the name “Anna Margret Vignisdottir” was initially registered as a director for the magazine and that it was later removed, although it did not have the original note of this conversation. It did, however, provide screenshots taken from a website which posted archived or old material from Companies House listings, which showed “Anna Margret Vignisdottir” listed as a director of the website. The publication also said the complainant had been reported as using aliases at her sentencing hearing following a conviction for stalking. It said it was entitled to rely on the court reports, and that these reports had not been withdrawn or corrected.

20. The publication said it was not inaccurate to report that the complainant was facing extradition. It said that, in addition to contacting the complainant, it had also contacted the court service in Ireland who confirmed that the complainant was facing extradition, and had a court date listed for October.

21. The publication said that it had contacted the complainant in advance of the article in order to gain her response. It said that this, and the other information described above, demonstrated that it had discharged its obligations to take care not to report inaccurate information.

22. The publication did not consider that Clause 2 was engaged. It noted that the complainant had previously spoken publicly about her relationship with her father, and that her father was referred to in open court proceedings. The publication said the complainant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy over the information in the article.

23. The publication said that, with regards to Clause 3, the complainant was inconsistent in that she complained both that she had not been contacted prior to the article, and that the newspaper had harassed her. The publication said the complainant was contacted to put allegations to her in advance of publication which was consistent with best practice and the duty to take care under the Code. It also said that both the complainant and her associate at the magazine were contacted in advance of the article under complaint and further articles being published. The publication said that the complainant had requested that the publication not contact her again or she would contact the police; however, it was she who had reinitiated and encouraged further contact. It said that it was not harassment to continue to publish articles that were accurate and in the public interest.

24. The publication said that Clause 12 was not engaged. It said that it was the complainant’s conduct, not her race or beliefs, that were the subject of the coverage as this was the basis for the concerns by those persuaded to support the projects. It also noted that her previous offences were plainly relevant to the article.

25. The complainant said that the publication’s argument relied heavily on other articles, including articles published by itself and its sister publication, The Sunday Times. She said that this demonstrated that the publication had republished untruths without checking the accuracy. She also noted it had not supplied notes from the confidential sources it alleged had concerns about the connection between the complainant and the newspaper. The complainant also said that, in reference to the 2011 article, she had never spoken to The Sunday Times, nor had she said that the heroes centre had not been set up in the school. She also noted that there was no mention of “Anna Margret Vignisdottir” on the Companies House website, and said that the website screenshot supplied by the publication was not an official website.

Relevant Clause 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.

Clause 2 (Privacy)*

i) Everyone is entitled to respect for their private and family life, home, physical and mental health, and correspondence, including digital communications.

ii) Editors will be expected to justify intrusions into any individual's private life without consent. In considering an individual's reasonable expectation of privacy, account will be taken of the complainant's own public disclosures of information and the extent to which the material complained about is already in the public domain or will become so.

iii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy

Clause 3 (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 property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

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

Clause 12 (Discrimination)

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's, race, colour, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

Findings of the Committee

26. The complainant had said that the article had given the inaccurate impression that she had deliberately hidden her involvement in the campaign. The publication had quoted a named party within the article who had said they were “troubled” when they found out the complainant was involved, and that further unnamed individuals involved in the project had also expressed concern when they were told of the links to the complainant. The article did not state that the complainant deliberately hid her involvement in the campaign, and the publication was entitled to report the participants’ concerns about her involvement, and that the sources quoted personally had not been aware of her connection to the magazine and campaign. The publication had declined to provide names, notes or other information to substantiate the expressions of concern stated in the article, on the basis that it did not wish to reveal its anonymous sources, with respect to Clause 14. The Committee noted that the complainant did not have knowledge of what had been said by the publication’s sources and was not in a position to challenge the accuracy of its account. In addition, given the nature of the complaint – which related to communications between a small number of people about arrangements for the exhibition – the Committee accepted that the disclosure of such material may have led to the identification of the publication’s sources.  In addition, the Committee noted that the publication had provided some corroboration for the claims made by the anonymous sources, in that promotional material for the campaign’s exhibition did not refer to her as having a role further than being one of the women photographed. In these circumstances, the Committee did not find a breach of Clause 1 on this point.

27. The Committee noted that the complainant said she had not personally persuaded anyone to join the campaign nor had she asked anyone to donate money. However, it noted that this was not an allegation within the article – in fact, the article had said that participants were not aware of the complainant’s involvement in the campaign. Where it was accepted that participants were asked to participate in the campaign and agreed to do so, it was not significantly inaccurate to characterise this as participants having been “persuaded to back [the magazine which created the campaign]”. There was no breach of Clause 1 on this point.

28. The article had reported that the complainant had been “accused of conning senior Conservative politicians into backing a ‘heroes centre’ for former services personnel who ended up in prison”. It then immediately gave the basis for these accusations: that “The Sunday Times reported that the centre did not exist and that she used a different name when she registered her company”. It was accepted by both parties that The Sunday Times had published an article that accused the complainant of conning senior Conservative politicians into backing a “heroes centre”. This article, published in 2011, included a quote attributed to the complainant that stated the centre had not been set up, and reported that she had changed her name by deed poll for religious reasons. The complainant had denied that the accusations reported were accurate; however, the article under complaint had simply stated that the complainant had been “accused” of conning the politicians and provided evidence for the basis of the accusations made by The Sunday Times in 2011. While the complainant had said she had not been convicted or accused of any crime in relation to this allegation, the article made clear that this was an allegation and stated its source, which had remained in the public domain, uncorrected. There was no breach of Clause 1.

29. It was accepted that the complainant had multiple convictions for fraud and theft. The article did not state that the last conviction was in 2010; but that her convictions dated from the 1990s. The Committee did not accept the complainant’s argument that this gave the misleading impression that she had continued to commit crimes continuously from the 1990s to the present day. It was accurate to report that her crimes dated from the 1990s and this reference did not breach Clause 1.  Nor was the publication required under the terms of Clause 1 to reference the legal status of the convictions as spent, where the focus of the article was on the comments of participants in the exhibition, which did not relate to the status of the convictions.

30. The article reported that “Anna Margret Vignisdottir” had been registered as director of the magazine the previous year, that this had been reported on Companies House website and had then been subsequently removed. The publication said that it had spoken to Companies House to confirm the accuracy of this claim, albeit it did not have a note of this call, and provided a screenshot from a website that used archived Companies House information that included this name.  The complainant said that this had been contradicted by Companies House in a telephone call she had with the company for which she similarly did not have a record.  Notwithstanding the conflict of accounts over the telephone calls, the Committee considered that the screenshot from a third-party website that recorded archived information from Companies House demonstrated that the publication had taken care over the claim, and there was no basis to establish that it was inaccurate. The article also reported that the same name had been used by the complainant when she was arrested in Ireland. The complainant denied ever using the name, and noted she had not been charged or convicted with using an alias. The publication supplied three other articles reporting on the complainant’s bail hearing in 2020, one written by itself and two by other publications, which stated that she had used this alias. Where these contemporaneous court reports remained unchallenged in the public domain, the newspaper was entitled to rely on the articles. There was no breach of Clause 1 on these points.

31. Where it was accepted by both parties that, at the time of the article, the complainant was awaiting extradition proceedings to the UK, it was not inaccurate for the newspaper to report this. In addition, referencing the existence of these proceedings without further information about the complainant's position was not inaccurate or misleading; it did not suggest that the complainant had accepted extradition, nor that her case was not been defended, and there was no breach of Clause 1.

32. The complainant had said she had been given no opportunity to respond to the inaccuracies in the article. The Committee noted that there is no blanket obligation under the Editors’ Code to approach subjects of articles for comment, but often publications will need to do so in order to meet the requirement to take care. In this instance, the newspaper had put a number of detailed allegations to both the complainant and a representative of the magazine prior to publication. In any case, the publication had relied on separate corroboration for its claims. The publication’s approach demonstrated that it had taken care over the accuracy of the allegations contained in the article and there was no breach of Clause 1(i) on this point.

33. The article had reported that the complainant was “the daughter of a millionaire property tycoon”. The identity of a person’s parents is not generally information over which there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, and in any case this information about the complainant was well-established in the public domain, and she did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to it. There was no breach of Clause 2.

34. With regards to the complaint under Clause 3, the Committee accepted that the complainant had made a request for the publication to desist in contacting her on 12.05pm on 25 August. However, after this request had been made, the complainant reinitiated contact with the publication on 26 August, and it was only after this that the publication contacted her again. Where the complainant had been the one to reinitiate contact, her request to desist contact had been overridden and it was not a breach of Clause 3 for the publication to engage in further contact. In addition, the emails from the publication simply consisted of questions regarding the allegations they wished to put to the complainant, and there was nothing within them which the Committee considered to amount to intimidation or harassment; they represented efforts to take proper care over the accuracy of published information. Publishing articles about the complainant did not engage the terms of Clause 3. There was no breach of Clause 3.

35. The complainant said that the article breached Clause 12 as she considered that the publication of the article was a result of her being targeted and discriminated against because she was not white, had criminal convictions and because of political beliefs she held. Clause 12 relates to references to protected characteristics where not genuinely relevant and use of prejudicial or pejorative references to these characteristics. As the complainant was not complaining about such references, there was no breach of Clause 12. In addition, the Committee noted that having criminal convictions or certain political beliefs are not characteristics protected under the Code.

Conclusion(s)

36. The complaint was not upheld.

Remedial Action Required

37. N/A


Date complaint received: 27/08/2021

Date complaint concluded by IPSO: 02/02/2022